Cabbies give art a chance
Rebecca Caldwell, The Globe abd Mail, Pg R12
, 9 August 2003


Fourteen Toronto taxis are driving art into new territory with a project designed to promote young South Asian artists. REBECCA CALDWELL goes along for the ride

A Bay Street broker hails a cab on a busy Toronto street. He opens the door and slips inside only to discover that instead of the usual grey-on-grey interior accessorized with the odour of cigarette smoke, he has entered a garden. The floor mats are made of Astroturf, there are patio cushions covering the backseats, the rear of the front seats are covered in lattice work, entwined with roses.

Have the broker's three-martini lunches finally pushed him into the realm of alcoholic dementia? Not yet -- the surreal taxi cab is actually part of Peace Taxi, a month-long installation art exhibit by the South Asian Visual Arts Collective that hopes to provoke thought about the boundaries of public and private space. The mobile medium is their message.

"Interventions in taxis aren't new -- they've been done in different ways," says Rachel Kalpana James, one of the exhibit's organizers. She points to artists such as Pepon Osar, who in 1998 installed memorials in several New York taxis after one driver was murdered. Peace Taxi, though, was directly inspired by the actions of New York cab drivers, typically recent immigrants, who started displaying American flags in their cars after the World Trade Center attacks to try to ward off any association with the terrorists. Working within the cab space was an obvious environment for the collective, which has a mandate to promote and develop young artists of South Asian descent.

"For us as SAVAC, the cab drivers' response was a red flag: These workers are on the frontline, the first ones to experience any sort of backlash after global events," says James. "We realized that their work space is on some level a very private space, as opposed to a bus, but when you pick up a fare, it transforms into a public space. When that passenger comes in, you have no way of knowing what will transpire during that ride. As an artistic group we were very interested in that shared public and private space, and how that environment affects the taxi driver and the passenger in it, and what happens in that space."

With the co-operation of the Toronto Cab company and the permission of the taxi licensing board, 14 cabs have been transformed into Peace Taxis. For the price of a regular cab ride, your trip to the theatre after dinner may be more interesting than the play itself. The garden cab, literally moving the outside indoors, will certainly make for an unforgettable ride.

"I travelled a lot with my family when I was younger, and I always had these interesting interactions with cab drivers wherever we went," says Oakville, Ont., artist Jennifer Matotek explaining the genesis of her piece. "It was always interesting to hear what they thought of Canada -- they always had these visions of green grass and picket fences. You think they would think of Canada and its multiculturalism, but instead it was this idea was of having a lawn."

Some of the installations are very subtle: Riaz Mehmood's piece takes the space typically occupied by the identification photograph in the cab, and some people may not even notice the difference. Those who do take a closer look may realize that it is actually text instead of the photo: Mehmood has printed the hopes and dreams of Joginder Bajwa, the owner of the cab company who actually operates that particular cab.

James's own piece is another understated work. The phrase "The Home and The World" is emblazoned on the rear windshield. When sunlight beams through, the shadows of the words will fall into the cab, Home on the driver's side, World on the passenger's area.

"It can be a slogan, the cab takes you home or to any destination in the world," James says. "But what is really beautiful about this is the way the shadows are cast will provoke thought about home and the taxi driver, compared to the world and the passenger -- that idea about what is private and what is public space."

Other Peace Taxis make more overt statements about politics, intolerance and human relationships. Indian artist Shilpa Gupta's contribution, for instance, consists of a licence-plate-sized plastic panel hanging on the back of the cab driver's seat. Attached to it is a small bottle of red liquid, with the label Blame affixed to its surface, the underlying caption reading "Blaming you makes me feel so good." The instructions below suggest pouring a small amount of the liquid onto a paper, then tearing it up. Riders are encouraged to take a red sticker with the label's text that accompanies the piece.

The Blame cab is a great piece of interventionist installation art: Its presence is unmistakable, jarring resoundingly with its environment, and the level of emotional tension is almost uncomfortable. As successful as it could be, however, Gupta's work was already on opening day showing some of the difficulties of staging interactive works in tiny public spaces. A few rides in on Wednesday's opening day, the cab's driver, Frank, reports that one too-curious fare ripped the bottle off the backing, effectively breaking the piece, until the show's curator Cyrus Irani stepped in with a roll of tape and fixed it.

Of course, Gupta's work faced its own unique challenges from the beginning. The artist, who resides in Mumbai, India, originally had the artwork returned to her by Customs officials apprehensive about the contents of the bottle. The Blame bottle now contains 100 per cent Canadian-made tomato juice.

James acknowledges that the installations may need a little work from time to time, particularly after a Saturday night spent picking up fares of rowdy clubbers in the entertainment district.

As for the cabbies themselves, they've been skeptical but intrigued by the exhibits. And while the cabs may have transformed into art spaces, they're not about to turn into art critics.

"I don't know much about the whole project," says Frank, the driver of the Blame cab, a benevolent, taciturn man who hits the road anywhere from five to 11 hours a day. "But I'm happy to be part of it. There are stranger things that happen in taxi cabs."

Peace Taxi continues through August. They can be hailed on the street, or to order a taxi, call 416-745-5100 and ask for a Peace Taxi.