Invisible Gate: Preserving the stories of a community through public art
November 7, 2023
At the base of Edmonton’s original Harbin Gate sat “foo dogs”, or guardian lions. These traditional Chinese architectural ornaments, commonly used to mark entrances, were removed in 2017, but the newly installed public art project, Invisible Gate by artists Studio F Minus looks to return this traditional symbol of the Chinatown community to the site.
Situated in Kinistinâw Park, Invisible Gate is comprised of a pair of contemporary guardian lions, expanding the traditional symbol to contain the histories of all neighbourhood communities who have interlocked in the area.
Through a series of workshops with the local community, Mitchell F Chan and Brad Hindson of Toronto’s Studio F Minus worked alongside Edmonton-based community organizer Shawn Tse to gather personal objects or “artifacts” to embed within the work. Made of layers of transparent material, Studio F Minus likened these layers to those of an archaeological dig: each community leaves a trace of its history through artifacts and objects, and all of these traces organize themselves as layers set into the earth. Invisible Gate preserves 93 objects contributed by community members by embedding them in the layers of this permanent sculpture. In this way, everyone leaves a mark on the site, and the monument celebrates the experiences, both common and exceptional, of the people here.
Taking the upmost care when translating the community’s artifacts, artist Mitchell F Chan started with a digital scan of the item and would later carve out important details that were not able to be picked up by the computer. The end result is a collection of ghostlike forms within the lions.
To learn more about the new addition to the City of Edmonton Public Art collection, we spoke with Mitchell F Chan, one of the lead artists, about the artwork and the experience working with members of the community to capture their stories.
How did you get started making public art?
Public art was a natural evolution out of my background studying architecture. I was interested in large scale projects and spaces. [Public art] was a way of creating art outside of the traditional art world. As I was developing my gallery art practice in parallel, I was beginning to see the virtue in creating works outside of that context – outside of a white cube – that had a responsibility to speak to different people from different walks of life and be woven into the fabric of everyday life.
What is the inspiration behind the concept of this artwork? How did this artwork begin, and how did the project evolve or change while creating this artwork?
We began by looking at some of the changes that have happened in the area. Specifically, the construction of the new LRT station necessitated the removal of the original Chinatown Gate. At the time that the project was conceived, and even still today, we’re having a lot of conversations about public monuments and what they mean, and of the values that we want to see represented in that fabric of everyday life.
A lot of the conversation has centered around the subtractive element of that – what values do we want to remove and not monumentalize by removing those monuments. The other part of that conversation is equally valid in what do we want to preserve? For me, that gate was a cultural signifier to the people that inhabited that community, and it made sense to preserve it or resurrect it. And therefore, the concept of creating this project, Invisible Gate, as a reimagining of the guardian lions, or foo dogs, of the original Chinatown Gate was born.
The project began being a lot about iconography. Iconography is big and you can get a handle on it by studying it from afar. The project got more intimate as I spent time on site. I ended up working with a community organizer in Edmonton, Shawn Tse, and we did a number of interviews, and we took time to meet people on the site, whether they were small business owners, people who used social services in the area, or they just happened to be in that place at that time. That created a connection to personal stories that I tried to put into the artwork by literally carving them in. In a lot of ways, the project became smaller and smaller in scale.
The big image is still there; it’s still the same. But my focus became smaller and smaller in scale.
The foo dogs / guardian lions come from a traditional symbol in Chinese culture. What was your thought process about working with a historical cultural symbol?
It can be a little bit perilous. Using cultural signifiers, you always want to do that respectfully. It came down to me narrowing the scope; looking at these symbols not of a larger culture but of a specific space because they were an artifact that existed on the site. And that is the way that I try to treat them, not as Chinese foo dogs but as Edmonton’s Chinatown Gate.
A lot of the project is about how symbols and icons continue to contain smaller stories. They don’t just point outwards to a broader culture, they become touchstones for small personal stories for a really specific space. For this project they literally contain other icons. It’s not about how the symbol is big; it’s about how it became small, personal, and highly localized.
How did the process of community engagement influence the development and creation of this artwork?
Community engagement is simple in a way. If you want to engage a community, just go there. It doesn’t have to be polls, and surveys, and meetings. And in some ways those structures are almost a barrier because people don’t always feel like they belong there. The idea was that you don’t have to actively propose something. You can passively propose something simply by being there and leaving a record of your presence.
