Dear Council of the City of Kitchener,
I read in the The Waterloo Region Record that a new public art project was being considered for our beautiful flagship park – Victoria Park. Initially I was impressed with the notion of more public art in this space. When I found what this project would constitute, I was deeply disturbed.
Prime Ministers and a multicultural neighbourhood
First, I would like to point out the make-up of our city. Waterloo Region boasts an enormous cultural diversity with strong Serbian, Chinese, Somalian and many other cultural communities. These communities are active and contributors to the economy, and powerful voices in the city. We can boast: we are the largest secondary immigration community in Canada. This means people who immigrate to Canada choose primarily Waterloo Region as the place to settle. There is something tangibly good about coming here, and staying here. Downtown Kitchener is especially diverse. On the average day, one can walk from King and Cedar to City Hall and hear multiple languages spoken by people who have come here from all over the world. In just a few blocks, there are food markets that cater to the Latino, the East African, the Serbian, the Portuguese, the German, the East Asian, the Japanese-Korean, the Vietnamese communities and many more. It is a space that has a multicultural centre, a multicultural film centre, a multicultural theatre company, a multicultural arts company, and many services all dedicated to honouring, assisting and celebrating the diversity of this community.
This project will illustrate a history of white men. This is not reflective of Canada, Waterloo Region, Kitchener, and especially not reflective of the space that is proposed as the home of this project.
In the Prime Ministers project, we would see known racists, eugenists, and even a public supporter of Hitler all placed on pedestals. From documented fascists to leaders who have ignored genocides, these are the men that will be placed as the people who have built this country. Some will argue that they built the country in other ways, but it really cannot be ignored that there are some very dark periods in our history that should not be memorialized. Will Mackenzie King’s statue hold a plaque with his famous “None is too many” when he refused Jewish refugees in the throes of the holocaust?
Will these leaders be placed within a sight line of the Luggage Project located near the Clock Tower – an installation that honours the immigrant, the refugee who built the voices of this country? This would be a deep dishonour to the multicultural community that has settled around this park and enjoys it daily, tainting the Common Green with darkest parts of Canadian politics. Will Harper’s plaque read that he tried to refuse a UN inquiry on the missing First Nations women? Will Chretien’s thrust into war with Afghanistan and his ignorance of the pleas from Rwanda be mentioned – both events that have caused massive amounts of diaspora, some of whom have made Kitchener their home? It doesn’t need to be mentioned. Many of us will look on these leaders and remember where they led.
Maybe this could be viewed as a really great illustration of the sad nature of our politics in Canada – like hanging out our political dirty underwear. A sober tour of our lack of diversity in parliament, scandal, and bad policy. I could take my sons and show them: look – white men. All of them. Oh, her? That’s Kim Campbell. She wasn’t elected… and lasted 6 months. Oh and Chretien there… yeah that one. From the beginning of the 22 to that guy? That was the length of support for residential schools. So kids… feeling patriotic yet?
Public art and the process of installation.
The process of choosing public art for the Region of Waterloo and the City of Kitchener passes through several steps before any project is deemed to be suitable for artistic merit and for the placement of these projects. These competitions are fierce with artists from all over the region, the country and even internationally all competing for space to place meaningful work. Love the art or hate it, there are several voices that curate the art chosen for these spaces. This idea completely ignores this process and the competition dictating a vision that is not accepted.
The people who sit on the committees that choose public art are citizens of the city who have a background or education in art. These volunteers work hard to make determinations on value and benefit to the community. Love the art or hate it, the process sees several eyes, passes through several steps, and is eventually approved by a council of citizens before moving to City Council.
This project has seen none of that process. Artists do a lot of work to create proposals… mostly they follow the rules.
We are not a nation of leader worshippers.
I think of places in the world that have emphatic and patriotic ties to their leaders. I look to statues of Stalin. I think of the statue of Saddam Hussein. I remember all the different media images and videos of protesters tearing down statues of the deposed leader when they have finally escaped that person’s rule.
I think also of the nature of worship and the blind following of leaders – the lack of protest and the brain washing that goes into this type of rule. I think of the sycophants and the cult of personality types. This project does not come with the critical essence that comes with Canadian politics. We do not follow our leaders in this way. We do not elevate them to a god-like status that we see from our neighbours to the south. We are extremely happy when we are rid of their leadership with elections that whisk their powers away with Canadians breathing a collective sigh of relief.
