Living at Ground Zero, our identity is wholly commemorative. Living at Ground Zero we are, logically, long since dead

Shunpiking Magazine, December-January, 2002, No. 40

The logic of sculpture, it would seem, is inseparable from the logic of the monument. By virtue of this logic a sculpture is a commemorative representation.

- Rosalind e. Krauss

Living at Ground Zero, our identity is wholly commemorative. Living at Ground Zero we are, logically, long since dead.

The true logic of the monument can only be found at Ground Zero. The inescapable history of public art -- of the monument -- in Halifax involves commemoration, public engagement with the history of Halifax as Ground Zero: a community secondarily founded upon a primary military importance, a geographical point (one among many) at which certain colonial military interests historically coalesced. I mean "Ground Zero" both in literal and figurative senses; literally, as the site, in the early twentieth-century, of the single most powerful explosion to have occurred prior to the weaponry of atomic and nuclear technology; and figuratively, for example, as a key site of British colonial power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

To begin. I took a flight to Toronto, Ontario, and from there a train the remainder of the way up to North Bay, Ontario, a small city at the edge of a large, shallow lake. The northern edge of the city is marked by an escarpment that demarcates the rim of a prehistoric glacial lake, and, in my mind at least, the point at which northern Ontario truly begins. Buried far beneath that escarpment is SAGE (Semi-Automated Ground Environment), a military complex charged with the task of controlling the airspace over northern North America -- i.e. looking for incoming nuclear missiles. And on top of that same escarpment was -- until the early 1970s -- a small, heavily guarded installation of surface-to-air Bomarc missiles. North Bay was consequently way up there on the list of targets of what were, until recently, Soviet nuclear warheads.

They say the SAGE complex is no longer as necessary, what with the lack of a clearly defined nuclear threat from Russia. And the warheads that equipped the Bomarc missiles in North Bay have gone, along with all but one of the launch vehicles that carried them. That one now has pride of place on two unmarked pedestals beside one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. It is just a shell of its former self, an empty vessel as it were, a place within which pigeons now roost. At this Ground Zero, it has been rendered all but invisible by familiarity and daily habit, no longer, now, a pointed reminder of some nuclear inescapability, but rather part of the fading wallpaper of both local and Cold War history. Yet it is still commemorative, it is still monumental, and, tellingly, it is still aimed north.

Begin again, in Halifax. X marks a spot, the intersection of two paths criss-crossing a park in the city's south end. A statue occupies the centre of this small park ringed, at night, by prostitutes and cruising johns. Edward Cornwallis, founder of the city of Halifax, stands caped atop a pedestal looking south toward what is now a container port and beyond the mouth of Halifax harbour; looking, presumably, toward the motherland: England. The monument -- unveiled in 1931 to commemorate the 182nd anniversary of the founding of Halifax by Lord Cornwallis as part of the efforts of His Majesty's Government to counter the French presence at Louisbourg -- commemorates a singularly European version of things. To the aboriginal Mi'kmaq, the statue of Cornwallis can only commemorate the deeds and doings of a British governor who first enacted against the aboriginal inhabitants of Nova Scotia a colonial policy of genocide. X indeed marks the spot. Ground Zero.

I grew up at Ground Zero. Or, actually, several of them. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was Royal Canadian Air Force Station Beaverbank, just outside of Halifax. (Air raid sirens, to this day, leave me in a cold sweat.) And when Kennedy was assassinated, it was McCord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington, a staging point for American military involvement in Vietnam. The fathers of my friends flew fighters and Globemaster cargo planes, and those who died so doing -- like Captain Roy Earl Shults Jr., the father of my best friend when I was nine -- were eventually commemorated with the slash of marble that is the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Captain Shults' name is found on panel 18E, line 24.) The mothers of my friends who stayed home were not so commemorated, for the art of (and at) Ground Zero is inescapably masculine.

The monuments of Halifax too are inevitably masculine, of and about men -- heroic men -- who typically died in the course of their heroism. The history, here, of such gender-bound public art dates back to 1860, with the erection of the Welsford-Parker Monument (also known as the Sebastopol) in the Old Burying Ground. Halifax's first public monument (and an apparently rare example of a pre-Confederation war monument), it honours two men: Major A.F. Welsford and Captain William Parker, both of whom fought with British regiments in the Crimean war, dying for their troubles. Some of what was spoken at the dedication of the monument describes the colonial, xenophobic, nineteenth-century Ground Zero that was then Halifax:

no alien or foreigner whose eye rests upon this massive memorial, as he wanders through our city, will mistake our nation, doubt our patriotism, or misapprehend our sympathies.

