Public art and the act of extreme douchebaggery

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I am going to keep this short and sweet.

I have written about war memorials before. I have also written about public art. This story combines both.

Today a press release was issued by the City of Calgary Police Department seeking assistance to find the perpetrators who removed, without authorization, a large bronze memorial from the Mountain View Funeral Home and Cemetery just east of the city. It was located in the Veteran’s Memorial Gardens and was taken at some point between the evening hours of Thursday, June 25, 2015, and the morning of Friday, June 26, 2015. I have copied one of the photos that is attached to the press release.

From the police report it would appear as if this was something that required more than one person to do.

There is not much I can say about this beyond what was said in the news release, except to say that whomever was involved in this plot has reached a certain level of ascendancy in douchebaggery that is difficult to match.

Stealing something that is meant to honour the dead (regardless of what one thinks about the act of warfare) – the very people who fought for our freedoms, is not cool.

If you have information or know someone who has further information about its whereabouts or those that are involved, please contact Crime Stoppers, Calgary Police Service at 403-266-1234, or Constable Beierbach in District 4 at 403-428-6400.

Site case #15259843

Let’s find these douchebags and put them behind bars where they belong.

 

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100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI and related art installations

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Every year on this date (November 11) we take a minute at 11:11 to observe and pay our respects to the many people (both military and non-military personnel) who died during warfare.

These were predominately boys and girls (many of whom had never left home before they enlisted) paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their countries or state.

This year is a momentous one as it is the 100th anniversary of the beginnings of what many consider, with the advantage of having an historical lens to view its events through, was largely a pointless war – World War One – “The Great War”.

At the time, WWI was idealistically spoken of as being “the war to end all wars”.

We of course know how that ended up.

One only needs to open a newspaper or listen to the sabre-rattling and war-mongering from our political leadership on the news reports to know that war will probably not end anytime soon. These leaders are now increasingly painting war as being something that is both heroic and necessary. This while cynically holding on to the cautionary warnings of “Never Again” and “Lest we Forget” as being guiding truisms.

No one wins when war is fought – except maybe the economic beneficiaries – the armament manufacturers and arms dealers.

Now is the time to head warnings such as those given by Mikhail S. Gorbachev on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall two days ago on November 9th. He stated that, “the world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some are even saying that it’s already begun.”

It is also worth listening to those who have served their countries, like Harry Leslie Smith, a 90-year old veteran, who penned a well-written piece for The Guardian that should be required reading for all.

Included in the above referenced article, Smith penned these words:

I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy.

Then there is this touching story of a 91-year old Canadian WWII veteran Frank “Johnny” Johnston who gives a first-hand account of his time as a PoW and the humanity of enemies toward each other near the end of the war. He states this:

“And this woman, she pulls back an eiderdown bed cover and there are these beautiful white linen sheets, on a beautiful bed, and the [soldiers] just threw me on it. I was bloody. I had muddy boots on. And this lady, she took my boots off, undressed me and she kept talking to me, and she gets a big bowl of hot water and cleans all this mess off. She bandages my hip and then, if you can believe it, she washed my face, my arms, my chest — everywhere — and left me lying there on that beautiful bed.

“Now, why would she do that? I was the enemy. And to this day, sitting here talking to you, I still can’t get over it. Then she goes downstairs and comes up with a big bowl of stew and every time I have chunky soup for lunch I picture that nice German lady. I picture her clear as day. Jesus. She was a wonderful person.”

He then goes on to talk about his own response shortly thereafter:

Mr. Johnson was liberated from a German POW camp six weeks after the nice German lady cleaned him up. He tried to find her after the war, to say thanks, but never did, and so he just went on living.

Looking back now all he sees are the dead.

“I am only really proud of one thing I did during the war,” he says.

He was flying patrol when his air traffic controller said there was a German plane above their airstrip.

“I was up about 4,000 feet and I look down and I see this guy,” Mr. Johnson says.

“Anybody who was an experienced fighter pilot would never be flying over an enemy airstrip and would never be flying in a straight line. But this guy was. He was obviously a rookie. Maybe it was his first flight in that goddamn aircraft and maybe he had gotten lost, and so I pulled out from behind him and came alongside and I looked over at him.

