Ed Pien

Ed Pien: Pushing drawing beyond sentimentality

Internationally acclaimed artist Ed Pien arrived in Vancouver a few weeks ago carrying his work Tracing Night in two suitcases. Created in 2004, it’s now part of his personal collection and, he says, representative of 20 years of pushing the act of drawing into three dimensions.

The idea to create art you have to walk—sometimes crawl—into to fully explore first occurred to him at a showing of his paintings in 1985. Looking back at the canvases as they hung on the gallery wall, he saw only the depth of the stretchers. “They [the paintings] seemed dead to me,” he told an audience at a recent MOV talk. “I wanted to come up with a way to engage viewers more thoroughly, and keep them engaged for longer periods. That was really the beginning of my three-dimensional installation work.”

Pien calls himself a “drawing-based artist” but concedes it’s hard to define drawing precisely. “We have sentimental ideas that drive the definition of drawing. Drawing to me is what it doesn’t have to be.” With early installations, like this one, Pien focused on painted drawing. More recent works feature elaborate paper cut-outs. He’s now working with rope to achieve a three-dimension quality to the lines of the drawings themselves. Another layer, another dimension.

He begins building his pieces by first wrinkling sheets of glassine paper he buys in five-foot-wide by 300 ft.-long tubes. The paper starts to lose its tinny sound, he explains, and begins to stretch. “I change the sound, and the paper takes on an elastic quality, like skin… Once I have an idea and a sense of the space [the piece will be installed in], I’ll sketch and walk through it in my head.” The actual drawing and building happens a mere two months before a show opening. The tight timeline is the only way for him to commit, he explains, “Or it would roll around in my head forever.”

Tracing Night has an ethereal, ghostly appearance—an appropriate form for the story it tells. Picture a long subtly curved paper cave suspended from metal tubes from the rafters and hovering a few inches off from the floor. At first glance, it looks weightless, even effortless, and Pien likes it that way—even though there’s up to four layers of deeply saturated colour worked into the surface.
Tracing Night is covered with richly detailed drawings and painted surfaces that tell the story of night through the Rabbit Girl, a character Pien learned of studying Inuit folklore. She recurs throughout the piece, alongside other mythical, nocturnal creatures. Some are a few feet long, while others are scarcely a few centimetres and lurking down spyholes built into the paper.

The supernatural is a recurring interest of the artist. “Some may find my work scary, but I’m hoping that it’s not so dark that people can’t see the work itself… What I’m interested in is ghosts. Whether they’re real or not, it’s interesting how they impact us.”

“We’re complete opposites,” he continues. “They’re not here, where we are. When we enter their realm, we’re the other.”

Tracing Night is view now through April 11.

Image credits: John Armstrong. A slideshow of images is available on

A few of our favourite things from the Games



This is less a piece of writing than a working list of our favourite things to come out of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. A caveat: many of these things aren’t directly linked to the Olympics, but may have been accelerated by them.

Favourite transit project: So many column inches have been written about streetcars in Vancouver—why we took them off city streets so many years ago, why we don’t add one down the old Arbutus rail corridor, why we didn’t build a grid of streetcars instead of a subway line. Vancouverites—or maybe it’s just reporters?—are obsessed with the things. So when the (also) much-written about streetcar line between Granville Island and the Olympic Village Canada Line station was reopened for the Games as part of a demonstration project years in the planning—and with free fares to boot—it was something of a miracle. The length of the line is akin to Seattle’s monorail system (read: short) but it’s a needed connection to an under-served area, and fun to ride. More details on the project linked here.

Favourite Games spin-off at MOV: There are many. Hosting a binational craft show with a section devoted to the work of local craftspeople and artists ranks highly. The B.C./Yukon section of the exhibit was curated by Kirsti Wakelin and Darren Carcary of Resolve Design (read more about them in this January post), who produced four lovely short films of artists at work in their studios. One of the films is posted on the design section of Wakelin’s website here. We’ll post the videos to the multimedia section of this website soon, too.

Another of our favourite Games projects has been working with artist Ed Pien, whose installation Tracing Night opened here two weeks ago. As a city museum, we don’t often host works of this nature. It was one of those rare cultural opportunities that come along with the Olympics and we were thrilled to have it. Working with an artist of Pien’s calibre has been an absolute pleasure. I’ll post my notes on his recent curator’s talk in the coming days.



Favourite souvenir: Everyone has the red mittens with maple leafs on the palms (us too). Not everyone has one of these beautifully designed, limited edition, graphic umbrellas. Sold for $20 at Vancouver Special (3612 Main St.), they feature a street grid of Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside with venues and events highlighted in red. Proceeds benefit the Bright Light public art project.

Favourite flash mob: We’re just not used to seeing this kind of thing in Vancouver. Which isn’t to say we’re a sullen lot, we’re just not typically so… gregarious. On the weekend, a crowd of hundreds who’d been rehearsing a dance routine set to Martha and the Vandellas’s “Dancing in the Street” descended on Robson Street to perform it. Many videos of the shenanigans are found on YouTube here. It was fun, frosh-week-esque, and we can’t stop watching it.

The intimate, evocative work of Ed Pien

Tonight marks the opening Tracing Night, the second exhibit MOV is hosting as part of the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad, and on view until April 11. The launch party starts at 7 p.m.; tickets available here or at the door.

Tracing Night defies easy classification: it’s an installation piece that serves as a stand-alone exhibit; it’s art layered with history, mythology, and psychology; it’s an elaborate drawing that needs to be entered into to be understood, and one heightened by video projection and a humming, eerie sound scape. In many respects, it’s an unusual choice for a city museum, but its location is somehow fitting, occupying a cavernous 1,000-square-foot gallery wedged between our permanent history galleries and Art of Craft, a binational survey of pieces from Canada and Korea (and our second Cultural Olympiad show).

Tracing Night was among Ed Pien’s early immersive works, and now, several years after its completion, it remains deeply personal to him. In an interview with Amanda Gibbs, MOV’s director of audience engagement, Pien described his intention to explore or recreate a child’s fear of, and fascination with, being in the dark. He researched different mythological interpretations of night and darkness, centering on the Rabbit Girl found in Inuit lore. She serves as the heroine of the piece.

“The mood is not meant to be that of a haunted house,” says Pien, “but a seductive experience where you’re drawn into the space… It keys on the possible darkness of the human soul, but it is ultimately a creative and joyful exploration—there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Pien is based on Toronto and represented by several galleries; the Pierre-Francois Ouellette Art Contemporain gallery in Montreal has an thorough description of his work and images of it. Click here for details.

On Thursday night at 7 p.m., Ed Pien will lead a discussion of Tracing Night (event details here), focusing on its references to Inuit culture and the compelling work of artist Irene Avaalaaqiaq; I’ll post an update accordingly.

Image credit:

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