A MODEST PROPOSAL ON STATUES – HAMILTON STYLE
Statues are all the literal rage this year: Bronzed monuments secured to a pedestal and left stoically to face the elements, and, more threatening, civic life surfing the torrents of time.
It’s supposed to be bad form to speak ill of the dead, but when they cast a long shadow over our public space, there’s going to be pushback. Or a pull-down. Eventually, anyway.
Our Hamilton statues, where we have Sir John A. Macdonald, Queen Victoria, Augustus Jones, Mohandas Gandhi, are getting more scrutiny. Most days I don’t even notice them as I pass by.
Our Hamilton quartet of statues was almost joined by a Frankie Venom. The thing that killed the former Teenage Head singer’s statue dips into the boiling cauldron that touches all statues: moral character. Some pointed out the less savoury aspect of Frankie’s life, but what, we might ask, of Sir John A. or that model wife and mother Victoria, Empress of India? Are they somehow exempt from moral scrutiny?
The root Latin word for statue is “stare” which means “to stand.” Appropriate as we stare at previous generations’ choice of heroes and, with our Google eyes filled with information, wonder how we expect complicated and flawed humans to ever be worthy of eternal respect.
A few times in my life, some well-intentioned but ultimately misguided person has suggested I go into politics, a proposition I immediately reject with my usual response that I have a checkered past and a checkered future, thereby making me a liability for political office. But perhaps in the orange glow emanating from the dump fire south of the border it’s not such a long shot after all?
But let me make a very Hamilton proposal about statues, a regional expression of that shining mythical Canadian self-deprecating character: humility. The answer, I feel, has been hiding in plain view for 85 years over on York Boulevard.
The four architectural pylons on the T.B McQuesten High Level Bridge spanning the Desjardins’ canal each hold an empty niche, a hollow space purposely built to hold statues of famous Canadians. Four famous Canadians. Architect John Lyle’s (scaled down) bridge design officially opened to fanfare in June 1932, and yet in the intervening eight and a half decades, no bronze toes have touched the base, no famous Canadian, or likeness of anyone, has ever graced the cavities with their form.
Yet things are good over there. Looking down from the bridge, you can watch people roller-blade, cycle, run, walk, on the cycling path far below, and catch occasional paddlers on the canal. Traffic zooms self-importantly past the niches, a cycling lane extends to connect Burlington and Hamilton, the stairs from the heights to the water’s edge are busy with people exercising or taking some leisure. Instagram feeds are steadily replenished with shots of the bay or Cootes Paradise, sunrise, sunset.
A few years ago a McMaster undergraduate, Alvand Mohtashami, made an interesting proposal for the bridge. Fill the antique niches with, not humans, but animals: a blue heron, maybe a double crested cormorant, wings spread to dry. But animals instead of famous Canadians? Can animals be famous? Even this suggestion is no doubt fraught with as yet unexplored controversy.
I suggest there shall be no battle for the niches. Most people don’t have time to stop and look, or to know the story of the empty spaces. And where does that leave us? Well, with no troubles to argue about. We should expand this method to all future public art considerations.
Google “public art” and you won’t find a recognizable human historical figure, but you will see oversized animals and abstract sculptures that build on a relationship with the surroundings and the people there. Chicago’s Cloud Gate, or as it’s commonly known, the Bean, features in tourist photos in a way standoffish Sir John A. will never know.
Monumental statues seem so last century. I’d much prefer public art that challenges my sense of importance, art that invites participation and play, almost anything over this odd, vain attachment to human heroes cast in bronze.
I’ll confess I wasn’t supportive of the Venom statue intended for Victoria Park. But I decided I could live with a concept that I would have submitted to a design contest, had we got that far: A Venom fountain; I imagine it as a long chrome tube rising from a circular base, like the microphone stand he wielded as an extension of his on stage persona. And like Venom the frontman, the fountain would spit water out at intervals. How punk rock is that? Rather than reverential, it’s playful. Gobs of fun.
Going forward, let’s show some of that Hamilton humility in our public art, and in so doing we can temporarily forget our differences and learn to play together.