The Welsford-Parker monument -- built with funds raised by public subscription together with generous financial assistance from the provincial government -- inaugurates a series of monuments in Halifax dedicated to the memory of the male hero fallen in service to the Crown: the South African Fountain Memorial in the Public Gardens, honouring local members of the Mounted Rifles who served in the Boer War; the Nova Scotia Soldiers Memorial located on the grounds of the provincial legislature, honouring the province's dead in the same war (the one, incidentally, in which the British invented the concentration camp); and the cenotaph on the Grand Parade (which Halifax writer Julia Healey once quite accurately noted is "not aesthetically pleasing, but well-suited for wreath-laying and the such"), honouring the dead of the two World Wars and Korea.

I write of these as a group because they share certain readily-identifiable characteristics: the use of representational, figurative imagery, and the use of the pedestal. At Province House, a soldier holds his gun (victoriously?) aloft in one hand while clenching the other into a fist, as he stares fiercely off in the serendipitous direction of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia from atop a pedestal ringed with relief images of famous battles; at the Public Gardens, another soldier (different hat, same war) stands easy, but alert, holding a rifle atop a pedestal that doubles as a fountain; and at the cenotaph ... but you get the picture.

I write, too, of these as a group because they share one other readily-identifiable characteristic, common the world over: that Ground Zero is once-removed, is a symbolically represented thing. Welsford and Parker did not die, after all, serving British imperial interests in downtown Halifax.

When I was eight years old, I was taken to visit the Bremerton Navy Yards, near Tacoma, Washington. In the 1960s, Bremerton was a navy staging point for vessels -- destroyers, aircraft carriers, transport ships, and the like -- heading for Vietnam. Bremerton was also the home of the USS Missouri, an enormous state-class battleship that had the singular distinction of having actually ended the Second World War. On its main deck was a large (circular, if I remember correctly) plaque marking the exact spot -- Ground Zero -- where the Japanese had signed the papers of unconditional surrender. At that moment, a piece of military hardware transcended its purpose and assumed the condition of the monumental.

At the time I was on board, a cold, gray winter morning some twenty years after that occasion, the Missouri was no longer on active duty; was, indeed, mothballed. What I ran around upon that day was no piece of cutting-edge military hardware, but rather a tired, old, floating steel-gray monument of a war, from a time, in which we still, perhaps naively, believed in absolutes.

While watching television coverage of the Gulf War a few years ago, I was astonished to discover that the Missouri had been recommissioned and was serving on active duty in the Persian Gulf. It certainly wouldn't have been the first time an obsolescent piece of military weaponry had been resurrected, but I believe it might've been the first time a monument had ever gone off to war.

Back, at the Halifax waterfront, in a small park between Water Street and the water itself, The Sailor goes off to war. Here, again, is the obviously monumental, the clearly commemorative gesture: a figure, of a heavily-burdened young sailor heading toward the wharf, frozen in mid-step atop a two-tiered pedestal set on all sides with relief images of ships.

The inscription below the figure (which was created by sculptor Peter Bustin) tells us of the sculpture's commemorative context, that it is symbolic of the thousands of sailors who were instrumental in the victory at sea and [is] a fitting acknowledgment to those who continue to maintain the peace.

The Sailor is a recent monument (erected by the Atlantic Chief and Petty Officers' Association), and, despite its commemorative function, incorporates certain elements that distinguish it from its predecessors. For one thing, it's not all that big; the sculpture itself is just over two metres high, and the pedestal can't be more than one. It thus doesn't arrogantly tower over its surroundings, a pleasant park adjacent to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Nor is it inappropriately located (unlike, say, the Parker-Welsford Monument, which was plunked down in the middle of the city's oldest graveyard with little obvious consideration of context), for the Halifax waterfront has historically been Ground Zero -- convoys coalesced here during the Second World War, for example, to begin the perilous run across the North Atlantic to England (always, it seems, England), or to Murmansk.

South of the park, at the tip of peninsular Halifax in yet another park, is a monument of similar accessibility. It's an enormous anchor and chain nestled amongst some boulders atop a low tiered pedestal. It's a remnant of the only aircraft carrier that the Canadian navy (or, more accurately, the Royal Canadian Navy) ever had in service: the HMCS Bonaventure, scrapped by the Trudeau government in 1970.

Today, it has a somewhat odd, highly-specific commemorative role, as if the builders of monuments, the powers-that-be, had some difficulty coming up with an appropriate commemorative gesture not already in local use. According to the inscription, it honours the personnel of the armed forces of Canada who lost their lives in peacetime at sea in the performance of their duties and for whom there is no known grave.

I intend no disrespect to the families of those whose names are listed here, but this monument singularly fails its acutely narrow commemorative intent -- Ground Zero, as so specifically represented here, is diffused and weak; the centre, to borrow from the poet Yeats, does not hold. But what fails commemoratively is successful in other ways, for this anchor -- never originally cast by W.L. Byers & Co. of Sunderland, England as anything other than an object of purely utilitarian purpose -- powerfully and indelibly links the city to a military heritage that has broadly affected every aspect -- social, political, even artistic -- of life on a north Atlantic peninsula surrounded, on three sides, by the sea.

