Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Olympic symbols

Ilaanaq: Inukshuk or Inunnguaq? The selection of the logo for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics provides me with an opportunity to try and show some of the ideas I've been writing about this week in action. Officially, the logo is said to be an inukshuk who's name is Ilaanaq. The winning artist says she was inspired by a well known piece of artwork in Vancouver, left behind after Expo '86. Generally speaking, I like it. It's warm, simple and clear. It is likely to grab the interest of people around the world. One of the most common criticisms of the icon since it's unveiling a few days ago has been that it has little or nothing to do with Vancouver itself. The kind of rock sculpture it represents originates in native cultures much father north. I even read about some native elders voting on a council of some kind (annoyingly, I can't find the source) that they felt the icon misrepresented their culture and as a result, they felt insulted. The notch on the head for that cuddly smile probably didn't help. I would urge the elders and others taking this line of criticism to reconsider. The inukshuk is a sign intended to act as a friendly marker or reminder in a largely barren and desolate space - in this case, Canada's far north. It's true that the temporate rainforests of Vancouver are nothing like that. The logo is not an inukshuk, however. It is a symbol of one. It's presence will only be active in Vancouver proper for a short time as 2010 approaches. It's real activity - it's real environment- is in the mediascape. One does not need to be a cynical media junkie like me to see that is, in its own way, as a barren and desolate space as the Yukon Territory. I think the symbol can act as a friendly reminder in disparate locates around the world and will work in different sorts of media due to it's simplicity. Mr. Hallendy (quoted in the dead tree edition of the National Post, April 25th) of the Royal Canadian Geography Society has some interesting things to say about the logo, the most interesting of which is that Ilaanaq is not an inukshuk, he's an inunnguaq. Got that? Hallendy says that properly speaking, an inukshuk is a simple stand in for a person, like a traffic light is a stand in for a traffic policeman. It is blatantly a symbol and in the north it can be as simple as one large, upright stone. Ilaanaq is more complicated than that, which is why Hallendy says that he is an inunnguaq. The origins of the inunnguaq may be much more recent than that of the inukshuk and its meaning deeper. Hallendy notes it's resemblance to a cross and that a famous site of inunnguaq is Pelly Bay, where they may have been built under the direction of a local missionary priest. The inunnguaq, unlike the inukshuk, does not represent a generic human; it represents real people. It can act as a marker for a village or as a tombstone. All of this is interesting and the native elders would do well to use curiosity about the symbol as the starting point for teaching the world about the people and the culture from which Ilaanaq draws inspiration. Assuming Hallendy is correct in the distinction he makes between the two types of sculpture, the only mistake here is calling Ilaanaq an inukshuk. If he is in fact a inunnguaq, he functions in the mediasphere just as well. He represents real people hosting a real event, after all. The last question is if the inunnguaq should be considered a religious symbol. If it is, then of course it's use in advertising the Olympics would be very improper. Imagine using a Star of David or a Crucifix for such a purpose! Nothing I have read about this symbol suggests to me that the inunnguaq is a sign with a transcendent meaning. The other 'errors' - the mouth and the creative geography involved - can be overcome without much trouble if that last question has been answered correctly. The mouth is simply a playful appeal, especially to kids. The geography is even easier to deal with, as the Olympics will be shared with all Canadians (not to mention Federal tax money). The sign, in short, can survive this evolution without becoming incoherent. Religious symbols would not be as resistant and the fuss over them is proper.

1 comment:

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