Sleeping In The Open Air

Friday October 22nd, 2010
Liu Jianhua's Pillows in Harbour Green Park

Liu Jianhua's Pillows in Harbour Green Park

Art, its function in our society, its purpose and legacy, the impact of its presence in our public places, its visual appearance and of course, its forever-elusive definition… Contemplating art can all be a bit of a headache and quite literally, if one were to lay their head upon one of Chinese-born, Liu Jianhua’s novelty fibreglass pillows in Harbour Green Park

So lets make it easier by asking the most elementary of questions of a work of art, what is my initial  response to seeing it in my environment and what impact does it have there? When I  came upon this collection of bedroom basics myself, two things struck me immediately. The notion of sleep taking place in the outdoors and its link to the profusion of homelessness in the city as well the cerebral manifestation of the site as pertaining to an area for collective dreaming.

To address the first issue of how homelessness impacts individuals and society, it is troubling to read that 67% of Vancouverites cite it as one of their primary concerns. Housing is a major issue within Vancouver. Many of the hotels that have historically provided modest, affordable rooms are being torn down, left to deteriorate into unlivable slums, or converted into higher priced housing. Vancouver’s philanthropic organizations  are however, doing much to try to redeem the situation. Interestingly, spaces in parks transform to collaborate and accommodate. They continue to play a part not only in the reception of art, but as host to wider public preoccupations. 

One such event is Providence in the Park  and it is taking place tomorrow, Saturday Oct 23rd at 11:00 in Oppenheimer Park, Downtown Eastside. Here, items of clothing and food that have been collected through Providence’s health care facilities, are to be handed out to the homeless. (


A space to congregate

A space to congregate

To return to Jianhua, his installation is as thought-provoking as it is eye-catching and literally out of the ordinary. The arrangement of pillows upon the green grasses of the outdoors is intrinsically subversive, as the use of the every-day object loses its utilitarian function and is displaced from the personal to the public realm. Jianhua’s Pillows are  each as unremarkable as the last and yet they are marked, indented and impressed by heads, unseen and yet imagined  as just arisen from them. Here we come to the second preoccupation that they engendered in my mind – the presentation of a place in which dreams, through sleep, can unfold…

Jie Zhang, again from China,  proposes the theory of ‘continual activation’ in dreaming and hypothesizes that the function of sleep is to process, encode and transfer data from the short-term memory to the long-term memory where it is consolidated. So by dreaming, we are establishing a lasting imprint upon the psyche whereby the important issues involving our every-day lives cannot be dismissed as fleeting or unimportant.

Can we rest a while, sit down upon the Pillows and dream up some solutions to the housing crisis? Maybe so. Jianhua, with the support of the Vancouver Biennale, has presented the public with the notion that we can dream together and as one entity. In close proximity to each other and open to the elements, the bright-white pillows are hard, durable, shining emblems of the potential of the strength of collective dreaming. Maybe this is why he has fashioned them in such a resilient material with a rigid surface,  to ensure dreams can be made tangible reality.

“I have a feeling that human lives all have a dream. I feel this dream is particularly fragile and short-lived.” – Liu Jianhua, 2008 ( )

Fiberglass allows Jianhua to reproduce the fine detail of cloth, the folds of fabric and the stiches along the seams

Fiberglass allows Jianhua to reproduce the fine detail of cloth, the folds of fabric and the stitches along the seams

References to dreams in art are as old as literature itself, we need only think of  the story of Gilgamesh the Bible and the Iliad. Dreams asart on the other hand, without a “real” frame story, are deeply personal and a source of continual artistic intrigue.  We need only think of Michelangelo’s mysterious Dream drawing  ( and the furore that that caused in Renaissance Italy to understand the multiplicity of meaning dreams engender.

For you Biennale enthusiasts, what were your first thought and reactions to the sculpture you have come upon in the city? What are some of the more personal meanings these sculptures have for you or what meaning can you read into them? Please post your comments under this blog – we love to hear your responses!

Like what you see?