“He was just a boy. A kid. And I thought to myself, why the hell would I kill this kid? The war is almost over. He doesn’t know what the hell he is doing. So I [waved at him] and flew off. Back at the base they were all, ‘Did you get him? Did you get him? I said I let him go.

It is the only thing that I did in that whole goddamn war that I am really pleased about. We had to kill, see? I remember destroying a ferry where I must have killed 50 or 60 people. And it is human life, and you could say, ‘Well, what the hell, it is war.’ But it just shows you how stupid war is when a guy like me looks back at things and feels the way I do.”

Of course, not everyone returned. A few days ago CBC published a story about an underage soldier from Saltcoats, Saskatchewan named Roy Clarence Armstrong. He fought in Northern France and died when he was still 18. This is an interesting story, one that never would have been told had the family not kept his letters, and recognized their importance when they were found. In the story it also talks about the issue of underage boys who enlisted. There were many who did. I know this, because I have family members that also enlisted while underage. This quote from the article talks about this issue:

For a time the military fulfilled some parents’ requests to remove underage sons from the army. The practice stopped after a court ruled in 1915 that a pact existed between the army and an individual soldier regardless of age.

Though the issue of underage soldiers came up in the House of Commons in 1916, the matter doesn’t appear to have been pursued in the following years, says Black.

So boys continued to sign up. Two as young as 10 enlisted but never made it to the Western Front, according to historians. Many of the approximately 20,000 teens who lied about their ages were between 14 and 17.

Following in this theme, Calgary Opera will be presenting the Canadian Premiere of Kevin Puts’ and Mark Campbell’s Pulitzer Prize winning opera Silent Night this week. It tells the story of a spontaneous truce on Christmas Eve 1914, when combatant troops laid down their weapons to celebrate the holiday together and bury their dead.

Tickets are still available for the performances tomorrow and on Friday.

* * *

Of course, this blog is about art – not war.

To that end, public art often incorporates memorials for various reasons – one of those objectives is the remembrance of war and its victims.

Two recent public art installations were unveiled, or completed today, to honour those that fell during WWI. Each took a different perspective in how they portrayed a memorial to those that fell. The differences of perspective are interesting. One is located in northern France, near the town of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire; the other is attached to the Tower of London.

Philippe Prost’s International Memorial of Notre-Dame de Lorette

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Honouring the 579,606 soldiers from all nations who died on the battlefield in France. The names are all listed in strict alphabetical order, with no designation of rank or country of service in a large elliptical circle.

Noteworthy in the French installation is that part of the circular installation is left hanging above the landscape which serves as “a reminder and a warning about the fragility of peace.”

In the BBC story referenced above, there is a poignant story about one of those whose name is listed on this memorial – Geert Hindricks who served with the 3rd Hannover Infantry Regiment. I quote the article:

He described in a last letter to his wife how the German soldiers on the Western Front became friendly with their enemies in the British trench just 20m (65ft) away, warning each other when officers were passing by and sharing meat and cigarettes.

“When you think about it,” he wrote, “it’s a sad affair when there’s no animosity between the locals and the soldiers, and only those at the top can’t agree on anything.”

I digress, but in some respects this French installation bears a certain resemblance to a component of a planned, but certainly much more hackneyed, circular installation proposed to be located alongside the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island.

Paul Cummin’s and Tom Piper’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

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This temporary public art installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies which only a few hours ago was finally completed through the placement of the final poppy in the moat surrounding the Tower of London. A 13-year old cadet, Harry Hayes, was selected. When one thinks about it, this was an appropriate choice as many of those British servicemen who served and died in action were only slightly older than this young boy.

The poppy installation has a populist appeal. Many will attend or have visited during the installation. However, it is not without its detractors. Jonathon Jones the art critic for The Guardian stated:

It is deeply disturbing that a hundred years on from 1914, we can only mark this terrible war as a national tragedy. Nationalism – the 19th-century invention of nations as an ideal, as romantic unions of blood and patriotism – caused the great war. What does it say about Britain in 2014 that we still narrowly remember our own dead and do not mourn the German or French or Russian victims? The crowds come to remember – but we should not be remembering only our own. It’s the inward-looking mood that lets Ukip thrive.

 

As we move forward from this 100th anniversary, let us reflect on change. It is safe to say that very few are still living who experienced the horrors of that war. Maybe it is time to finally move on and focus on what is truly important.

