WHAT IT IS: Sentinel of Truth by Winnipeg artist Darren Stebeleski is a new public sculpture installed in the Millennium Library Park. Text excerpts from 18 books are etched onto recessed stainless steel panels, which are set into a 50-metre protecting steel wall.
WHAT IT MEANS: Architects sometimes say that if you can build in Winnipeg, you can build anywhere, a reference to the extreme temperature range we experience, from a frigid -40C to a sizzling 35C. The same goes with outdoor sculpture: Works have to withstand heat, cold, snow and wet, something that became clear when last week's celebratory public opening for Stebeleski's Sentinel -- as well as for emptyful by Vancouver-based artist and architect Bill Pechet -- got rained out.
Fortunately, the party was moved inside, but there I was outside, trying to take detailed notes in a downpour, my notebook getting all soggy and sad. As I squinted to read the text excerpts through the haze of rain, my eye was drawn to the sinuous patterning of water as it streamed down the steel wall. It struck me that these weather conditions were part of this massive, austerely beautiful work. In fact, they have to be.
Sentinel is designed to change with time and the elements. Stebeleski has used weathering steel, which will gradually transform with exposure to climatic conditions. The work is already showing blooms of rust and seams of vivid orange, which mark the dark steel like the brushstrokes of an Abstract Expressionist painting. With years, the textured patina will settle down into a dark, moody brown.
These physical conditions affect the way viewers "read" Sentinel, and they are a meaningful part of the work. On the one hand, Stebeleski references the power and palpable physicality of books by using the solidity of steel. But he is also aware of the fragility of free speech. Many of the text excerpts come from authors whose words have been censored or silenced. It makes sense, then, that the type shimmers in and out, shifting with light and shadow or obscured by rain. With its changing nature, Sentinel reminds us that we can't take reading for granted.
WHY IT MATTERS: Sentinel is part of the Winnipeg Arts Council's public art initiative. This innovative program understands that you can't just plunk artworks into empty space. Public art needs to interact with its viewers and with its site.
On that stormy evening, emptyful -- which includes a water feature -- seemed to be calling back to the weather with a spray of fog and mist, while Sentinel stood stoically in the driving rain, rust settling into its frames. A day, a week, a month from now, the sculptures will look different, responding to the world around them.