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When Is a Moose Just a Moose?

When Mayor Mel Lastman distributed 326 naked moose statues to artists around Toronto, he imagined himself as a modern Medici. Just as the Medici family kept Renaissance painters in oils and canvases, he would hand out white fibreglass moose and coupons for Benjamin Moore paint, then sit back and let the magic begin.

Mr. Lastman was certain that his beasts would become a vast blank canvas onto which our city's collective creativity, humour and ingenuity would be projected. This had allegedly happened in Chicago, where civic pride was boosted by a herd of painted plastic cows. Or so reported Mel's friend, George Cohon. And Mr. Cohon is an expert in transforming cityscapes with iconic plastic monuments—he brought the Golden Arches to Moscow, as senior chairman of McDonald's Canada.

As it turns out, most of the moose paint jobs wouldn't even pass muster as '70s van art—"too literal-minded," the owner of a shag-carpeted Dodge might sniff. But Mel was bang on about one thing. The moose have become a blank slate onto which this city projects its creativity. Only it turns out that most of that creativity involves some form of moose mutilation.

Many art critics have suggested that the Moose in the City exhibition is not art at all. Certainly, on a static aesthetic scale, it's hard to argue with them. But if art is measured by the emotions and actions it provokes in its audience, and reverberations it sets off in future art, then Toronto's Moose in the City is a masterwork.

For avant-guarde artists such as Daniel Borins, the moose, and the media obsession with them, are an eloquent statement about Toronto's attitude toward art and artists—a garish reminder on every corner that "we have a city of people who loathe and denigrate risk-taking and cultural producers and who venerate low-brow corporate art." For others, the moose are a symbol of Toronto's rapid gentrification. They argue that the moose are here to show us that this is a city of spectacle and facades, a place where art is enlisted to tart up our increasingly neglected streets in the hopes of attracting that ultimate festival of facades and spectacle: the Olympics.

Sometimes, these responses simply take the form of patio griping. But after a not-hot-enough summer of living among the moose, many have been finding ways to respond, using the moose themselves as their canvas, if not exactly as the Mayor had envisioned.

For instance, at 8 a.m. yesterday, I went to see local artist Barbara Bailey transform a moose into a mock homeless shelter. Keeping an eye out for the police, she took a piece of thick foam, cut out holes for the moose's legs, and covered the mattress in fire-retardant nylon. She then fit another piece of nylon over the body of the moose like a cape, and fastened it with Velcro.

From the inside, the moose is a roomy pup tent, big enough for a six-foot-tall person to sleep and stay dry. But as Ms. Bailey explains to passersby, every human being has the right to shelter. And just as "a park bench or a heating vent is not a home, neither is a moose." The first moose Ms. Bailey temporarily transformed into a homeless shelter was, appropriately, the one painted to look like Mel Lastman, parked outside of Old City Hall. She will be occupying another moose, this one dressed up as a corporate lawyer, at Bay and King Streets tomorrow at 5 p.m. A similar point was made two weeks ago at an anti-poverty protest. There, participants wielded a mutilated papier-mache "homeless moose" to draw attention to the hypocrisy of a government and business community that claim to be unable to solve the housing crisis but find limitless resources for shallow civic boosterism.

There are many other intertextual moose projects in the works: the Great Canadian Moose Hunt (rules TBA), and mass moose pie-ings (inspired by the much-maligned tart-slingers in PEI). And while it's hard to find a moose that still has its antlers attached, virtual antlers have begun sprouting up around Toronto in the oddest of places—for instance, drawn onto the heads of models in bus-shelter billboards. (If corporate advertisements are transformed into works of art when painted onto moose statues, then surely all ads can similarly be transformed into impromptu moose.)

There are many who look down on the antler thieves as petty vandals, including a group of corporate vigilantes calling themselves Antler Watch. But I can't help thinking that somewhere in this city there is an artist's studio, not yet converted into a "New York-style" condo loft, where hundreds of fibreglass antlers are being mounted on mahogany backboards in preparation for an art exhibition that will put Moose in the City to shame.

We might call these responses to the moose "urban taxidermy," a modern twist on the morbid science that trophy hunters use to make dead animals look life-like. All over Toronto, people are taking something dead and art-like and turning it into living, public art.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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