Will we choose to focus on peace, reconciliation and mutual respect – or will we focus on war, divisiveness and intolerance?

Calgary’s WWI memorial

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The first assassination attempt of throwing a bomb into the back of their open car was unsuccessful, but did succeed in killing another officer instead. A few hours later the Archduke and his wife were shot at point blank range.

The great Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, was quoted as saying near the end of his life that “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”

Sure enough, within the week the “Great War” had begun.

* * *

Today I want to recognize this historical fact by talking about the WWI memorial sculpted by Coeur de Lion MacCarthy [British/Canadian, 1881-1979] located in Calgary. It is currently located on a plinth placed directly in front of the Memorial Park Library (a.k.a. Carnegie Library) in Central Memorial Park. It has resided there since it was placed in the summer of 1924.

Sadly, I had a lot of information about this work as a result of my research on the Amazon sculpture, but unfortunately much of this information disappeared in a data loss about a year and a half ago. So some of this information is from memory, but most of it is fact.

Coeur de Lion MacCarthy [British/Canadian, 1881-1979] was one of 13 children of the British/Canadian sculptor Hamilton Thomas Carlton Plantagenet MacCarthy [1846-1931]. Since Hamilton MacCarthy, Sr. was sculptor of note, it is fair to say that the younger Coeur de Lion came by his skills honestly.

Couer de Lion is often remembered for his commemorative sculptures, especially of those from WWI. He did a number of variations on the theme of a single soldier with a rifle are also found in places such as Lethbridge, Alberta; Verdun, Québec; and Niagara Falls, Ontario.

A much more dramatic pose of a soldier with bayonet drawn and attacking is found in Trois-Rivières, Québec.

In addition to this the Canadian Pacific Railway also commissioned Coeur de Lion to produce a monumental allegorical sculpture of an angel carrying a soldier in an edition of three as a memorial to its 1115 employees who fell in active service during the war. These CPR commissioned sculptures were installed in Vancouver, BC (1921); Winnipeg, Manitoba (1922); and in Montréal’s Windsor Station (1923).

Another allegorical sculpture is also found in Knowlton (Lac Brome), Québec where the angel is standing behind the standing soldier with a rifle resting on his soldier as if it is protecting the soldier.

The Calgary sculpture was commissioned by the Col. Macleod Chapter of the I.O.D.E. (Independent Order of the Daughters of the Empire) and cast by the Henry-Bonnard Bronze Co. of Mt. Vernon, NY. The plaque below the sculpture states the following:

To the imperishable glory / Of / The men of this province / Who fought and died / For / Their King and Country / In the Great War / 1914-1918 / Erected by Col. Macleod Chapter, / I.O.D.E.

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The placement of this sculpture is interesting to me as I wrote a previous article and couple postings on the Amazon sculpture (which I believe was the first situated piece of public art) placed in the city during 1912. I am sure this fact will disappoint others who might suggest otherwise assuming that it would be the other sculpture located in the same park. This viewpoint is a fair assumption, even though it is not true. It is a moot point, for various reasons, namely because it was possibly proposed before the Amazon piece. However because of the commissioning process and funding it probably took longer to install, whereas the Amazon piece was most likely already cast at the time it was proposed. But this position would seem to exist because it is the only remaining public sculpture from that vintage on public display in Calgary and hence the phrase “out of sight, out of mind.” The work usually referenced this way (case in point) is the Boer War Memorial by Louis-Philipe Hébert (1850–1917) of an equestrian rider which I have discussed previously, both here and in print.

In a 1922 letter to a member of the I.O.D.E. from the long-term Superintendent of Parks, William Reader which states (in part):

Since attending the meeting of your committee in Friday, I have examined the proposed site for the War memorial in front of the Public Library, and would suggest that, instead of placing this in the position now occupied by the small statue, it be placed in the centre of the plot midway between the library entrance and the street, as I believe it would have a better appearance in that position.

I would suggest that this letter shows the future direction of the Amazon sculpture which was produced after a work by August Kiss [German, 1802-1865]. I will continue to argue that the original selection was a very good choice as a war memorial, and its location was very thoughtfully placed.

