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CAG moves to 555 Nelson

Godfre Leung

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Brian Jungen, Unlimited Growth Increases the Divide, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2001. Photo: Kim Clarke.

Closely following CAG’s 2001 move from its longtime home at 555 Hamilton Street to its current location at 555 Nelson, the gallery hosted an eponymous solo exhibition by artist Brian Jungen.

For this project, Jungen installed a site-specific public work titled Unlimited Growth Increases the Divide, a covered walkway and construction hoarding running along Nelson Street outside the façade of CAG’s new facility. The installation paralleled a similar walkway and barrier on the same side of Nelson, in front of a construction site across the alley directly to the west, now a Nesters Food Market.

Usually in covered walkways running along the perimeter of a construction site, the side facing the street would be open, dotted only by load-bearing posts that hold up the structure’s roof. By contrast, the side facing the building would normally be an enclosing wall, with the occasional exception of small windows cut out to allow passersby to take a peek at the construction’s progress. Jungen’s installation reversed this setup, closing passersby in from the street, but for several small windows acting as viewfinders through which to perceive the city at large under construction.

The installation’s name was an homage to a text work of the same name by Kathryn Walter, which in 1990 was emblazoned on a lintel above the doorway of CAG’s previous site at 555 Hamilton. Conceived under the auspices of CAG and in collaboration with George Michael Riste—CAG’s then-landlord and the proprietor of its upstairs neighbour the Del Mar Inn—Walter’s text work was a comment on an earlier moment in Vancouver’s ongoing housing crisis. Specifically, it highlighted Riste’s refusal to sell his building to make way for BC Hydro’s new headquarters and the subsequent development it would initiate; today, Riste’s building, now a municipal heritage site and on whose façade Walter’s work is still installed, remains the only original building on the 500 block of Hamilton. In the words of Riste’s son Mike, the holdout was a principled stand to ensure continued “low-cost housing to low-income individuals,” as well as to sustain the elder Riste’s conviction that “the commercial space on the main floor should always be available to aspiring artists to display their works.”1 Over its rich history, 555 Hamilton provided a home to Bau-Xi Gallery (1964–72), followed by CAG (1973–2001), the Belkin Satellite (2001–08), Or Gallery (2008–19), and currently W Projects (established 2023).

In dramatizing CAG’s relocation by migrating Walter and Riste’s title text from CAG’s old façade to its new one, Jungen’s installation also emphasized the dizzying new scale at which “unlimited growth increases the divide” a decade later. In the context of the careers of Jungen and his peers, “growth” also seems to refer reflexively to the role of rising young artists as cogs in the art ecosystem, itself a wheel in the machinations of real estate.2 At the time of the exhibition, Jungen had just been awarded the inaugural Sobey Art Award and had already achieved international renown for his Prototypes for New Understanding—Northwest Coast-style masks crafted from Nike Air Jordans—and his monumental sculpture Shapeshifter, which debuted at Or Gallery the previous year. He was the leading light of what was then called the “second Vancouver school,” which also included Geoffrey Farmer, Damian Moppett and Ron Terada—all artists who, like Jungen, attended the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in the early ’90s and later had their careers stewarded by Catriona Jeffries Gallery—as well as Myfanwy Macleod, Jason McLean, Steven Shearer, and Kelly Wood, among others.

Paralleling the rise of this cohort of artists was that of the city itself as it transitioned from weathering the effects of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis to winning its bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics in 2003. CAG’s move to its new facility grew out of the urban planning strategies that propelled Vancouver to its millennial status as a model world city, enabled by the City of Vancouver’s Cultural Amenity Bonus Program. As reported in the Vancouver Sun, “In exchange for permission to add seven storeys to its two-tower highrise project, the developer, Bosa Ventures, handed over the ground floor and mezzanine of the first tower to the Contemporary Art Gallery, which until this month had been shoehorned into the ground floor of an old hotel at the wrong end of Richards Street.”3

Along with an exhibition by Cai Guo-Qiang in CAG’s opposite gallery, which was accompanied by parallel presentations at the Sun Yat Sen Gardens and Charles H. Scott Gallery, Jungen’s exhibition also marked the end of a remarkable era at CAG. Through the 1990s, most of it under the leadership of director/curator Keith Wallace, CAG’s program heavily engaged with identity politics and strongly aligned with cultural currents associated with the 1993 Whitney Biennial. CAG’s program in the early ’90s included highlights such as Rebecca Belmore’s first solo exhibition in Vancouver; the influential group show Nations in Urban Landscapes (Faye HeavyShield, Shelley Niro, Eric Robertson), curated by Marcia Crosby; projects with esteemed local artists Shani Mootoo and Paul Wong alongside international artists such as Nan Goldin, Lyle Ashton Harris and Mary Kelly; and such legendary works of Canadian art history as Christos Dikeakos’ Sites & Place Names and John Greyson’s The Making of “Monsters.The second half of the decade saw the balancing of an increasingly international program (Francis Alÿs, Navin Rawanchaikul, Vivan Sundaram) with national (An Te Liu, Ed Pien) and local (Claudia Cuesta, Carol Sawyer, Henry Tsang) artists, leading up to the first seasons at the new space, which opened with Germaine Koh (then based in Toronto) and Ken Lum, followed by Brian Jungen and Cai Guo-Qiang, the last exhibitions helmed by Wallace. This decade of forward-thinking work—as curators Barbara Cole (City of Vancouver Public Art Program), Karen Love (Presentation House Gallery) and Scott Watson (Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery) once attested to the Vancouver Sun—enabled CAG’s own new scale at the dawn of the millennium, positioning its move to a new home.4

Godfre Leung

Godfre Leung is a curator and critic. He has organized exhibitions and art projects at Artspeak, The Bows, Or Gallery, Richmond Art Gallery, and Vancouver Art Gallery; and his writing has recently appeared in ArtAsiaPacific, ASAP/Journal, C Magazine, and ReIssue. He is the Curator at CAG, where he has most recently organized exhibitions by Dionne Lee, Sesemiya and Trinh T. Minh-ha.


1Del Mar Inn,” Places That Matter, Vancouver Heritage Foundation.

2 In a letter dated June 23, 2001, CAG apprises its upstairs neighbours—the residents of Mondrian—of Jungen’s upcoming installation (and its disturbance to their sidewalk): “The Contemporary Art Gallery has brought prestige to Mondrian by providing a sophisticated cultural facility rather than the standard retail operations found in other developments. It is an important anchor point between Yaletown and the Granville entertainment corridor. We see Jungen’s piece as an opportunity to animate the street and to continue to make Mondrian a vital presence in Vancouver ... We anticipate considerable press coverage on the piece and it will bring attention to this building and its progressive attitude towards urban living.”

3 Michael Scott, “Moving Up in the Art World,” Vancouver Sun, May 5, 2001, p. H5.

4 “Danders Up at the CAG,” Vancouver Sun, May 12, 2001, pp. H23–24.