Steven Shearer invoked intimacy in places people would least expect it

These photographs were blown up and displayed in billboards by March 30. The public was so angry that they only stayed on display for 48-hours before being replaced by stock photos.

Context is everything

When it comes to understanding an image, context is key. The photographs were not worth mentioning in their original context as casual snapshots. These commonplace photos evoke a deeper and more ambivalent response when they are projected onto billboards, where we would expect the sleepers to be promoting the benefits of mattresses.

These figures are anonymous, unlike traditional portraiture. Their identities are unknown to the artist as well as to the viewer. In the digital age, the viewer may imagine these figures as universal symbols of the everyday man, but they also raise ethical questions about sharing private images with the public. A viewer passing a billboard could recognize someone they know or themselves, catapulted from the darkness of a forgotten snapshot into the public spotlight.

The change in scale, and the interventions in public spaces force these images in our imaginations in a different and new way.

Scale matters. By its very nature, the photograph that we can hold, whether as a digital image in our phones or as a snap, is not threatening.

You can choose to ignore images on the internet by deleting them or swiping through. You can also enjoy these images in private, decoding them or fantasizing about their meanings. We can sift through images that make us uncomfortable. They can be crumpled up into an unrecognizable ball or torn apart.

The images of Shearer were enlarged exponentially to the size of billboards, and some viewers found the invasion of the familiar streetscape deeply disturbing. Gordon Harris, a commentator who condemned the removal of the billboards, asked if the outrage of some people was related to the fact that the images “maybe the images look too much like people’s perception of Vancouver’s homelessness?”

Sleeping, intimacy

What was the intention of the festival or artist? Shearer’s works don’t appear to be provocative. Emmy Lee Wall received positive comments prior to the project’s launch. The curator’s statement for Shearer’s series states:

The reclining and sleeping figures on Shearer’s billboards resemble religious paintings and sculptures, in which bodies seem to be in ecstasy, or defy gravity, as if floating after being released from their earthly ties. (T)these figures have unintentionally encouraged passers-by to view them with a greater level of intimacy and vulnerability.”

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Estacy of Saint Teresa, in which the sculptor depicts a saint gazing up in rapture. At the same time, an angel prepares a golden sword into her body, bears an uncanny similarity to Shearer’s billboard in which dark fabric draped above the figure’s head represents the nun’s wimple.

 ‘Untitled’ by Steven Shearer, on billboard, next to detail of Gian-Lorenzo Bernini’s 1652 Ecstasy Of Saint Teresa’ in the Cornaro Chapel at Santa Maria della Vittoria. Rome. (Dennis Ha/Shutterstock)

Shearer’s photographs show a figure with a head slightly tilted, eyes closed, and a mouth slightly open, similar to Bernini. Shearer’s figure is almost identical to Bernini’s saint, but the rough grey fabric of what looks like a couch cushion in the background makes it seem not very interesting. When viewed next to the statue that has been the subject of long-standing commentary on erotic love and divine love, viewers might be prompted to wonder how created objects interact with viewer expectations.

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