Tactile Images

In 1992 a major statue of one of the founders of Canadian confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald was decapitated in a local park in Montreal.

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Although poorly maintained up until that time, rusty and neglected, the decapitation provoked a major outcry from Canadian federalists. To make matters worse, the decapitated head was stolen. No effort was made to replace the statue or repair it. Pigeons now roost on the remains and the statue has deteriorated further. From time to time journalists have commented on the loss and some private citizens have banded together to raise funds to have a new head made. But the symbolism of the gesture will never be forgotten nor will the symbolic death of the federal spirit in Quebec simply disappear when the statue is restored.

There is a sense in which this sculpture, both in its full and fragmented form, stands for historical realities which transcend its status as an object and are a clue to its transformation into an image. The aura of the statue (negative or positive) seems to bring history, the man himself and notions of the nation state into a synoptic grid, from which nearly any set of meanings can be drawn.

So complex is this interplay, so naturalized are its underlying premises, that the task of “writing” about this history of the image of Sir John A. Macdonald will be richly endowed from the start. It will move through a number of sometimes contradictory and sometimes connected levels of meaning, creating a sphere of relationships in constant need of interpretation and reinterpretation.

The process will oscillate between the micro-historical and the macro-historical and even then the terms of that interaction will produce new and different relationships dependent on the context of analysis and the subjective choices of the interpretator. In other words the statue is both a powerful presence and an incidental component of what we do to it, the basis for a hierarchy of interpretations, and the reason we tear at the statue’s foundations.

Although headless, the statue retains all the qualities which allow it to be identified with its human predecessor. As a focal point of the debate about the future of Canada, it matters little whether the head is there or not. Yet, as an image, the loss of the head brings the arguments of history into the forefront and suggests a rather paradoxical homology in which image and history are one, in which the visual and the tactile co-exist, through the absence of the eyes of one of the founders of modern day Canada.