A conversation between past and present
“History breaks down in images not into stories”
Walter Benjamin, Unnatural Nature and the Uses of Failure
This image is a proposal for a new approach to the problem of the intransigence of the historical monument. Subsequent understandings, new interpretations, and the voices of formerly excluded subjects have until now had no means of entering into the statements established by monuments whose meaning is fixed at the moment of their creation. This problem is especially evident in Europe where the fall of the Soviet Union has left a landscape of empty plinths scattered across the former Eastern Block. The inflexibility of the monument has resulted in the tearing down and sale for scrap of many works of public art deemed outdated for both political and aesthetic reasons.
This problem is not confined to Europe. In Halifax a monument to Lieutenant Edward Cornwallis, the colonial Governor of Nova Scotia and a notorious racist who in 1749 put a bounty on Mi’kmaq men, women, and children, generates ongoing controversy between those who want it removed, including descendants of his victims, and preservationists opposed to what they call “historical whitewashing.” In Vancouver, to cite a related example, a large-scale outdoor sculpture by George Norris that once held pride of place downtown was deemed surplus by changing times and tastes and sold for scrap.
I propose a third way of dealing with these works. Rather than ignoring or removing them, I believe it’s possible to address this problem through the addition of new works to historical monuments. By bringing “supplemental” works into association with old ones, new interpretations can be generated, effectively shifting the nature of the monument from a fixed historical moment to a dialogic relationship between objects that includes contemporary understandings. There is potentially no end to this approach to dealing with public art. By way of example I offer this proposal for adapting the British lions on both sides of the entrance to Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge.
“The Lions” that stand at the entry to the bridge in Stanley Park commemorate the colonial empire whose settler population renamed two landmark peaks known to the local Salish peoples as “The Sisters.” At its inception the bridge (which was financed by the Guinness beer family) was literally seen as an extension of the British Empire’s footprint on the Canadian landscape when it was opened on May 29, 1939 by King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth, then still Emperor and Empress of India. By adding the figures of two women in traditional Salish dress to the lions, I aim to re-insert a previously excluded cultural meaning of the landscape, and to generate dialogue about the relationship between native and settler populations.