Trans Am Totem merges consumer culture with nature

North Vancouver artist Marcus Bowcott watched intently as his public art work Trans Am Totem began to be installed on March 30 near the Georgia Viaduct — starting with part of an old-growth cedar tree.

"Wow...isn't it a beautiful thing?" Bowcott said, pointing to the half of the cedar trunk being placed around a supporting pole. 

The installation of Bowcott's work at Quebec Street and Milross Avenue will continue today, with four crushed cars and an 1981 Trans Am being placed on top of the tree base.

"It is pretty wacky," Bowcott said with a laugh.

Bowcott's initial idea for a public art work was a stack of crumbling cars, but he later decided to add a tree as a base for his work which he says represents both the city's "throwaway consumer culture" and its natural history.

"There is a sense of pathos to this...I wanted a big tree with a big presence here. It's a stark contrast to the architecture and the flatness around here," he said, referring to the False Creek neighbourhood.

Crumbling cars a recurring metaphor

Bowcott's fascination with crumbling cars began in the 1980s while studying at the Royal College of Art in London. During the summers he came back to the Lower Mainland and worked on tow boats on the Fraser River.

"One of the things I saw when I was on the river were mountains of cars that were literally spilling in the water," he said. "In other areas farmers would use cars as breakwaters to stop the river from eroding their banks."

Rather than painting scenes of the river, Bowcott was drawn to painting and sculpting the crumbling cars he saw. 

"I was doing these paintings of water surfaces, the paintings were formal and beautiful, but they weren't gritty enough, they weren't true enough to life."

Bowcott, 64, went on to teach for 22 years at Capilano University's studio art program, which was cancelled last year.

Over the past two years he has been working on the Trans Am Totem project for the 2014-2016 Vancouver Biennale public art exhibition.

Accessible public art

He credits the support of many people in bringing the project to life — particularly his wife Helene Aspinall, who helped prepare the cars that will be mounted on the structure.

Aspinall was also watching with anticipation as the tree base was raised on March 30.

"We've worked together morning, noon and night for two years now, so we're quite excited to see it now lifting and finding its home here."

She said the structure — which can also be seen from the SkyTrain between the Main Street and Stadium-Chinatown stations — is one that many people can relate to.

"[Bowcott] makes art accessible. He brings art to people, and I think our city needs that."

Trans Am Totem will be fully installed by the end of the day on March 31. Bowcott has launched an Indiegogo campaign to pay the $6,500 cost for installing the piece.

To hear the full interview with Marcus Bowcott and Helene Aspinall, click the audio labelled: Trans Am Totem.