Star struck | Arts + Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Star struck

Ilan Sandler’s Ursa Major’s Visit is art for the starry-eyed.

Star struck
Ilan Sandler’s Ursa Major brings the sky to the Citadel.

Methyl ethyl ketone, methylene chloride, methyl acetate, methyl methacrylate monomer and acrylic resin. Those are the ingredients in the solvent cement holding together Ilan Sandler's 30-foot-long constellation of Ursa Major. The artist wears a gas mask to protect his lungs from the acrid fumes of the glue. He leans over a chest-height table to measure the 10-foot leg of a bear-shaped light box in his industrial studio in Burnside. Tacked to the exposed drywall around him are photos and photo-shopped renditions of everyday objects that might belong to a giant: A beach chair, an ear, a book. All are magnified, simplified forms with interactive potential.

Before Nocturne begins, The Greater Bear AKA Ursa Major will journey in a truck from the pedestrian-free business park to Citadel Hill, where she will be erected. At 6pm on October 15, she will float 20 feet in the air, suspended on invisible wires and dip her foot into the star-shaped fortress. The bear's closest point, her paw, will hover 12 feet from the ground. Sandler pictures the glowing white beast descending from the sky to pay Halifax a visit.

His celestial bear has a personality and a story. The ancient Greeks said Zeus lusted after a young nymph named Callisto. To hide her from his jealous wife, Zeus transformed her into a bear. But one day Callisto's son--- not knowing any better---nearly killed her with an arrow. Zeus transformed her son into a bear as well, and flung them both into the heavens. This motion elongated Callisto's tail. She became Ursa Major, and her son, Ursa Minor.

The Iroquois also saw a bear in the 19-star formation, and three hunters in eternal pursuit. The societies---both located in the Northern Hemisphere but separated by an ocean---saw the same animal, as did the Mi'kmaqs.

Since last June, Sandler has spent many nights on his back deck straining to see the connection. From Earth's perspective, the massive balls of gas out there---the nearest a dwarf star 8.3 light years away---look more like a dog than a bear if you haven't walked through the wilderness lately. Sandler's natural next step was to take his two young daughters on a trip to Shubenacadie's Wildlife Park. Though they're the smallest bears in North America, the 400-pound black bears were bigger than he expected. As he inspected their faces through the chain-link fence, Sandler glimpsed something familiar in the relationship between the eyes and the nose. On an angle, the three points form a scalene triangle just like the one in the night sky. Since their cultures encountered bears more often than we do today, Sandler thinks this must have been the relationship the Mi'kmaqs, the Iroquois and the Greeks saw long ago.

That process of creating mythology continues today. With much skepticism, Sandler watched as Timothy Treadwell attempted to befriend bears in the documentary Grizzly Man. In 2003, after working and living with them for a decade, the activist and his girlfriend were mauled to death by one of the animals.

Treadwell didn't see them as dangerous, Sandler explains. He had projected an amicable personality onto the beast. We do the same thing when we give children teddy bears.

Perhaps it's because they're similar to us in an evolutionary sense, Sandler wonders as he drives back into the city. When he looked into their eyes, he saw only chaos.

At Nocturne, he hopes his audience will reconsider their relationship with the stars they've perceived while lying in the grass on clear summer nights.

"The assumption is with constellations that we look up and we project ideas onto them," he says. "What I'm saying is, no, it's actually descending and looking at us."

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