In the mid 1960s, my family, yet again, traded one Ground Zero for another. My father was transferred and we made the long trip -- two adults, three children, one infant, and a boat on a trailer -- by car from the West Coast of the United States to North Bay. On the last gray and rainy day of the trip, we came upon Sudbury, Ontario. This was long before INCO began to use an enormously tall smokestack to spew its sulfurous emissions well away from the city, long before the city began rehabilitating its rough, dirty image with a major program of neutralizing the acidic soils and reintroducing nature to the area. Rather, what we came upon that day was the Sudbury the Apollo astronauts came to in order to practise Moon landings -- barren rock, blackened and scorched -- and we came upon it in the rain.

Sudbury coincided with the first flat tire of our trip -- directly, as it happened, in front of the Big Nickel, an enormous monument -- of a nickel -- to both the ore mined in the Sudbury area and to the wealth it created for some. (Many years later, I was told by someone who claimed to have helped construct it that the Big Nickel was indeed made of tin, but I can't confirm the truth of this.)

Though almost thirty years have passed since that day, and though both Sudbury and I have changed enormously, the city will always be symbolized for me by an encounter with a monument intended to celebrate the city's heritage, but which succeeded only, on that day at least, in fully evoking in that place the sheer, unmitigated misery of hell on earth.

I've written, here, of Halifax as a locus of symbolism, and I've written of Halifax as a potential Ground Zero. I've not written here, though, of the kinetic Halifax, of the city as truly a hell on earth. But in December of 1917, all that was potential and symbolic in Halifax kinetically ignited in the collision of two ships -- one loaded with munitions -- at the narrowest point of the harbour. We call it, now, the Halifax Explosion.

To the city's north end, to a bare hill overlooking and demarcating what was, in point of fact, Ground Zero. The Fort Needham Memorial Bells, a long, narrow structure, containing a carillon of bells that rises in a series of stages from the hillside. It's a facade, really, with strong allusions to those images of building facades somehow left standing after ... well, after horrific devastation. The sound of its bells is, then, especially poignant, even chilling.

At Hiroshima, at the site we first came to call Ground Zero, there is a ruin that commemorates those who died when the atomic bomb was used as a weapon for the first time. Journalist Gwynne Dyer has called it "the still centre of the twentieth- century." Atop a quiet, windswept hill overlooking Halifax Harbour, Fort Needham is much like that too: it is a "still centre" -- it is Ground Zero -- and, here at least, the centre holds.

I've not dealt with much of the other public art that exists in Halifax, like the sculpture of Winston Churchill (in front of the Public Library), that a CBC television reporter discovered very few Haligonians recognize (it too, seems to have become part of the wallpaper), let alone know commemorates Halifax's important role in the Second World War; or Donna Hiebert's The Wave, a sculpture (located on the waterfront) that was once significantly altered by the addition of a gardent around it (the equivalent, for all intents and purposes, of adding a pedestal); or perhaps even Terry Graff's Cosmic Sea, a privately-commissioned work housed indoors (though it can be seen from outside) at Purdy's Wharf, an exclusive development of office space that, until recently, has seen next to no pedestrian traffic owing to what was a surprisingly isolated location in downtown Halifax.

Nor have I dealt with the public art that occupies the centre of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's courtyard: sculptor John Greer's Origins, a large, cast-bronze work with a passing resemblance to an enormous inverted comb.

I've not dealt with these works (or numerous others) for they do not engage Halifax as Ground Zero. Some, indeed, are simply decorative bits of ornament -- window dressing -- parachuted onto any old available space, and some are so narrowly intentional, so purposefully restrictive, as to preclude addressing intelligibly the wider implications of site in its social or geopolitical guises.

I don't think Halifax is particularly unique this way; most cities suffer severely from bad public art. But it is also the case that most cities have evolved and changed more over the course of time than Halifax has -- from, say, predominantly military places to, say, manufacturing or service-orien-ted centres. Halifax, rather like Atlantic Canada as a whole, has remained remarkably resistant to such change; the city was founded for its strategic importance, and that very factor has proven historically resilient and tenacious. As Ground Zero in the most literal meaning of the term (and I've read that Hitler apparently had a home all picked out here, a place to relax after he'd conquered the "Warden of the North"), the public art -- the monuments -- it has built to and for itself cannot help but reflect the doggedly inertial attitudes of such a state. The centre cannot hold, Halifax and its monuments will surely change, but at Ground Zero it is a process that occurs centrifugally, from the centre out.

Source: Excerpted from Gravity & Grace: Selected Writings on Contemporary Canadian Art, published by Gaspereau Press, 2001, ISBN 1-894031-46-1.

Caption: Fort Needham Memorial Bells, 1985. Photo courtesy of Keith Graham -- Core Design Group and Gaspereau Press

*Gil McElroy was born in Metz, France and grew up on air force bases in Canada and the United States. His critical writing on art has been published in magazines in Canada, the US and Australia. He was Curator at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum in Charlottetown, PEI from 1997 to 2000. Gil now lives in Colborne, Ontario.

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