October 24, 2012
Walking further north from the last statue on University Avenue to Dundas Street, I came to another one known as the Canadian Airman’s Memorial. Officially it is called Per Ardua ad Astra, and unofficially Gumby Goes to Heaven. It was created in 1984 to commemorate the airmen who fought in WWI and WWII. Per Ardua ad Astra is the motto of the Royal Canadian Air Force, it translates to Through Adversity to the Stars.
As usual, I only looked up background information after seeing it in real life for the very first yet hundredth time. So I only learned later that I was at the foot of one of Toronto’s most controversial sculptures.
There’s only one part of the controversy that interests me. That is, how do we make public art? Who can make public art? I’ll reverse a moment to share what I learned. This bronze and marble sculpture was created by artist Oscar Neman, who was more famous for his portrait sculptures. It was commissioned by former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario Henry (Hal) Jackman and donated to Toronto. Toronto took to the streets. Really, the art community protested in front of the memorial.
Why so outraged? Well, Jackman financed this artwork and had it created without public consultation for what would be public art. He didn’t discuss the work with the art community. They blamed him for creating something out of political motivation. And there was much disgust at the actual artwork; its appearance, its stylization, and its seemingly confusing symbolism.
First off, I do not agree with hating on the actual artwork. It’s not my all time fav and I didn’t find it inspiring. I did, however, find myself lingering longer around the sculpture as I tried to understand it. Its location is fitting in that University seems to be dedicated to commemorating those who have fought in wars. However, it does feel awkward here. I wonder how it would change in a more open, grassy space where it is not dwarfed by glass buildings? Or in a more tightly confined space that the figure reaches up through?
I insist that you visit this website: http://oscarnemon.org.uk/history/index.html and take a look at Humanity. This sculpture, in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust in Osijek, has a very similar feel to Per Ardua ad Astra. On the same website, under Events and Links, you will see an image of one of Nemon’s drawings, featuring elongated figures. Elongated like the sculpture in Toronto. Also, take a look at the Winston Churchill sculpture at Nathan Philips Square. See that same textural, modeled quality that is also applied to the sculpture on University. The reason I point these other works out is because I think we should consider that Per Ardua ad Astra is an example of Nemon working through an abstract style. It is interesting to see as compared to his busts.
I would agree that public art should go through some sort of consultation. It is for the public. It should be meaningful to the public. It is a memorial. It should resonate with those who have lost loved ones to war. Although about that criticism of a politically motivated sculpture. How many public artworks here (then and now) are not created out of political motivation? Public consultation or not. Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m pretty sure public art is not commissioned out of a pure dedication to art. If not politically motivated, then obligation by building developers to the community through commissioned artwork. Art by a committee is never a wonderful thing. Too many cooks in the kitchen and that sort of thing make generic art.
What is pretty amazing about this work is that it really got people talking. They got angry. Angry enough to protest about art and about process. It made people form opinions and fight for change in how Toronto accepted commissioned artwork. How many other sculptures in our city have got people talking so passionately?