banner photo:

"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

Banner photo
Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hideous Public Art: Ottawa edition

Way back in 2008, Hideous Public Art visited the Dorothy O'Connell Monument to Anti-Poverty Activism, an eyesore installed near Ottawa City Hall. Today we return to the scene of that crime and examine another ghastly piece of moralizing civic finger-pointing just around the corner, the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, located at the corner of Elgin and Lisgar Streets.

Ottawa has its fair share of hideous public art (see the National Capital Commission's catalogue of public monuments for some examples). Among the truly beautiful & stirring monuments that dot the capital such as the National War Memorial are a number of really ugly installations like the Never Again War monument in Gatineau, the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Confederation Park and the Monument to Canadian Aid Workers at Rideau Falls. None can hold a candle in terms of sheer breathtaking ugliness to the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights - a colossal poke in the eye that assaults passers-by daily on one of Ottawa's busiest streets.

Ottawa's hideous public art often has an added layer of political messaging that can make it difficult to criticize. Poke fun at the Aboriginal Veterans Monument and one is open to accusations of racism; criticize the Never Again War monument and you're a bloodthirsty imperialist warmonger. So let's get this out of the way right off the top - I'm a big fan of human rights. Love them. Everyone should have them. However, this monument to human rights is flat-out hideous, in spite of carrying messages in 47 First Nations languages and the cachet of having been unveiled by the Dalai Lama in 1990 and sanctified by a visit from Nelson Mandela in 1998.

The NCC's website gives us some background and a helpful guide to enhance the art-lover's appreciation of the work:
Enter the Tribute. A path traces a symbolic procession through a portal inscribed with the first words of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The Tribute is the first monument in the world dedicated to universal human rights. A bold sculpture in the nation's Capital, it symbolizes Canadians' commitment to live in peace in a society based on fundamental rights. It was unveiled by the Dalai Lama of Tibet in September 1990. The Tribute was designed by Montréal artist Melvin Charney, winner of a national design competition for the work of art. The project was initiated in 1983 by people wishing to create a special place that would symbolize the historic struggle of all people of the world to assert and preserve their basic human rights. Carved on granite plaques in the "House of Canada," within the monument, are the concepts of Equality, Dignity and Rights in 47 of the more than 70 languages of the First Peoples of Canada. These plaques bear witness to the vital role of languages in the preservation of cultures.

The monument is made mostly of unfinished poured concrete, but has a huge granite slab at one end leaning on an angle against the concrete part. Carved on the granite (in both official languages, of course) are words from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". Noble sentiments indeed, and certainly worthy of memorializing, but what has Ottawa erected to project this message? A weird jumble of vaguely humanoid concrete pylons that looks like a parking garage under construction, or an unfinished highway overpass. The whole ensemble is prominently located on the lawn in front of (and blocking the view of) a beautiful 19th century convent which is now part of City Hall. This visually jarring juxtaposition gives a vaguely unpleasant look to the whole block, like it's permanently under construction, or in the process of being demolished.

The humanoid concrete Lego figures are carrying granite slabs inscribed (in both official languages) with the words rights, dignity and equality, just in case you forgot the monument's omnipresent message. The words are also reiterated in "47 of the more than 70 languages of the First Peoples of Canada", although why members of Canada's First Peoples are especially important to "the historic struggle of all people of the world" (more so than, say, North Koreans, Iranians or Cubans) is lost on me. And why only 47? Are the other 23 not significant enough to be represented? Isn't that sort of - what's the word ... unequal?

The whole thing vaguely resembles a scale model of the ruins of the ancient Temple of Luxor in Egypt, or the Temple of Dendur now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The ancient Egyptians, though, took some care constructing their temples; they weren't made of cheap concrete, stripped of every decorative element and with multiple iterations of a cloying political message. Plus, the monument in Ottawa is unlikely to survive for five thousand years.

The Human Rights Monument is meant to be interactive - it is installed in a prominent location which partially blocks the sidewalk. Viewers are encouraged to climb a flight of stairs to enter the Portal of Universal Human Rights and then walk through the House of Canada, emerging with a new-found respect for human rights. I think it has the exact opposite effect - it's so ugly and forbidding that while I was there, most pedestrians chose to walk around it rather than through it, the way one would walk around a construction site to avoid falling debris. Occasionally someone from City Hall emerges on a break to sit on the plinth and drink a coffee or smoke a cigarette an officially-sanctioned nine meters from the nearest building entrance - no doubt they are filled with uplifting thoughts of human rights.

The monument is effective in an unintentional way - it certainly is a metaphor for the fact that protecting human rights around the world is an ugly unfinished business. Its brutal, dehumanizing and totalitarian appearance is definitely a visual metaphor for the greatest worldwide threat to human rights - authoritarian governments (although I'm willing to bet that the artist, deep down, believes that an impersonal, intrusive and paternalistic bureaucracy is necessary to guarantee human rights). In this sense, I guess it's successful.


don muntean said...

They are ugly - they look incomplete - like rights enforcement in Canada!

Dave In Guelph said...

I think more Art's funding will solve the problem. sarc/