Thursday, June 6, 2019

Montreal 2019 - Street Art Festival

After years of talking about it, my husband Rich and I finally took a quick trip to Montreal to attend the annual MURAL Street Art Festival.  While there, we also intended to visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as well as tour the Old Town and Port areas.  The plan was to take a VIARail train from Toronto Union Station to Montreal Central Station (Gare Centrale) and stay at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel which is attached to the train station.  To our surprise, we found out that the Queen Elizabeth Hotel was fully booked and settled instead for the nearby Best Western Europa, about a 10 minute walk away.   In looking for rail tickets, we found that if we traveled outside of normal “business travel” hours, we could actually get business class seats for less money than Economy Plus seats.  We lucked out and found a good deal for the dates that we wanted to go (leaving late Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of June).  A one-way Economy-Plus ticket from Toronto to Montreal went for about $192 regardless of what hour you traveled.  The business class seat was $205 if you traveled in the morning, but only $132 if you traveled after 5pm.  This was only $22 more than an regular economy seat!   The price for the 6pm business class return ticket on Saturday evening was only $110.  It was a no-brainer for us to choose the business class seat, which came with many perks.  We were able to access the business class lounge where we could wait for boarding in comfort with TV, newspapers and magazines, hot and cold drinks and fruit at our disposal.  We also were able to bypass the lengthy economy-fare line when boarding and waltzed right onto the train after showing our tickets.  Once on the train, we had nice wide seats with lots of leg room and a little table between us.  And our fare included free drinks, a complementary meal and an after dinner chocolate and aperitif.  We each had a glass of port and enjoyed our chocolates as we worked on crossword puzzles to pass the time during the 5.5 hour trip which made several brief stops along the way.

Once we arrived at the Montreal Central Station and walked through the Queen Elizabeth Hotel en route to our Best Western Hotel, we found out the reason why the Queen Elizabeth was fully booked.  It was not because of the Street Art Festival, but instead, the Formula One Grand Prix race was also being held this same weekend.  The lobby of the Queen Elizabeth was filled with paintings of race cars alongside actual cars themselves.  Several of the streets around our hotel were blocked off in preparation for the racing festivities and had more fancy race cars on display, as well as kiosks selling racing souvenirs.  We saw the black and white checkered flags hanging from lamp posts and strung above buildings all through the downtown core.  We also spotted some fancy vehicles cruising the downtown streets.  We arrived in Montreal on the evening that the Toronto Raptors were playing Game 3 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors and we made it into our hotel room just in time to catch the second half of the game.  We usually have no use for the television in a hotel room and rarely turn it on while we travel, but I was grateful for it on this evening.  Following the Raptors victory of this game, we heard loud revving of engines late into the night from our hotel room and were not sure whether this was in celebration of the Formula One race or the basketball game.

Although it would have been convenient to stay at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel due to its proximity to the train station, the Best Western Europa was still a fairly good location and was less expensive to stay at, so in the end it worked out for us.  Despite being on the same street as two massage parlours, the hotel was in a fun area, surrounded by shops, eateries, art galleries and public art.  For breakfast one morning, we bought delicious chocolate almond croissants from the nearby French pastry shop Christian Fauve Pastries.  We were close to the McGill University campus around which several cool sculptures were spotted.  A fun bronze sculpture of a frazzled student sitting atop a bench looking at his laptop can be found at the corner of Rue Sherbrooke and Avenue McGill College across from the Roddick Gates.  Created by Cédric Loth, it is titled “Steve Jobs est Mort” (Steve Jobs is Dead) and features an Apple laptop with an etching of Jobs and the titular words on the screen.  To one side of the student is a squirrel and an open bag from which a hamburger box and an overturned container of McDonald's fries have spilled out.  A soda cup with a straw sits on his lap in front of his laptop. The squirrel is scurrying away with the top of the hamburger bun in his mouth. The sculpture was created shortly after Jobs’ 2011 death.  In 2014, the street artist Sautu temporarily augmented the sculpture to add his own social commentary.  He affixed a satirical warning message over on the computer screen stating "Too Much Time Wasted On Social Media" with a cheeky "Do Something Else" button below it.  Inside the McGill campus grounds, after passing through the Roddick Gates, can be found the multi-coloured metal sculpture called “Human Structures” by Jonathan Borofsky.  On loan from the Vancouver Art Biennale to be part of Montreal’s own Open-Air Museum exhibition, the sculpture consists of 64 interconnected humanoid figures in a bright rainbow of primary colours forming a pyramid.

Located beside the McCord research and teaching museum running along Victoria St. between Rue Sherbrooke and President-Kennedy Avenue is the 9th annual installation of “Urban Forests”.  This is a temporary pedestrianized area populated with sculptural “trees” as well as carpeted “lawn”, picnic tables and benches.  Each year features a different design and colour scheme.  In the past, colourful reds, purples and blues have been used.  This year, the trees are decked out in a glimmering gold hue accompanied by golden-yellow tables and carpet.  As we walked through the area called “Little Burgundy” (La Petite-Bourgogne) towards the restaurant Liverpool House for dinner, we got a preview of some of the street art murals that we would see as part of the Street Art Festival in the next couple of days.

