Survivors Are Not Heroes / Broken Bicycle

This poem was commissioned for an ArtworxTO 2021–2022 City of Toronto Year of Public Art guided audio tour of two major artworks on the University of Toronto’s St. George campus.

From this point of view, you should have Hart House on your right
A bank of trees on your left and up ahead, Soldier’s Tower in sight
The tall bronze sculpture nearest to you is from 1967
Walk up to it, it looks like an upside-down question
A heavy, circular wheel-like base with sun-like rays
Then the dense links and horizontal slash that raise
Off-centre, a tall and slender final pillar
But it doesn’t seem to come together into a picture
All of these parts must mean something
We are usually trusting, unsuspecting

The sculpture you are looking at is called
“Survivors Are Not Heroes” by Sorel Etrog
From 1967, a year of war and anti-war positions
The year Muhammad Ali stood by his convictions
In Canada, it was the year of the enormous 1967 parades
When cities across the country were host to military brigades
The moment a conflict is decided to be “complete”
A monument-building frenzy takes over the streets
What do we think a monument performs exactly?
It memorializes the dead, but what is that specifically?
When the story of a conflict is transmuted into bronze, marble, or stone,
People made into names, histories into myths not entirely their own,
A monument, in the present, can make past conflicts legendary
Survivors become heroes, and sacrifices become necessary
Real life — whatever that means — is never so simplistic
And whether your medium is expressive or journalistic
Reality rarely comes together into a comprehensible picture
It is almost always a shimmering mirror, always richer

A memorial in familiar style is Soldier’s Tower up ahead in view
Engraved with the names of over a thousand students who died in Wars 1 and 2
In the corners of Queen’s Park far behind you are four war monuments
One of them reads “swords of sacrifice” above a list of colonial “engagements”
Do these monuments describe the long confusion of loss that is human
Or proclaim a simple conclusion, convenient resolution, civic absolution?

Now on your left and through the trees is another
Monument, this one a relief-sculpture
On the far wall of the building that looks like an observatory
It’s the student union building, and this artwork is not an allegory
A broken bicycle pressed by a large tire tread
Discarded sandals on black, an image of dread
Occasionally you may see flowers, messages, or a ribbon
The tread is from a tank; this monument is not military but civilian
The plaque provides a date: June 4, 1989, also known as the 35th of May
Still commemorated every year, as you can see by the bouquet
Marking the loss of parent, sibling, friend, lover, citizen, person, and asking you to care
About the protests across China remembered as the Massacre at Tiananmen Square
Through overwhelming military action against civilians
Somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand quote disappearances
Titled Broken Bicycle Tiananmen Square by Gu Xiu Hei and Bruce Parsons
And installed on the student union building because it is sovereign
A “politically sensitive" matter that could be taboo for the university
Depending on who you ask, from either nervousness or complicity
In China, survivors and supporters are necessarily invisible
In the “democratic” West their heroism is unequivocal
Sometimes survivors are heroes we want to say
And perhaps they are, heavy though that responsibility may weigh

Whether you see heroes, survivors, both or neither
Whether you see a monument to a soldier or a teacher
Whether you imagine this is a question with no answer
Or just hampered by language, limited by grammar
We require simplifying, memorializing
To dress the raw with meaning
A monument is not resolution, only desired vision
It marks a story incomplete, yet possible, being written

Here is a poem from the 8th century
By Meng Haoran of the Tang dynasty
While worldly matters have their go
Ancient, modern, to and fro,
Rivers and mountains glorious, unchanging
Still to be witnessed along this heading
Where a fishing boat passes by a falling stream
Where the air grows colder, deep in the ravine
The monument of Yang remains
And we have wept, reading the words

Project by Ameen Ahmed
/ 2021-2022 / ArtworxTO, City of Toronto ︎
/ tagged art, writing