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GLOBE AND MAIL – March 2007


19/03/07 – NEW YORK DIARY

One man’s failure is another man’s work of art

New York can be a scary place, but the most ominous thing I’ve seen in the last few weeks consisted of a log. That was it: just a log (actually, even more prosaic: a section of a fallen telephone pole), maybe one and a half metres in length, suspended about two metres off the ground. And boy, did it give me the shivers.

If you’ve seen the droll 1996 Peter Lynch documentary Project Grizzly, you may have some sense of why it was so threatening. For logs are one of the many projectiles that collide with the quixotic North Bay outdoorsman Troy Hurtubise as he tests a homemade titanium-rubber-and-chain mail suit designed to withstand an attack from a grizzly bear.

Hurtubise had been obsessed with ursus arctos horribilis since 1984 when, then 20 years old, he was hiking through the backwoods of British Columbia and came face to face with a grizzly. The encounter left him shaken but determined to meet the bear he’d dubbed ‘the Old Man’ again, this time in a protective suit that would allow him to get close without being injured.

Lynch’s camera respectfully follows Hurtubise in a quest that consumed seven years and $150,000, as he fine tunes the contraption and then heads out to the Rockies with his buddies.

Alas, the suit is so heavy and awkward — he can barely walk even on the flat terrain of a North Bay doughnut shop parking lot — that he has to abandon it even before a grizzly materializes.

Quentin Tarantino sent a Charlie Rose end-of-year film roundtable into peals of laughter when he described the film — which none of the esteemed film critics had yet seen — and pronounced it “fantastic.” Three years ago, in an episode titled The Fat and the Furriest, The Simpsons sent Homer on a quest to build a bear-proof suit. And more than 220,000 YouTube viewers have checked out a goofy two-minute clip from the film that shows Troy testing his suit by being thrown off the Niagara Escarpment in Ontario, having bear-like bikers beat him with baseball bats and having a truck run into him at 50 km/h.

A couple of years ago the New York-based curator and artist Jean Barberis was visiting Montreal when he spotted some drawings inspired by the film. He got a copy and immediately saw its potential as a spur for artists, and earlier this month the show Grizzly Proof opened at the converted industrial space Flux Factory in Queens (the North Bay of New York) with a sold-out screening of Lynch’s film.

“I almost see Troy’s project as a work of art,” says Barberis. “It fails in its purpose, it’s not a viable grizzly-proof suit, you can’t walk around in it, so the only thing I see it as is an art project. A lot of the time art is about grandiose endeavours that have no end in them except being what they are, and that’s like Troy’s project.”

Hurtubise, who is normally something of a publicity hog, didn’t return phone calls to see how he felt about his life’s work being called a failure. Flux Factory had originally hoped to feature the grizzly suit in the show but, “Troy wanted $10,000 a day for it,” said Barberis. He added, dryly, “Our budget doesn’t come close to that.”

Lynch, who flew down for the screening, contributes his first work of non-photographic art, a camping tent wired with a five-minute soundtrack loop. Stick your head in and you’ll hear a wintry wind howling outside, then barking dogs off in the distance, and then the unnerving snort and snuff of a grizzly on the other side of the flap.

Last week Lynch said he’d drawn on the experience of his first night in the Rockies during shooting in 1995, when Troy’s whimsical project began to take on some unseen higher stakes. “There was a storm and there was something outside my tent, and my producer and I were sitting there — he had an axe and I think I had some kind of knife, and we were just going: What the hell is that out there? My imagination went into high voltage pretty fast.”

Lisa Dillin offers a different take with Bear Hug Sleeping Unit, a sleeping bag fitted with a bear head at the top that fits snuggly atop the face of the sleeper and is outfitted with a reassuring low growl.

Ian Montgomery has contributed a two-metre high origami ursus made of brown wrapping paper titled What it Takes to Fold a Giant Bear. A display shows the 24 required steps, so you too can try this at home.

In the back lounge I found my favourite piece in the show, a heavy duty foosball table made from scratch by the Brooklyn artist Chris Hackett and the transplanted Torontonian Eleanor Lovinsky. Instead of rival soccer teams, the players are miniature grizzlies and men wearing Troy’s space-age grizzly-proof suit. The controls are about chest height, making the entire game more suited to be played by a bear than humans.

It seemed impolite not to play, so Barberis took the Troy controls and I took the grizzly’s side in a game that quickly took on the same dimensions of bottomless time that Troy and his friends endure during the film’s final ill-fated stakeout in the Rockies. Barberis-as-Troy and I-as-bear stalked the elusive ball and each other from one end of the playing field to the other until finally I scored after about 10 minutes. We decided to play only up to 2, and Barberis scored the next couple of goals. Maybe I took it easy on him, I’m not sure. It just seemed that Troy deserved to finally win a round.

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