You might not notice anything out of place among the Mutations in the Garden of Delight. In fact, unless you look at the map for the Port Authority and NSCAD University’s new outdoor sculpture park at the entrance to Halifax Harbourwalk, you wouldn’t know that something is terribly amiss.
At some point during the night of Friday, September 9, someone forcibly removed Dustin Wenzel’s cast bronze sculpture of a deer head. No one knows exactly what happened; it just vanished. A picture on NSCAD’s website shows a gorgeous life-size model, delicately touched with classic blue-green patina. It took Wenzel two semesters to complete the work—four months to sculpt, and another four months to cast the bronze mould. A foundry technician told him it’s the largest piece that’s ever been cast at NSCAD, melting the most metal possible in the crucible.
“They broke the piece, which involved a certain amount of hefty violence,” explains show curator and Anna Leonowens Gallery director Peter Dykhuis. According to Dykhuis, who is still visibly upset by the theft, the 60-pound sculpture was snapped off a secure base, which had been anchored and screwed into three feet of concrete. “It’s a one-off piece that is artistanally made and intellectually and conceptually rigourous. They’re not hurting ‘the man.’ They’re not hurting the port, or some nameless, faceless, industrial mass production; it’s like swarming someone. It’s the social equivalent to that. It makes me so angry.”
The exhibition, a contemporary take on Hieronymus Bosch’s dark painting, represents more than just waterfront decoration. It’s a visible sign that things are moving forward in the Port Authority’s plan for a new Cultural District, and a visual symbol of the relationship between the port and NSCAD, who are preparing to move into their new waterfront campus later this year. Like Dykhuis, Ron Taylor, senior vice president with real estate firm O&Y Enterprise and head of the Seawall development project, has years of experience in public art planning. Both say it’s very rare for this type of theft and vandalism to occur.
“We have very good surveillance, and it’s a pretty secure area—it’s right outside our security office—but you can’t watch any area all the time, and that’s true of any area,” says Taylor. He met with Waterfront Development Corporation six months ago to discuss security issues, and left encouraged by the waterfront’s clean record.
“The worst thing that happens is occasionally we have kids come with skateboards, but you know what? That’s life. The kids aren’t going to deface something like this,” Taylor says. “It’s like anything else, it doesn’t matter how many alarms you put in your house, if someone wants to, they can beat it. There are additional things we are doing to secure the pieces, and I think it’s prudent to do that under the circumstances, but to be completely risk adverse, you cancel the program and we’re not going to do that.”
Taylor and Dykhuis conclude that the theft strengthens both institutions’ commitment to create something special for the public to enjoy, as well as their relationship, which Dykhuis characterizes as “symbiotic.” The sculpture park will offer three shows a year, with rotating artists and curators.
Soon the menagerie will be joined by another piece. Last Sunday afternoon during the Harbour Festival, something strange happened. Wenzel, handing out brochures about the show (a generous act considering the situation), decided to check the water one more time. There, visible in the low tide, was the sculpture.
“I’m really glad to have it back, but in some ways, it’s almost worse,” the artist admits. “Before I thought that maybe somebody really wanted it. What a waste of everyone’s time—it’s just pointless.”
Thankfully, the deer is still intact; most of the damage is to the surface’s carefully rendered patina. “The original mount is also busted, I will need to remount it,” says Wenzel, “but I don’t know if I’ll fix up the patina. Now it’s part of its history, it’s part of the story.”