July 13 Reading Response – Lauzon “Monumental Interventions: Jeff Thomas Seizes Commemorative Space”

Lauzon’s article focuses on the work of artist Jeff Thomas especially in relation to the monument of Samuel de Champlain which stands in Ottawa and provides a controversial signifier for the existence and perpetuation of national narratives and ideologies. Lauzon describes the problematic and interesting roles that monuments serve in helping to construct and reify national ideologies by focusing on the history of this particular statue and the artistic interventions of Jeff Thomas. The statue was completed in 1915 to “commemorate the tercentary of Champlain’s second voyage up the Ottawa River” and was accompanied by a plaque “heralding Champlain as ‘the First Great Canadian’” (Lauzon 80). Subsequently another statue was added to the bottom of the plinth, upon which stood Champlain, of an anonymous Aboriginal scout. The juxtapositions between these two statues were numerous and plainly visible: the kneeling position of the life-sized scout compared with the larger than life persona of the European explorer above him, the difference of clothes which signified the supposed civilized and advanced status of Champlain while recreating the mythic semblance of the “noble savage” wherein the scout is romanticized, barely clothed and adorned with primitive weapons (Lauzon 82-3).

These monuments present and represent the myths of a certain national identity based on the notion that Canada was conquered and created by European colonizers. This at once presents a problematic version of history as well as negating and erasing the narratives and histories of the Aboriginal people whose existence here predates that of the Europeans for thousands of years. The statue of the scout eventually was removed to the back of the parliament buildings after many debates and petitions (Lauzon 84). Lauzon points to the problems of simply removing the scout from the monument to a different location as a way of erasing the existence of the issues and the actions which originally placed the statue at the base of Champlain’s monument. Jeff Thomas’ work, however, interacts with the statues highlighting both the problematic versions of history presented as well as emphasizing the discrepancies between the romanticized mythical Indian and contemporary Aboriginal culture – what is expected and how it actually appears. In “F.B.I” he photographs his son wearing a shirt with the acronym and phrase for ‘full-blooded Indian’ underneath an iconic image of 3 Chiefs in front of the statue, pointing to the “limited and limiting nature of mainstream representations and understandings of Aboriginal culture” (Lauzon 84). Addressing the removal of the scout statue from the Champlain monument to its current position, Thomas’ work “Why Do the Indians Always Have to Move?” links the statue’s relocation to the enforced relocation of First Peoples in a colonial effort to exert control and make the presence of the Indigenous Peoples invisible.

I think that the role of statues and monuments within public space is to naturalize and control the representation of history and to direct meaning. In this sense the monuments serve as ways of public forgetting and passivity. The work of Thomas uses the monuments and the space around them as a space of engagement, interaction and investigation. By bringing in elements of modernity he links time and space and activates the monument so that we are asked to reimagine and critique what it means in contemporary society. He thus highlights the normalizing process of national control in perpetuating ideologies of nationhood by participating in what Homi Bhabha refers to as the Third Space, “a space of enunciation that challenges the Western narration of nation…by asserting the agency of the colonized” (Lauzon 90). Monuments and art in public space have a responsibility to address the needs of the public and as was mentioned in earlier works by Habermas, Warren and Phillips this audience is diverse and public works are often incomplete and exclusionary in what they address. With this national monument the idea of which public is addressed becomes a prominent discussion that Lauzon and Thomas seek to mine.

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One comment

  1. Aleks

    Thanks, Alina. You do a nice job raising many of the main points from the article, especially concerning the problems of invisibility and forgetting that arise from moving the Scout sculpture, which we will elaborate on in class today (and that are also central in the Young reading). I like that you provide some reflection at the end and situate this text in the context of other readings we have done.

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