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In a celebrity-obsessed world, statues become monuments for the selfie age

Jack Layton’s daughter Sarah, granddaughter Beatrice and widow Olivia Chow share a laugh as a statue in memory of the late NDP leader was unveiled in Toronto on Aug. 22, 2013.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

In Shelley's poem Ozymandias, a colossal head and two vast legs are the only remnants of a statue meant to inspire awe and fear. Those emotions are definitely out of play in a newer kind of interactive memorial statuary, of which a bronze of Jack Layton at the Toronto ferry docks is the latest example.

Toronto sculptor David Pelletier put the late NDP leader on the rear seat of a tandem bicycle, the front seat of which is left open for anyone to hop on and snap a selfie with Jack. The statue is a two-wheeled variant of what might be called the park-bench monument, in which the life-sized hero sits invitingly at one end of a spacious bronze seat.

The list of leaders and achievers who have been thus benched is long and international. Abraham Lincoln, Glenn Gould, Benjamin Franklin, Northrop Frye, Wilfrid Laurier, John Lennon, Alexander Pushkin and even popcorn mogul Orville Redenbacher are all waiting on a bench somewhere. Oscar Peterson lingers outside Ottawa's National Arts Centre on a piano bench, which has been yanked out of line with his bronze keyboard for easier access.

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These are monuments built for the selfie age, in which there's no point going to see the Mona Lisa unless you get her face and yours lined up on the screen of your smartphone. Contemplation is displaced by interactivity and a post on Facebook.

The park-bench monument also harmonizes memorial statuary with the bifocal view of celebrity media culture. Like red-carpet photographs and TMZ videos, the bench gives us close-up access to people made distant by fame.

Traditionally, the great were treated to larger-than-life effigies, raised on plinths above public squares. The 16-metre-tall Samuel de Champlain monument in Quebec City shows the explorer striding forward on a plinth above three allegorical figures symbolizing discovery, victory and dominion. Since that dashing tribute went up in 1898, monumental statuary has suffered a steep decline in prestige. Communist leaders did a lot to degrade the genre, through countless gigantic statues of Lenin or themselves.

"This tradition is definitely looked down upon," says Elidor Mehilli, a Hunter College historian who has studied East Bloc statuary. "It's seen as very totalitarian."

Authoritarian statuary warped the traditional perspective, in which the great towered over us by virtue of their accomplishments. Huge statues of Stalin came to symbolize only his unlimited power, and the insignificance of everyone else. They were pulled down with gusto when the Soviet Union collapsed, but have resurfaced as part of a horror-show nostalgia trip Mehilli calls "the communist experience." Museums of Soviet monumental sculpture have popped up all over Eastern Europe. A 19-metre-high Lenin was recently exhumed from its burial place in a Berlin sand pit, to star in a permanent exhibition that opens at the city's Spandau Citadel next year.

Traditional statuary usually represented the hero in a standing pose. Lincoln's seated form in his Washington memorial is an exception, but he's in his own huge temple, and if he stood up, he would be 8.5 metres tall. Lester Pearson's seated bronze on Parliament Hill in Ottawa is more modestly scaled, but it's still up on a broad platform, and there's no room in that armchair for two to curl up in, as the Friendly Giant used to say.

Pearson and Lincoln both appear to be mulling over some important matter, unlike the park-bench figures, who mostly seem to be just hanging out. The old desire to present our heroes as dynamic overachievers fades before the new need to show that they're regular folk, like you and me and Oprah.

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Not like Terry Fox, however. The many Fox statues around Canada all show him upright and mobile, his arms and face tense with the effort of running on a prosthetic leg. The Fox shrine at Thunder Bay, where his cross-country run ended, raises his 2.7-metre-tall form on a massive granite base. You get a strong sense that jumping up there to snap a selfie with Terry would profane the site and his memory.

Many thousands have cuddled up to Glenn Gould's park-bench statue outside the CBC's Toronto headquarters. The irony is that the pianist was a germaphobe who regarded contact with strangers as dangerous. Northrop Frye waits with a gregarious smile on his two benches at the University of Toronto and Moncton's public library, but the great scholar was an introvert who was famously incapable of small talk. And there's no way Oscar Peterson would have suffered any passerby to sit with him on his piano bench.

But that's the thing with these park-bench statues. They're less about who that person was, than what we want them to be: accessible, friendly and endlessly waiting for us to get our tandem selfies into our phones.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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