“I first saw them during Orientation Week, now I walk by them maybe three times a week,” says Alisha Singh, a first-year health sciences student.
“We’ve asked each other before: ‘What are those? Are they people?’” adds Mariah Watling-Eagle, another first-year health sciences student.
Are they staring at you? Do they intimidate you? Is that a penis?
It’s time to talk about the six wooden figures in the McIntosh Gallery Sculpture Garden.
Since Sept. 22, these tall, naked posts have watched Western students trek between Natural Sciences Centre and the University Community Centre (UCC). Students in turn have gawked and cocked their heads at the abstract figures, never quite understanding what they are, or what they may represent.
Ross Bell, the London-based artist behind these figures, collectively calls them Last Stand. Bell works primarily creating abstract, non-representational sculptures out of wood. Last Stand is “an abstraction of the human form,” says Bell, “and this particular form comes from the Muk Yan Jong.”
Muk Yan Jong is the Cantonese term for “Wooden Man Post." These figures, commonly called “wooden dummies” are used in martial arts training, specifically in Wing Chun Kung Fu. Bell’s Last Stand is a true representation of the traditional Chinese figure.
Dan Sich, a librarian at Allyn Betty Taylor Library, has been studying Wing Chun Kung Fu since 2007 and was excited when he first saw the sculptures being installed.
“My eyes definitely lit up … There was some guy installing them so I said ‘This is going to sound like a really weird question, but are these wooden dummies for Kung Fu?’ and we just got talking,” explains Sich. “It was one of the best days I’ve had at work here at Western.”
It’s a common belief that people are not supposed touch — let alone hit — the sculptures in McIntosh Gallery’s garden. But Bell doesn't want a barrier to exist between his art and its audience.
“People want to interact … I wanted to make a sculpture that would be okay for people to interact with,” he says.
When the weather is nice, Sich is in the garden practicing on Last Stand as often as he can and admits he was there almost every day in the fall.
“I’ll stop there for a few minutes in to work and on my way out, and at lunch,” he says.
Visually, these figures are replicas of traditional Muk Yan Jong; however, Bell’s Last Stand differs in a very important way.
The six figures outside the gallery are made from the wood of dead emerald ash trees which were once infected by a green beetle, the Emerald Ash Borer. Native to east Asia, the Emerald Ash Borer was first discovered in North America in the early 2000s. Over the last decade and a half, the beetle has destroyed a significant portion of the ash tree population around the world. “They basically eat the material between the bark and destroy the circulation of the tree,” explains Bell. “I actually left the worm trails from the ash borer larvae on the logs.”
When up close to Last Stand, the continuous, curving indentations made by the borer and its larvae are clearly visible.
“The actual implications of the ash tree being wiped out across the planet are huge,” says Bell. “It effects habitat, it effects everything.”
As a sculptor, Bell is always conscious of his materials and where they come from: “I can’t ignore the fact that this particular kind of wood is part of a larger issue going on in the world right now.”
As all abstract art goes, the symbolic applications to Last Stand are seemingly endless.
“The name Last Stand refers to a battle position, when you give it all you’ve got and fight for everything even though you might lose,” says Bell. “The idea is the same with the ash tree … I figured it was a good material to bridge over to this theme of protection and defense.”
For Bell, Kung Fu has represented a way to protect oneself when vulnerable from a young age, but he later learned that the true meaning of Kung Fu is much more about internal strength.
“Kung Fu comes from Gong Fu which is really about self-achievement. It’s about bettering oneself,” he explains. “That’s kind of what university represents to me. It’s a place where people go to make themselves better and sort of stand against the world.”
His decision to debut Last Stand within Western — a dynamic and progressive environment — was thoughtfully made.
So the next time you're passing the Sculpture Garden, get up close and personal with the figures, trace the paths of the Emerald Ash Borer, and maybe even strike a Kung Fu move or two.
Ross Bell’s Last Stand will remain in the McIntosh Gallery’s Sculpture Garden until July 15, 2017. For more information on Bell’s art see: www.rossbell.com.