Why would we want to put these people on pedestals?
Bad art. Bad idea.
This project contains no nuance. It has no critical value. It is dull and lacks anything that would make it art. It is a series of bronze photocopied images of mostly white men. It is a direct ratio of the object of the statue to the ideological subject or the men they represent lacking any subtlety or greater message. From a purely art criticism perspective, removing the implications of the legacies involved, it is bad art. There is nothing in this project that inspires or speaks about these people, or the quality of Canadian politics beyond placing likenesses of dead politicians in a park.
Has no one considered that if you load a space with a bunch of politicians, you create an ideal space for public protest? I am a full supporter of dissent and protest, but this park was built as a place of détente and enjoyment. Relationships to leaders are not candid. They are charged. This is another reason why this project should have gone through a public art process – these processes examine the nature of the relationship of the people to the piece. One may dislike Rabinowitch’s Waterloo Bell located in the Waterloo Town Square. One can never accuse it conceptually or otherwise of affiliation with genocide, controversial war, racism, bad governance or other political strife.
22 statues in a public green is also a lot of clutter. This will create something that resembles a graveyard, or a temple, or some other monumental space… but in a most tacky display. 22 statues. Go stand in the green. Picture it. 22. That is all of your fingers, two times, with two added.
An experiment: Go to the Green and stand in the middle. Hold your hands up with your fingers splayed with your arms outstretched and look through them and picture statues around the green counting that twice. It’s a simple action that will give you an easy picture of how this will destroy the quality of the space.
Recognition of the unrecognised… and for no good reason.
If you take a gander over here – Prime Ministers: The good, the bad, and the downright ugly – you will see the quality of the people who have served in office of this country. A few of them were great. A few of them were despicable. A handful of them were completely unremarkable – serving less than a year in office. Do they get an equal pedestal to the beloved Lester B. Pearson? How about the plethora of them who were not elected, but appointed? Do they get equal consideration? We didn’t choose them.
Place, space, and turning a public green into something else.
One of the things that bothers me the most about this project is that this spot in the park is the equivalent of our commons. The open green space near the Clock Tower is used for festivals (like the Multicultural Festival), as a sports park with soccer and frisbee in the summer, and skating rinks in the winter. It is a place for picnics. It is a place where the average Kitchener citizen can come and enjoy an afternoon close to the lake with their families.
Placing these will interrupt the games, placing enclosures around the fun. They will create obstructions and safety concerns. They will occupy a good amount of real estate in a park that is already jam-packed with activity. When we see a lawn cluttered with pink flamingoes or some other ornament in our neighbourhoods, we desperately hope that it is a joke for someone’s birthday. Why would we want to turn our park deliberately into a space like this?
The claim that this could be a draw for tourists
Simple answer: No. Fuck no. A museum of bad art would be a draw for tourists… and this could possibly be a lowly single exhibit therein.
A horrifying view of the future of this project.
What happens with each new leader of the country? Do we add to the clutter of hatred and place each politician we vote out into the fray? When the country voted Mulroney out, they did so with such gusto that they destroyed the Progressive Conservative party – leaving it with just two seats thus removing official party status. Does the city think that each leader will be embraced and not be subject to graffiti or other problems that face public art? Placing polarizing figures in a public space almost begs this treatment.
The statues will also cast several shadows, and create more dark space. In a park that has a history of hate crimes and violence, this is a really poor idea.
There has been no consideration of legacy, or the deep water into which this project could tread. At 22, there are already too many for a space that has hit just the right measure of stuff vs open space. Do we want to recreate a terracotta warrior tomb of politicians in our most treasured public green? And more importantly with legacy – who is going to pay the tonnes of money to fix, clean of graffiti, fro possible policing or additional security, and just generally maintain these bronze statues? This could easily rack up a huge cost for an already polarizing project.
Some people have argued that this project would be better suited in Ottawa. I have my money on this never flying there either. I would say that there is a very good reason: Even Ottawa has better taste than this.
And as a final point against those who argue that the politicians built Canada – stop with the nonsense cult-of-personality rhetoric. The PEOPLE who LIVE in Canada built the Canadian identity – which includes the politicians, but this is not exclusively their honour. In fact, those who many of these would scorn (or hang in Louis Riel’s case) likely served more in this vein then they ever did. To borrow from their own rhetoric, this project is downright un-Canadian.