Michael Snow, Flight Stop, 1979, 60 suspended fibreglass Canada goose forms surfaced with tinted black and white photographs, 32 x 20 x 16 m, Toronto Eaton Centre
Over the course of a long and distinguished career, Michael Snow has sought and received numerous commissions for public sculpture. With the exception of a group of Walking Woman sculptures commissioned for the Ontario pavilion of Expo 67 in Montreal, most of these works are still viewable on their original sites in his native city of Toronto.
Unveiled in 1979, Flight Stop is a permanent sculptural installation at the Toronto Eaton Centre, a downtown shopping mall and office complex. The work was commissioned by the centre’s developers, Cadillac Fairview, in concert with the architect Eberhard Zeidler. The design problem was to create a hanging sculpture for a skylit galleria, visually accessed from several storeys of wide balconies, as well as from the ground-floor corridor running between Dundas and Queen Streets. The north-south axis of this consumer palace caught Snow’s attention, and he conceived of a flight of geese breaking formation to land at the south entrance to feed.
Flight Stop looks like a sculptural representation of sixty geese, but the work is in fact a combination of fibreglass forms and photographs of a single goose, one of two culled from a flock living on Toronto Island. Snow photographed this dead bird, adjusting the neck, wing, and tail positions and the cylindrical parts of the body. Based on other photographs and drawings of geese in flight, three different body sizes were then carved in Styrofoam and, using pattern-making techniques, two-dimensional photographic goose costumes were printed and assembled. In the meantime the Styrofoam bodies were cast in fibreglass, ready to be suited up in the photographic costumes. These three-dimensional objects were then varnished in a slightly tinted brown that has yellowed somewhat over time. Strung from the roof on individual wires, the objects form a dynamic group: the poses lend variety; the play with scale maximizes depth; photographic detail heightens a sense of realism. The objects are somehow more naturalistic—goosier—than conventional sculptural representation could be, and this quality accentuates Snow’s artistic comment on the nature of photographic illusion, on the tendency to suspend disbelief.
As a public sculpture in a busy shopping mall, Flight Stop is visited daily by thousands of people. A great many more who have never seen the work know of it because of the civil suit that ensued in 1982 when the Eaton Centre’s Christmas decorators tied ribbons around what they thought of simply as the necks of the geese. Snow sued the Eaton Centre to have the ribbons removed from Flight Stop and won on the argument that his moral rights had been violated. The decorations were judged to have distorted or modified the work. This was a precedent-setting case, settled some six years before formal recognition of moral rights in the 1988 amendment to the Copyright Act of Canada.