Roadside-attraction showdown: Ottawa’s giant spider

You don’t want this spider crawling up your water spout. Thankfully, “Maman” is firmly planted outside the National Gallery
By Sarah Trick - Published on Aug 20, 2021
Maman, created by artist Louise Bourgeois, stands nearly 10 metres tall. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)



Maybe you’ve already been to Niagara Falls or up to the top of the CN Tower. But have you made a pit stop near a giant goose? Or snapped a selfie next to a giant wheel of cheese?

Those are just a couple of the roadside attractions on offer in towns and cities across Ontario, which have devised unusual and eye-catching ways of setting their communities apart.

If you’re looking for summertime fun close to home, you can hit the road and check out these local legends. If you’re looking for summertime fun even closer to home, you can check in with over the next two months — each week, we’ll be bringing you profiles of the weirdest, wackiest, and largest objects gracing Ontario’s roadways.

At the end of August, you’ll get the chance to pick your favourites when we open up the voting brackets. So travel Ontario with us, and get ready for a showdown.

Check out the other contestants here.

When people think of Canada’s capital, they think of picturesque scenery, such as the Rideau Canal, and national landmarks, such as the Parliament buildings. But art aficionados and curious tourists also think of a giant spider.

Located in the National Gallery of Canada’s plaza, the sculpture, created by Louise Bourgeois, stands nearly 10 metres tall and weighs about 6,000 kilograms. Maman is one of six identical sculptures made by the artist; the others also reside in front of major museums, such as the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg. 

large metal spider egg sac below a purple and blue sky
Maman stands in the National Gallery of Canada’s plaza. (The.Rohit/, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Bourgeois, whose career spanned eight decades, had an often turbulent life. She had challenging relationships with both parents, who often served as inspiration for her artistic work. According to the gallery, the  $3.2 million sculpture was inspired by the artist’s mother, a tapestry weaver. While the egg-carrying spider “is a nurturing and protective symbol of fertility and motherhood, shelter and the home,” the website reads, “with its monumental and terrifying scale … Maman also betrays this maternal trust to incite a mixture of fear and curiosity.”

This ambivalence has been reflected in the reactions to the sculpture since its installation 16 years ago. (When we were planning this roadside-attraction showdown, Maman was the only potential landmark referred to in a derisive way by our editor-in-chief, who said something like, “I suppose we’ll have to do that awful spider in Ottawa.”) 

Jonathan Shaughnessy, the gallery’s director of curatorial initiatives, says that Maman has been important during the pandemic, as the gallery has had to remain closed much of the time: “It’s been kind of a perennial presence, so there’s been something there to welcome you.” But, he adds, “Of course, you have a 16-foot spider, and you have arachnophobia, it could be a problem.”

people walk under the legs of a giant spider sculpture
Louise Bourgeois sculpture outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain. (Sima_ha/

That tension, though, is part of the point,  Shaughnessy says: “You can imagine that this is a very intimidating character. Bourgeois would always talk about the spider as a nurturing mother figure but also someone you wouldn’t want to cross — someone you’d have to negotiate your relationship with.” 

Those who appreciate it really appreciate it — taking pictures with it, standing under it, and interacting with it in ways that aren’t really possible with the gallery’s other works of art. 

“The difference with a work like Maman is that the scale of it is such that it would be very challenging to show in a traditional museum setting, even for the National Gallery,” Shaughnessy says. “You really couldn’t unless you could fit it in the Great Hall. There’s nowhere else that sculpture can really go in the gallery — or any gallery, for that matter. So it’s a unique piece of public art in that it’s kind of destined for outside, but it’s really a museum piece.” 

two women, one in wheelchair, under a large spider sculpture
The author and her mother, Denise Torgerson, with Maman. (Ambrose Trick)

Shaughnessy says that Maman brings something unique to Ottawa precisely because it isn’t tied to a sense of place and, unlike many pieces of public art, wasn’t created for the city. “Where do you get to have work that would be at home at any museum in the world? And it’s just right there on your doorstep to enjoy,” he says. “And I think it transcends place, in a sense, but then also, it’s found its way into this place in a way where it now becomes synonymous with the landscape. But it didn’t start with anything around it. It was really just about wanting to bring this brilliant work of art to Ottawa, into the gallery. .”

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