Liverpool House is the sister restaurant of Joe Beef, which is considered to be one of the top restaurants in Canada and recommended by many celebrity chefs including Anthony Bourdain.  You need to book many months in advance to get into Joe Beef while it is much easier to get a reservation for Liverpool House.  Given that the two restaurants have similar menus including some of the most popular offerings, we did not feel like we were missing much.  As our “high-end” meal for the trip, we set aside our diets and ordered with abandon.  For appetizers, we shared the Foie gras breakfast sandwich entrée from the regular menu.  It consisted of a toasted English muffin, cheese, poached egg, peameal bacon, and foie gras slathered with hollandaise sauce and maple mustard, the epitome of decadence!  From the daily specials, we selected the soft shelled crab on a bed of cucumber salad.  For mains we ordered the grilled sword fish in a chemoula sauce (garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and cilantro) topped with sautéed seasonal vegetables, as well as the famous lobster spaghetti that was raved about on TripAdvisor.  The portions of the apps and mains were quite large, but we could have finished them without issue had we not made the mistake of also ordering the white asparagus au gratin as our “vegetable side”.  Everything was so delicious (and so pricey) that we did not want to waste a drop, but the volume of food was overwhelming.  We considered skipping dessert, but ended up sharing a slice of the Neapolitan torte.  My only complaint from the meal was that my stomach hurt afterwards from eating so much!

Originating in 2012, Montreal’s MURAL Street Art Festival runs for 11 days in the beginning of June, with artists from around the world participating by creating new works over the course of the event.  The bulk of the art can be found on the sides of building walls along Boulevard St. Laurent, running from Rue Sherbrooke to Avenue Mont-Royale.   We signed up for a guided tour on the Saturday of our stay, but decided that we would go on a quick scouting trip on the Friday.  This would allow us to leisurely take photos ahead of time and therefore be able to concentrate on the information relayed during the tour.  We found Boulevard St. Laurent blocked off from traffic with food, clothing, art and souvenir kiosks lining both sides of the street, as well as live art, music, exhibitions and artist demonstrations.

Since we were in town for the first few days of the festival as it was just ramping up, the streets were not that busy yet, which allowed us to wander around at leisure.  In addition to the murals and street art, we spotted various sculptures including a set of pink hippos, a giant white rabbit and a David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust-like bust.  From the upstairs window above a shop one shop was the mannequin depicting Michael Jackson infamously dangling his baby.  Below that was a large image of Santa Claus with the caption “F*** Xmas, I want to come now”.  People with warped senses of humour must own these buildings.

Along the main drag, street artists were set up with surfaces to paint or spray upon, including sheets of plastic, pieces of dry wall, sides of panel trucks, and even one person who was painting her own dress.  Some artists who were assigned large walls to create their murals upon were in their initial phases of production, from prepping the surface, sketching out the design or painting the final images.  Many stood on ladders, cranes or cherry pickers that helped them reach the tops of the walls.

As we wandered around, we saw many murals that were already completed, either prior to the start this year’s festival, or as remnants from previous years.  My favourite piece was a long rectangular mural covering the base of a building facing an alleyway near Milton St.  It was created in 2017 by Montreal female street artist Mono Sourcil (translated as “Single Eyebrow”) and depicts a large collection of her trademark images⁠—caricatured depictions of humans, robots, Sci-Fi aliens and monsters, often drawn with just one eyebrow.  I loved walking along the mural, looking at all the distinct images painted in a colour palette of pale greens, pinks, maroon and black that give them a creepy feel.  Given the temporary nature of street art which is intended to eventually be painted over, the fact that this work is still intact, untouched and untagged several years after its initial creation attests to the admiration and respect that the street art community seem to give it.

We were really impressed by the large-scaled murals that we saw, many of which reflected significant artistic talent as well as wit, charm and sometimes social commentary.  While most of the works have a cartoonish slant, some are incredibly detailed and even realistic in their rendering.  When we took the tour on the last day of our stay, we learned about some of the techniques that the artists used to create such mammoth works while maintaining proportions, depth and perspective.  It would be difficult enough to produce these images on canvases, but to apply them to huge immobile walls and have to navigate obstacles like pipes, windows, doors, bumps and cracks while scaling heights and braving the outdoor elements requires more skill and ingenuity than the generic term “graffiti” may be credited with.  It is wonderful that street art is becoming a more accepted form of public art around the world, as we have experienced by taking graffiti and street art tours in international cities including Amsterdam, London, Paris, Dublin and New York City.

