Toyotaya was a site specific or a material specific commission intertwined with the Cork Opera House’s former TOYOTA roof signs. Originally hung in the 1980’s as part of a partnership deal between motor corporation Toyota and Cork Opera House, the Toyota signs appeared on 3 sides of the Opera House fly tower – north, east and west, in a prominent position in city landscape. Initially the eye-catching TOYOTA signs did not meet with universal approval but were later to become iconic fixtures in the Cork cityscape and local folklore. The sponsorship arrangement played an important part in Cork Opera House’s continued growth and is part of the continued success of the cultural institution.
Work began to remove and replace the signs– a project which was completed in 2018 and the red Perspex and aluminium (1.5m) letters were stored awaiting their new life. To honour the place these signs have held in Cork city folklore the National Sculpture Factory and the Cork Opera House offered artists an opportunity to re-commission the remaining letters; their material or parts thereof into a new temporary artwork that could be installed Cork Midsummer Festival 2019.
We invited artists to take into consideration these elements: the signs material make-up; the context and social history of these signs; the Cork Opera House building as a location for installation of the final artwork; alongside the artist’s vision. It was important that the signs or elements of the signs no matter how small should be incorporated into the artist’s final proposal.
‘Red Air’ is a new site-specific public art installation by artist Bill Balaskas, winner of the TOYOTAYA Commission, which has been co-designed and co-commissioned by the National Sculpture Factory and the Cork Opera House for Cork Midsummer Festival 2019. For this new artwork, Balaskas will transform into flower beds-pots selected letters of the original TOYOTA signs that were until recently hanging on three sides of the Cork Opera House fly-tower. In this way, the artist aims to reflect on the foremost challenge facing humanity today – climate change.
For a very long time, the automotive industry has been one of the major contributors to this grave threat. At the time when TOYOTA’s vibrant red signs were first installed on the façade of the Cork Opera House, climate change was far less visible than today. As a result, consumers and companies alike adopted for many decades an attitude that underestimated the problem – often wishfully thinking that the consequences of our actions would only be felt after hundreds of years, or that scientists and technologists would find immediate solutions if needed. Although no panacea has emerged since then, technological research has transformed the automotive industry in recent years, through the development of hybrid and electric cars. However, at the same time, scientists are warning us that such reactions might have come “too little, too late”. There is increasing evidence suggesting that we are rapidly approaching critical “tipping points” in the way that human activity is altering our planet’s atmosphere. After crossing those thresholds, climate catastrophe on a global scale would become an inevitability.
‘Red Air’ is inspired by this historical and ideological context. Pairs of the same letters from the TOYOTA signs will create binaries expressing the urgent need to confront climate change and to respond to the dilemmas that we are faced with. In each pair, the first letter will become a flower bed that will host a different type of red flora, while the second letter will be filled with red sand.Furthermore, the letters of each pair will be positioned opposite each other – i.e. facing opposite directions. The planting will adopt the form of a communal activity that would be led by different environmentalist groups and agriculturalists of Cork. The letters will be initially positioned in front of the Cork Opera House, where the planting event will take place on the first day of the Midsummer Festival (Thursday 13 June 2019). Each pair will, then, be donated to a different garden, park, or group and will be transported to their site.
The title of the work and the colour of the plants are employed by the artist both as a symbol of alarm and danger, as well as a reference to TOYOTA’s original signs. However, we should not forget that red also constitutes the colour of life, viscerality and love. Notably, the future of life on Earth and humanity’s very survival are now inextricably connected with the fight against climate change. ‘Red Air’ aspires to be an emphatic reminder that the dangers of ignorance and inaction are the biggest threats that we are collectively facing today.