Unfortunately there were other circumstances at play. This Amazon sculpture most likely was damaged and disposed of at some unknown time, probably in the 1940s or 1950s, if I was to speculate. If you want to read more about this Amazon sculpture read my previous blog posting here.

I expect that we will be hearing more about the 100th anniversary in the weeks to come. One of the more interesting things that will take place in Calgary is the opening of a new thematic show Wild Rose Overseas: Albertans in the Great War which opens at The Military Museums this afternoon and will continue until December 15.

 

World Trade Centre, September 11, 2001 and the Calgary connection

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Tomorrow, (May 21) the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opens to the public.

As to be expected with a grand-opening in remembrance to a moment in time that has defined and will continue to leave a lasting imprint on our collective world-view at least for this generation, there has been increasing amount of coverage in various media outlets about this event and museum.

This of course reminded me that own Military Museums has an artefact from the World Trade Centre housed outside the front doors to the museum.

Before I get going, I must state right up front that there are two main opposing viewpoints surrounding the events that took place in New York City on the morning of Monday, September 11th, 2001. I choose not to speculate on something I know little, but I will summarize. 

  • There is the officially-sanctioned story that two airplanes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Centre.
  • With an event of this magnitude, and because the human mind is highly adept and continually tries to make sense of chaos, there is at least one major conspiracy theory which is contrary to the accepted story.

As stated previously, I choose not to discuss any possibility of what happened that fateful day. Rather, I prefer to talk about the Calgary artefact itself.

In the time leading up to the installation, a friend of mine was a curator at The Military Museums on secondment from the University of Calgary. This was a time when we would cross paths often, as we were working on a curatorial project together, so I would hear about the progress of this artefact and how it ended up in Calgary.

I was far enough away that I would only hear bits and pieces periodically. I was definitely not involved in the minutiae involved in this project. However, I was definitely interested in the process and progress.

Somewhere along the way, someone involved at The Military Museums found out that some of the artefacts from the World Trade Centre attack were available for donation in appropriate museums or settings by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. As I recall most of those were placed in the USA. Regardless of where they all ended up, it was a long process to get the work here. If I recall correctly it was probably at least a year, possibly a two or three year project as there was a number of logistical challenges along the way. From my perspective, this was not overly surprising.

In addition, there was a fundraising component of some sort that The Military Museums initiated leading up to the installation. From what I understand, this was for the design, engineering and feasibility studies and other related expenses to safely suspend the 15 foot, 1270 kilogram twisted steel structural beam.

This tribute was unveiled at its present location, on the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Centre attack on September 11, 2011.

Reading the New York Post this past weekend and my visit to the TMM this afternoon, it is thought-provoking to observe the differences between the two museums and how they have commoditised (or not commoditised) the 9/11 event.

The related issue of how museums survive and funding of them is a topic for another day – if I ever get around to it on this blog. It is a very complex issue with all sorts of tangled macro- and micro-political sentiments and theory involved. Quite frankly a blog might not be the right forum for it.

I realize that on a certain level we are comparing apples and oranges, and from pictures I have seen in the Globe and Mail this past weekend, the 9/11 Memorial will no doubt be a very interesting tribute to those who died that day.

This New York Post story which I mentioned above, talks about the 9/11 gift shop, although there is a link to more about the museum inside the body of the article. Here, in Calgary, the 9/11 artefact stands alone as a silent sentinel which allows the viewer to bring their own memories of that day without even having to enter the museum to encounter it.

On edit (2014 May 30).

Further to what is stated above, I read a recent article which was posted on the Huffington Post by Robert Klitzman, M.D. whose sister died in the World Trade Centre attack, that a number of these steel girders are incorporated into the 9/11 Museum. However, that is not the reason for the edit. In the article Klitzman proposes that the museum could:

inspire us not only to remember the deceased — which it does well — but to ponder these broader issues more, adding to its narrative of victims and heroes, by exploring these larger contexts and dilemmas, broadening our understanding, and moving us to consider far more fully these larger questions about the nature of belief, religion, tolerance, evil and hatred, and ways of perhaps preventing such atrocities in the future. The exhibits would not be able to cover these these issues exhaustively, but could provide a unique and important opportunity to have us reflect on these larger questions. Doing so, could potentially help prevent future such attacks and promote peace, even if in small ways.

Just some food for thought. The issues he raised might have broader applications, than just at the 9/11 Museum.