While I do like image-based street art, I am much less partial to graffiti writing of what I consider illegible words, although I do see the difference between a well constructed piece that includes multiple colours and depth as opposed to a quickly scrawled tag.  During our stroll along the Mural Festival area, we came across the second of two dueling tributes to singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen who passed away November 2016.  In each case, he is wearing his trademark fedora hat.  We first saw the 20-storeyed grey-scale rendering of Cohen at 1420 Crescent Street when looking through the upstairs window of the Museum of Fine Arts.   It was created by Montreal artist Gene Pendon and American street artist El Mac, replicating a photo taken by Cohen’s daughter Lorca.   A smaller 9-storeyed mural sits on the side of the Cooper Building on Boulevard St. Laurent, right in the middle of the Mural Festival territory.  Created by artist Kevin Ledo, it is more colourful and more in line with its street art setting.  There has been debate in Montreal over which mural better captures Cohen’s essence but I think they are both fine works.

Our guided tour of the Mural Festival was led by Ryan, a graffiti artist from Miami, who encouraged us to take his tour in that city if we were ever to visit.  Ryan led us through narrow gritty alleys to see where “real graffiti” was made and we were able to watch as one anonymous artist was spray-painting his piece, adding shading for depth.  We watched the artist Miss Van from Toulouse France as she painted over images that she originally drew on the wall using a projector to shine her original sketch onto the surface.  I found an image of Miss Van’s completed mural on the internet.  The artist Leon Keer drew a sketch on the ground that looked like a flat representation of a bathroom, along with a set of foot prints with the instructions to stand there to take a photo of his work.  When we did this, suddenly this “anamorphic” work popped up into space and appeared to be 3-Dimensional.  We arrived to see that the artist Germ Dee had started to sketch his cartoonish characters over a previous mural done by the artist Scribe in 2017.  It was interesting to see the work of one artist begin to overlay another’s.  Again I found an image on the internet of Germ Dee’s finished work, which had totally covered over the original image underneath.  Several other huge works in progress had markings delineating different sections in a "paint-by-number" fashion. 

We also found cool examples of works by street artists in art galleries along Boulevard St. Laurent, including Station 16 which had items on sale from a variety of artists.  I liked the sculptural pieces by the artist Denial, including “Billions Served”, depicting a gun sticking through a McDonald's French fry box. He also made 3 attached candy dispensers labelled “Yes/No/Maybe” which accepted quarters and dispensed actual pill-shaped candies.  The pill theme continued with pills made from spray-painted wood which he titled “Micro Dose Pills”.  The pills are labelled with the names of large commercial corporations such as CocaCola, VISA, Microsoft, Rolex, Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, Facebook, Netflix and more.  The artist Jaune expanded the concept of sculptural diptychs by creating two blocks of wood each spray-painted with his trademark construction workers, who are tugging on a physical piece of string that spans both blocks and dangles beyond them.  Abagail Goldman’s seemingly innocent diorama of a home with a large lawn is ominously titled “Snip Snip”.  When you look closely at the two figures at the edge of the lawn, you see that the man has actually stabbed the prone and bleeding woman with his garden sheers.  Goldman cheekily coined the term glass “Die-orama!” to describe  her miniature scenes of horror set behind plexiglass cases.  The artist WhatisAdam creates silkscreen prints repurposing the iconic image of a maple syrup can but labels it “Pure Maple Sizzrup”.  I had to look up what sizzrup meant and discovered that it refers to a drink made from codeine-based prescription cough syrup, soda and Jolly Ranchers Candy, meant to produce feelings of euphoria while also acting as a sedative.  Also named “Purple drank”, it produces a cough syrup high.

On our two visits to Boulevard St. Laurent, first for the scouting expedition and then the guided Mural tour, we had the opportunity to check out some of the eateries along this stretch.  The first day, we stopped for quick bite at the famed Schwartz’s Deli and shared a smoked meat sandwich (ordered "full fat" of course!) and a can of cherry cola.  The next day after the tour, we needed to kill time before picking up our luggage at the hotel and taking the train back to Toronto.  We chose the patio of Shaker Kitchen & Mixology since it gave us a good view of the main strip of the street art festival and we were tempted by the vast choices of mixed drinks on offer.  There was a two-paged spread of alcoholic and non-alcoholic fruity drinks and six different types of Sangria.  I chose the strawberry melon sangria made with red wine, Smirnoff raspberry vodka, watermelon puree and soda while Rich had a white wine-based grapefruit sangria with Tanqueray gin, white cranberry juice, grapefruit juice and tonic water.

For appetizers, we had mini lobster pogos and nachos with guacamole, bacon bit, sour cream and salsa.  For mains, I had the spiced tuna tataki with Asian mayonnaise and peanuts accompanied with a salad and fries while Rich had a burger and fries.  The food was just OK but it served our purpose to find a place where we could linger for a while and rest our feet, and the drinks were refreshing on a hot day.

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