Sculpture Connects the Contemporary with the Traditional

Robert Mangelsdorf


July 20, 2015

SEI at McArthurGlen Outlet Mall at the Vancouver International Airport, by Y Public Art

Seemingly defying gravity, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas' newly unveiled sculpture “Sei” rises from the ground at the centre of the new McArthurGlen outlet mall near YVR, before arching to one side, hanging motionless in the air.

Named after the sei whale, the second-largest baleen whale species found in BC waters, Yahgulanaas' work evokes the form of its namesake in mid-breach. The abstract sculpture stands more than 12 feet tall, and stretches out almost as long as a school bus.

“I love the idea of one of the largest animals in the world breaching [from the ground], and propelling itself into the air,” says Yahgulanaas.

Like much of Yahgulanaas' work, “Sei” combines contemporary abstract design with the familiar motifs of traditional Haida artwork.

Yahgulanaas – who previously served as the elected Chief Councillor of the Old Massett First Nation – says he wants to bridge the gap between settler society and First Nations peoples by combining elements of both in his artwork.

“We need to get settler society to see us as people,” he says. “It's not an effort to get even, or pass judgement. We need to be recognized as human.”

Only by dehumanizing native peoples were European settlers were able to morally justify things like the residential school system, Yahgulanaas notes.

He says his work seeks to connect the two cultures, without judgement.

To that extent, Yahgulanaas designed the sculpture – which stands on the traditional territory of the Musqueam First Nation – with reflective copper and stainless steel surfaces.

“I want people to see themselves in the work,” he says, “and in those surfaces, they can see themselves reflected.”

Copper is a traditional medium of the Haida people, and here at the centre of an upscale shopping centre, Yahgulanaas says the material brings connotations of wealth. Meanwhile, the ovoid shapes and formline designs are meant to be “familiar, yet strange; powerful, yet friendly.” The end result is an impressive, accessible work of public art that provides a doorway into Haida culture.

The sculpture itself is an engineering marvel, weighing in at more than 8,000 pounds. That required Yahgulanaas and his creative partner Barry Gilson to employ a team of more than 20 people to bring the design to life.

“They very much have an artistic claim on this project,” Yahgulanaas says of the many tradespeople, computer drafters and engineers who worked on the sculpture. “It takes a whole team to bring together a work of this scale.”

“Sei” sits atop a concrete base connected to an eight-metre-long subterranean cantilever that allows the sculpture to hover above the ground. Underneath the copper and stainless steel panels – which are specially-coated to slow down oxidation – two massive steel tubes form the backbone of the sculpture.

“For the first time I have a great deal of satisfaction that the 3D form accurately reflects the 2D drawings,” says Yahgulanaas.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas and Barry Gilson in front of SEI at McArthurGlen Outlet Mall at the Vancouver International Airport, by Y Public Art