English Bay Beach is a very popular site in Vancouver. Visiting it is always enjoyable, and so is viewing and photographing two public art works that are located beside the beach. These works are the humorous A-maze-ing Laughter sculpture and the intriguing inukshuk. An inukshuk comes from Inuit culture. As I explain later in this post, the laughing statues in the first work of art may not be amused and the term “inukshuk” is culturally incorrect for the Vancouver sculpture.
English Bay Beach
English Bay is an area where the water next to Vancouver meets the open ocean. English Bay Beach is located just outside Stanley Park and is also known as First Beach. It’s large (by Vancouver’s standards), sandy, and the site of several very popular events. These include the annual Polar Bear Swim on New Year’s Day as well as an annual fireworks display in the summer.
The beach has logs that people sit on or next to. It’s bordered by a pedestrian and cycle path and an attractive line of trees. The path has benches where people can sit to admire the view or watch the surrounding activity. Tall apartment buildings are located behind the trees. I’m sure living there is very expensive, but the inhabitants must have a wonderful view. Living so near a beach and Stanley Park must be very enjoyable.
The path beside the beach is part of the Seaside Greenway, which is 28 km long. People can travel along the whole route or only part of it. As its name suggests, the route travels beside the sea and offers lovely views. The famous path on top of the seawall in Stanley Park is part of the greenway.
People love to pose for photographs beside each of the English Bay sculptures. A-maze-ing Laughter was created by Yue Minjun, a Chinese artist. It’s located in Morton Park at the foot of Denman Street. As can be seen in the first photo in this post, the small park is located just across the road from the ocean. The sculpture consists of fourteen bronze figures that are larger than life size and arranged in a maze-like pattern. People are welcome to move amongst the statues.
All of the figures are caricatures that show the artist as he’s laughing. He has an open and oversized mouth, his teeth are bared, and his eyes are closed. The artist has used this motif in some of his other work. An inscription on a low wall beside the sculpture says “May this sculpture inspire laughter playfulness and joy in all who experience it”.
The sculpture was brought to Vancouver by an organization called Vancouver Biennale as part of a 2009–2011 art display. It was bought and then donated to the city in 2012 by Chip and Shannon Wilson of the Wilson 5 Foundation. Chip Wilson is the founder of the Lululemon clothing company.
A Different Interpretation of the Sculpture
The statues and their arrangement are intended for amusement in Vancouver. People form their own amusing poses beside the figures, often copying the ones made by the statues as their photos are taken. According to a brochure published by the City of Vancouver and referenced below, however, the original intent of the figures was probably not for entertainment. They are believed to have a political meaning. The artist reconfigured the sculpture to make it “responsive to western society”.
Yue Minjun has said “A smile doesn’t necessarily mean happiness. It could be something else.” The artist was born in 1962. He is associated with an art movement known as Cynical Realism, which arose during a period of communist rule and student protests. A curator from Vancouver Biennale has said the following in relation to A-maze-ing Laughter.
Enigmatic as it seems, the laughter is interpreted by many as an indication of state politics acting on everyday life and therefore suggesting a kind of mentality under tight social control. (Quotation from Dong Yue Su, City of Vancouver Public Art Brochure)
The Inukshuk (or Inuksuk)
In British Columbia and some other areas outside the Arctic, the inukshuk (pronounced i-NOOK-shook) is a sculpture made of stones arranged in a pattern that resembles a stylized human being. Traditionally, the stones aren’t glued or cemented together. They stay in place because they fit together so well. That being said, I expect that the stones are stuck together in some way in the English Bay inukshuk. It’s located in a very public place where children and adults explore the sculpture. The people who decided to place it there were probably keen to avoid any injuries.
The Vancouver inukshuk was commissioned by the Government of the Northwest Territories for its EXPO 86 pavilion and created by Alvin Kanak. EXPO 86 was held in Vancouver. After the event was finished, the inukshuk was given to the city.
The idea of an inukshuk comes from the Inuit culture in the Arctic, though in that culture the object isn’t given that name. Another problem is that although the word “inukshuks” is commonly used as the plural form outside of the Arctic, the real plural word is inuksuit. Some important vocabulary is described below.
- An inukshuk is a pile of unglued stones forming various shapes (but not human ones) that has a practical or a symbolic meaning. The word reportedly means “to act in the capacity of a human”. The stones convey a message that another person would if he or she were in the area.
- If the stones form a shape resembling a human, the sculpture is called an inunnguaq instead of an inukshuk. The first name means “imitation person”.
In the video below, an Inuit cultural activist discusses the differences between the terms. In addition, some real inuksuit are shown. As the narrator says, their messages have been important for people’s survival.
Functions of a (Real) Inukshuk
An inukshuk is a significant marker or message centre for travellers in the wild areas of the Arctic. It marks a route, indicates the location of a good hunting or fishing area, marks the site of hidden food, or warns of danger ahead, for example. It may also mark a sacred area. The constructions can convey detailed information to a knowledgeable observer. Even today when other communication systems and better transport mechanisms are available, inuksuit are an important part of the culture of some Inuit people.
Inuksuit are especially useful when snow covers the ground and hides natural landmarks. New ones are created today and old ones still exist. Some are believed to have been built thousands of years ago. They may consist of a single boulder or, at the other end of the scale, a large construction made of many stones.
An inunnguaq is purely symbolic instead of conveying essential information for travellers. Although its human-like shape has captured the imagination of people outside the Arctic, it’s actually a much less common structure than an inukshuk. In fact, it’s hard to find information about why the inunnguaq was created. The Canadian Encyclopedia suggests that it may have informed people about a meeting place.
Reaching English Bay Beach
Denman Street begins in downtown Vancouver. The walk to Morton Park along the street takes fifteen to twenty minutes. The beach and park can also be reached by travelling around Stanley Park along the seawall. It’s an enjoyable trip but takes much longer. A bus can be taken to the park if this is preferred. TransLink runs the public transit system in Vancouver and the surrounding areas. The organization’s website has a trip planner that enables a person to enter their starting and ending location. The trip planner then displays a public transit route.
There are others ways to reach English Bay Beach. Some of these may be easier or quicker than the ones I’ve described, depending on a traveller’s starting point. A map of the city would be useful for a visitor.
Visitors should be aware that the beach can become crowded in summer. Other beaches are located quite near to the English Bay one and are worth exploring. Second and Third Beach in Stanley Park are sandy and are enjoyed by visitors. They can be accessed via the seawall. Sunset Beach is located next to English Bay Beach in the other direction. It’s a pleasant but relatively small area that is located at the mouth of False Creek near the Burrard Street Bridge.
I enjoy visiting the English Bay area not only because of the beach but also because of the other sights, including the art. I like to explore the history and background of a piece of art as well as its features. Sometimes the “art” has cultural significance, a hidden meaning, or a utilitarian purpose, as in the two works described in this post. I think they are both worth seeing.
- A-maze-ing Laughter brochure from the City of Vancouver
- Why are you laughing? (An article about the statues from the National Post newspaper)
- Inukshuk information from The Canadian Encyclopedia