As an artist you want to go in with a plan and stick to the general overall form. From 20 feet away the project looks like what I had originally proposed at the beginning of the project. But you also want to make space for people.
Tell us about some notable artifacts in the artwork. Of the 93 artifacts that were included in the work, were there any particular stories that stuck out to you?
We tried our best to include as many as possible. A lot of those fingerprints of people are obscure and difficult to see, and it’s hard to make them out when you look at the sculpture, but the important thing is that they’re there.
There were some people whose families have been in the neighborhood for a really long time who could speak to the change in the area. One of my favourite objects in there was a pile of goji berries that a woman from the Chinese Benevolent Association brought and said that they used to grow over the hill and she’d go pick them with her mother. That was really beautiful.
Including these [stories] in the project is almost selfish for me because they can’t really communicate directly, but for me they’re mementos of conversations that I had. I had this conversation with a man at Boyle Street Community Services who had these playing cards in his pocket that he used to play cards with at the community centre. We had an abstract conversation about his worldview, and those pieces really reminded me of that. They were so gracious in taking me in. I was so moved and affected by what they do at Boyle Street Community Services. There’s one piece that is a bobble head of Elliott from the movie E.T. and Elliott is also the name of the person who showed me around there [Elliott Tanti, staff member at Boyle Street Community Servies]. I put that artifact close to the centre of one of the lions. That piece is important to me; I think about that one a lot.
What is it like working with a community in a city that you do not call home? And what do you think is the role of the artist working with communities or the public?
In terms of working in a different city, the process would have been the same doing this in Toronto, in the city where I live, because truth be told, I don’t have a strong daily presence in similar communities. You always have to work with different people.
I was very lucky working with local organizer and artist Shawn Tse because he was a big ambassador and I kind of piggybacked on the goodwill that he built up over time. The experience [of working in Edmonton] really meant a lot to me.
I do think there is always value in inviting people in. Your first commitment is to the artwork and working with people who can realize that vision. But letting other people experience your community is always a positive thing. And remember that the artwork is a mirror. Sometimes you need that outside presence to hold up that mirror.
Any thoughts about: public space, place keeping, monuments, and the role of the artist?
In the context of public art, the artist walks a fine line between being somebody who formalizes – as in literally gives form to public sentiment – and somebody who shapes that by creating a suggestion that people interact with. This is important; the way we present ourselves as a society matters. The values that we represent matter. And the artist can be a vessel for that, or the artist can be somebody who shapes that.
So many commissions for public art that I see use the term “placemaking”, and usually what they mean is that some developer has purchased some amount of property that is undesirable, and they want to make it a desirable place. And what we are supposed to signify through these public artworks is culture (short form for wealth and consumerism). This is a project that tries to bring back a little bit of what the place was. It’s about place preserving.
Has your practice changed over the duration of this project?
The timeline of this whole project was crazy. COVID changed everything. I ended up in a much different place over the course of the project than I anticipated.
It’s important that someone can come in from the outside and hold up a mirror to a community. It’s difficult for me because I’ve been inside this thing for so long; I feel like I’m regaining perspective now even as we have this conversation. I was proud of the process. I’m really proud of this artwork. I’m happy with the way that everything lined up through the process. And hopefully we have been able to give back to the community, not just in terms of the artwork, but in other tangible ways as well. 100% of this budget is reinvested in the community to people who need it.
The whole thing has been a crazy trip! I never would have expected any of it to go the way that it did. I didn’t think it would take as long as it did, going through the pandemic, I didn’t expect the type of interactions that I had with the community to have such a profound impact on me. I didn’t expect to still be carrying the marks of those interactions in me, in myself, so long after. I didn’t expect it to mean so much to me.
You can now visit “Invisible Gate” at Kinistinâw Park (96 Street and 102A Avenue). While you’re in the area, take some time to explore other pieces in the Edmonton public art collection such as “family pattern” by Tiffany Shaw.
About Studio F Minus
Studio F Minus is a Public Art and Design Firm that creates permanent and temporary public art. In their 15 years of practice, they have created accessible, inclusive, and engaging site specific public artworks for over thirty communities across Canada and the United States. They proudly craft playful and stimulating artworks that employ relatable symbols and metaphors inspired by each unique site and the values of its community. Through the use of novel materials and phenomena they engage the public as more than just passive viewers, enticing them into active physical and mental participation. Their work is often grand in scale and whimsical, resulting in pieces that serve as landmarks in their communities ‑fostering wonder, joy, and pride of place.