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"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

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

Monday, April 01, 2013

Hideous Public Art - Kingston Edition

Located about half-way between Montreal and Toronto, the sometimes-beautiful city of Kingston Ontario graces the north shore of Lake Ontario where it empties into the St Lawrence River. The one-time capital of the united provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, it is home to some spectacular public architecture and is situated in a magnificent natural setting. Unfortunately for citizens and visitors alike, it is also home to some spectacularly hideous public art, which I had the misfortune to stumble upon during an otherwise pleasant visit over the weekend.

Kingston was first inhabited by Europeans in 1673 when the French established a fortified trading post called Fort Frontenac at the mouth of the Cataraqui River. Captured by the British in 1758 during the Seven Years War, it was settled by Loyalist refugees from the United States in the 1780s. During the War of 1812 it became an important military outpost, and following that war the British fortified the city with some of the important structures that are still there today - Fort Henry and the several Martello Towers that guard the harbour.

From 1841 to 1844 Kingston served as the capital of Canada and the citizens had grand visions of the future of their city. It was at this time that magnificent public buildings were erected, like the City Hall:

St George's Cathedral:

and the Frontenac County Court House. (Kingston's early movers and shakers seemed to have had a fondness for domes and neoclassical porticos.)

Kingston has developed parts of its waterfront and opened up the lakeshore to the public. A public square has been created on the harbour in front of City Hall, and a waterfront park and trail extends west along the lake past the campus of Queen's University. It is a beautiful space, much loved by residents and tourists. Unfortunately as a result of a fit of civic boosterism in the 1970s, the waterfront has been blighted by some truly hideous public art.

In the square fronting the city hall near the old train station and across from the Martello Tower sits this neglected monstrosity.

From some angles, it looks vaguely anthropormorphic, like a human figure pushing a wheelbarrow. From others, it just looks like a pile of scrap metal or construction debris. Some philistines have adorned it with graffiti tags and dogs like to piss on it. It is glaringly out of place in this space in front of the neo-classical City Hall, and while I was photographing it people walking by glanced at it with quizzical looks of faint distaste.

Most of these public sculptures have some kind of plaque to explain them to the perplexed public, but sadly this work's marker has been vandalized so its artistic meaning will remain known only to the artist.

Further west along the lake is a beautiful park that is heavily used by joggers and picnickers. It runs along the shore south of the Queen's campus in front of Kingston General Hospital, one of the ugliest buildings in the city:

The park features another of Kingston's famous Martello Towers - the Murney Tower, with it's nearby Cenotaph:

A graceful pavilion stands along the beach:

Kingston residents have been erecting monuments in this space for many years. In nearby City Park on the former Militia Parade Ground which fronts the Frontenac County Courthouse is a monument to Kingston native Sir John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada. The plinth is engraved with the bold statement "A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die".

Nearby is a poignant memorial to the First World War:

In 1973, the city celebrated the tercentenary of the arrival of Count Frontenac, governor of New France, who established Fort Frontenac on the site of modern Kingston. The occasion was marked by all kinds of festivities, including a visit by Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. No occasion of this significance could be celebrated without a piece of monumental public art, and Frontenac's successors in the Government of Quebec stepped up with a gift from the people of Quebec to the citizens of Kingston. Did the sculpture commemorate the establishment of the fort?  Perhaps a figure of Count Frontenac himself? Maybe something to mark the shared French and English heritage of the area which dates back to 1673? No, Quebec presented Kingston with this abomination - a sculpture by Yves Cozin called "Pollution":

Consisting of two concrete sewer pipes spilling a mass of toxic liquid, this thing sits in one of the most beautiful spots in the city and has been assaulting the eyes of passersby since 1973.  It is hideous from every angle:

I can imagine the conversation around the table at Quebec's Ministry of Culture, a scant three years after the October Crisis saw federal troops putting down the violent FLQ insurrection in Montreal:

"Monsieur le Ministre - the city of Kingston is commemorating the founding of Fort Frontenac - should we send them a gift?"
"Fort Frontenac - that's the one on Lake Ontario that was taken from us by the damned English, right?"
"Oui, Monsieur le Ministre."
"Send them something ugly. Something that will remind them every day that the mere presence of the English on Lake Ontario pollutes our very souls."
"We have just the thing, Monsieur."

I can also imagine the Kingston city council discussing the new gift:

"Mr. Mayor, a sculpture has arrived for the Tercentenary - a gift from the Province of Quebec." 
"OK then - let's open 'er up."
"What the fuck is this?"
"The tag says it's called 'Pollution'.  By some guy named 'Yves Cozin' "
"Jesus H. Christ - it looks like two concrete sewer pipes. Are they serious? "
"Well, send them a thank you note saying 'It's lovely, thanks for thinking of us' and put it up on the Queen's campus. Those lefty eggheads eat that shit up."
"Premier Bourassa says it's for the waterfront, down by the Murney Tower."
"They must be kidding."
"Apparently not, sir. We have to handle this carefully, what with all that FLQ unpleasantness and whatnot."
"All right, stick it in front of Kingston General - nothing could spoil that view. And when that SOB Bourassa comes for the big shindig, make sure he sits right beside the Queen. By the way, when is Montreal's big anniversary?"

Over the winter, Idle No More protesters vandalized the statue of Macdonald in City Park. I suppose that the protesters, seeking an outlet for their inchoate rage, might have looked at the "Pollution" sculpture which commemorates the founding of a European settlement in the heart of native territory. They must have muttered to each other "Dude, how are they going to know we've vandalized it? It looks like crap already!" and then moved on to the Macdonald memorial.

Although the city of Kingston has areas of great beauty, this god-awful eyesore is a permanent blight on one of its most beautiful spots. I can't imagine any uproar if a city construction crew "accidentally" bulldozed the whole thing one night and carted off the sewer pipes for use in some industrial park.


Anonymous said...

The only good thing about the art pieces are they can be carted away to the dump in the fullness of time. Of more consequence is the hospital - larger scale and sticking around for a while. It probably took over the site of a finer structure as well - a double whamy.

Agent Smith

Anonymous said...

If the people of Kingston had had their way, "Pollution" would have been carted away day 1, but it's been there 40 years now. The hospital is a mish-mash of various expansions over the last 170 years - the original building survives on the Stuart Street side (behind what's seen from the waterfront).

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

We moved here in 2009 and I haven't discovered "Pollution" yet! I'm curious now, and I must go see it. It sure looks ugly in the photos.

Anonymous said...

I'm Kingston born and bred, but have been living in Dunedin, New Zealand for the last 25 years. We're discussing public art at the moment here, and I suddenly thought of "Pollution". as an example of what NOT to do... (also, I remember someone (unofficially) painting the cylinders as a Coke and a 7-Up can... does anyone else remember this?)