Artist Jim Sanborn Claims New Toronto Public Artwork Plagiarizes His Famous CIA Sculpture

Terraplan Landscape Architects' project for Exhibition Place in Toronto.
Photo Alisa Kutkin, via Toronto Star.
Jim Sanborn, Covert Obsolescence: The Code Room, 1993, Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, D.C.Photo via Jim Sanborn.

Jim Sanborn, Covert Obsolescence: The Code Room (1993), Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, D.C.
Photo via Jim Sanborn.

Jim Sanborn, perhaps best known for a cryptic art installation outside the Virginia offices of the CIA, claims that a public project in Toronto plagiarizes his work.

The installation, at Centennial Park in the suburb of Etobicoke, consists of a standing cylinder carved with words that are legible on the surrounding pavement when illuminated by a light inside the cylinder.

“It’s something I’ve done for 23 years, and so it’s a little hard to stomach seeing that kind of plagiarism,” Sanborn tells the Toronto Star, adding that he’s looking into his legal options.

The piece in question is designed by Terraplan Landscape Architects. Sanborn calls its “blatant” similarity to his work “quite stunning.”

Terraplan’s managing director, Alan Schwartz, offered the defense that the project “came as part of a design process.” The cylinder is carved with words like “baseball,” “badminton,” and “BMX,” which reveal what was played at the 2015 Pan and Parapan Am Games. This summer, Toronto was the host.

“The cylinder is a very common form in the design world and in the art world, and there are other cylinders even in the city of Toronto that are perforated and have light in the center,” Schwartz went on to say. In Terraplan’s defense, other artworks have also taken the form of a central, perforated shape with a light inside, for example Anila Quayyum Agha’s ArtPrize-winning work, Intersections.

Sanborn finds it hard to believe Terraplan was unfamiliar with his work, as he has installed no fewer than 15 similar pieces, in locations from Fort Meyers, Florida, to Houston, Texas, and Washington, DC. He told the Star that he would have charged about $200,000 for a similar piece.

However, Sanborn says he hasn’t previously taken any game-related jobs.

“I’d prefer to do projects that are slightly more intellectual,” he said.

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