Lowering Simon Fraser
September 30 – October 4, 2019
Off-site at the Anvil Centre, New Westminster Quay and Queensborough Bridge billboard
Lowering Simon Fraser culminates Maddie Leach’s Burrard Marina Field House residency and research project focusing on the Simon Fraser Monument currently sited on the riverside boardwalk of the Quay in New Westminster, British Columbia. The monument commemorates the controversial early nineteenth century fur trader and explorer credited with charting much of what is now understood as British Columbia. In 1808, with the aid of many Indigenous communities, he explored the river that now bears his name, long a transportation and exchange route and source of food for Coast Salish Nations near the mouth of the Fraser; the Nlaka’pamux, Okanagan, Secwepemc, St’át’imc and Tsilhqot’in in the central Fraser; and the Dakelh, Sekani and Wet’suwet’en in the regions around its northernmost origins.
Commissioned early in the twentieth century by the New Westminster branch of the Native Sons of BC, a patriotic order sworn to uphold the values of British Columbia’s colonial pioneers, the Simon Fraser Monument has a curious history of disassembly, reassembly and relocation. In 1908 a tall granite column was unveiled by Premier Richard McBride, on a mound in Albert Crescent Park, overlooking the river. A bronze bust of Fraser was completed in 1911 by Montreal-based academy sculptor Louis-Phillipe Hebert and positioned atop the column. Over the following decades the monument underwent several relocations due to the construction, and reconstruction, of road approaches to the Pattullo Bridge. At each occasion it was shifted further downhill towards the river. When the monument arrived at its current site on the Quay in 1988, its granite plinth had been substantially reduced in height, the bust turned 180 degrees to face away from the river and its gaze directed towards a waterfront pub.
This series of unacknowledged “lowerings” have quietly taken place alongside, on the one hand, continued circulation of heroic narratives of Fraser’s 1808 expedition and, on the other, increasing calls to re-examine those colonial histories and acknowledge the way they perpetuate erasures of Indigenous presence, particularly given the profound significance of this body of water for local First Nations’ cultural practices and sovereignty. The monument’s seeming restlessness and physical diminishment might be argued to mirror public shifts of opinion—from celebration to indifference and a generalized forgetting of things in plain site—and the growing need to re-examine Fraser’s role in the region’s colonial history.
Leach’s original proposal to the New Westminster’s Civic Council, reframed as a conceptual premise for the realized project, requested permission to make an adjustment to the monument by removing a narrow slab of the granite plinth and transporting it to the source of the Fraser River in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains. There, the modest granite monolith would have been left to be reshaped and reduced by the effects of weather and running water, and slowly carried downriver over eons of time. The artist imagined that one day, the granite slab may have arrived back in New Westminster as a small, insignificant stone. This imagined alternate future is now chronicled in a limited-edition bookwork, with illustrations by Michael Kluckner. It will be launched in tandem with a text displayed on the north-facing electronic billboard over the Queensborough Bridge, and a public conversation hosted in New Westminster.
In her 2015 book of lyric prose Garments Against Women, American poet Anne Boyer meditates on the capacity of monuments to dictate the conditions of being seen: “Monuments are interesting mostly in how they diminish all other aspects of the landscape,” she states. “Each highly perceptible thing makes something else almost imperceptible. This is so matter of fact, but I’ve been told I’m incomprehensible: Anne, what do you mean that noticing one thing can make the other things disappear?” The intent of Lowing Simon Fraser is to serve as a platform on which to ask this question of a speculated disappearance, and to catalyze public awareness around the historical purpose of such acts of commemoration and the complex implications of their continued presence in our contemporary moment.
This project was made possible with funding from Creative New Zealand / Toi Aotearoa, Vancouver Foundation and the Contemporary Art Gallery’s Burrard Marina Field House Studio Program in association with Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation and the City of Vancouver. Additional support was provided by the City of New Westminster Museums and Heritage Services and Valand Academy at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.