David MacWilliam

Kingsway Luminaires: David MacWilliam
November 2009
City of Vancouver Public Art Installation, Kingsway and Knight Streets
Brochure Essay, Michael Turner

Kingsway is Vancouver’s oldest road. Before European contact, Kingsway was a Salish subsistence trail that stretched from what is now New Westminster to what was then a creek at 7th and Main. As the road widened, so to did its meanings. Kingsway has been many things over the years – a military endeavor, a commuter route, an automotive strip mall, a multicultural neighbourhood and, most undeservedly, a metaphor for what some find crass and unattractive about our modern gridded city.

David MacWilliam addresses time, space and locus in Kingsway Luminaires, a serial work that begins with six cast iron poles situated at the centre of two median strips – three poles on one side of Knight Street, three on the other. Atop each pole sits a lamp of the artist’s design, an asymmetrical form placed at sixty-degree turns from one pole to the next. The effect of this curling form, and its circular placement, is evocative of an era when street lights were gas powered, their flame shape susceptible to the natural elements but also to the system by which its energy was delivered. It also brings to mind the soft ice-milk cones served at the Collingwood Dairy Queen (or the ghouls in the Ghostbusters DVD available at the Kensington branch of the Vancouver Public Library).

During daylight hours, the lamps appear opaque. However, as the sun sets, colours emerge, slowly, turning these white fiberglass forms into homes for a series of six randomly programmed shades that subtly shift over a two hour period, giving the appearance of lamp-to-lamp travel. But these are not the colours of commercial signage, nor could they be confused with the red, green and yellow of traffic control – these are tertiary colours, with their own agenda.

Just as streets lights are there to show us where we are going, MacWilliam’s lamps remind us of where we are. For the driver this means a break in the daily commute, where the forgettable (a familiar building, sign or tree) gives way to an ongoing chorus of illuminated variations; for residents of Kensington-Cedar Cottage, the lamps stand in contrast to the Victorian-style light standards installed in 2004 at the request of a business association eager to make the area more attractive -- yet in doing so, inadvertently identified it with a long lost monoculture, a Dickensian world of red brick schoolhouses and British-picked street names that loom like sentries at the corners of this epic eight mile thoroughfare.

The brilliance of Kingsway Luminaires shows us that identity (who we are in space and time) is not a static thing but something mutable, open to new configurations, new possibilities -- be that the launch of a Vietnamese restaurant or the passage from stop to go. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, “Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that is composition.” In other words, it is not elements that change over time but their relationship to one another. Kingsway Luminaires marks the beginning of our recognition of these relationships.