Janice Cliff is in shock.
A piece of Dawson City’s art heritage has been sold, torn up and trucked out.
Cliff is not alone; many residents can’t believe their community has lost the work of an internationally renowned artist.
Dawson City used to have a subway entrance, a stairway down to a gate with nothing beyond it. Built by German artist Martin Kippenberger, it was part of his conception of a worldwide metro system.
How did it land in the Yukon?
Reinald Nohal became a close friend to Kippenberger in the 70s in Berlin. The two took divergent paths but kept in touch.
Nohal settled in Dawson, where he built wooden houses, and Kippenberger became an eccentric artist.
Wikipedia describes Kippenberger as a German artist “known for his extremely prolific output in a dizzying range of styles and media as well as his provocative, jocular and hard-drinking public persona”. It was this self-destructive lifestyle that led to his death in 1997 at the age of 44.
When Kippenberger came up with his idea of a worldwide metro system, Nohal happened to be with him. The first subway station was built on the Greek island of Syros, following Nohal’s design and construction plans.
Kippenberger then commissioned Nohal to build another one in the Yukon. Instead of using concrete, as he had in Greece, Nohal used familiar local materials: he constructed the Dawson Subway to Nowhere out of logs and wooden planks.
Nohal is proud of bringing Kippenberger here. He arrived accompanied by an entourage: a gallery representative and a photographer who took pictures of the artist in the tailing ponds.
“The opening party in 1995, with Martin cutting the red ribbon … is well remembered in Dawson,” says Nohal. Indeed, it made a huge impression on the young Janice Cliff, who made a video documentation of the installation.
Cliff remembers the opening well: the ribbon cutting was followed by a party at The Pit, the Westminster Hotel’s notorious watering hole. “I had no idea who Kippenberger was, his career and the extent of the movement he was following. I was totally intrigued by the concept of the subway …
“To be connected with a global concept – I don’t think anyone in Dawson understood it.”
Kippenberger arrived for the opening wearing a long trench coat and a fedora. He was an enigma who took advantage of everything Dawson had to offer, says Cliff. “A piece of his nose was missing.”
After the ribbon-cutting and much drinking, Kippenberger drew portraits of the patrons on stationery. He urged people to keep the sketches because, someday, he promised, they would be worth a lot of money.
It may be true, and Cliff has kept hers. The subway, however, is gone from Dawson for good. According to Nohal, “The subway station will be placed in or at a museum in the U.S., exactly where (New York City? Seattle?) has not been decided yet.”
The rumour is that when Reinald Nohal held the 10th anniversary celebration in 2006, he sold the station to a New York art rep who owns quite a few Kippenberg pieces. Also rumoured is that the sale price was over a million dollars. This community has perhaps learned about the non-monetary value of art, while it laments the loss of a legend.