What is the continuing relevance and longevity of publicly sited monuments and how are their future lives viewed? A stimulating question Maria, and perhaps as you suggest “only the external interventions or actions of vandalism can animate the forgotten meanings”.

Every city, town and village in Britain has at least one monument, not all figurative. There are countless statues of people, predominantly men, who’ve made an impact at some moment of time on their community or country. How do we view our monuments in Britain? They can be missed if they disappear, sometimes stolen for profit, or re-located often inappropriately. Occasionally one is vandalised as a direct political or social statement, but usually pointlessly. Like the historic characters mentioned in earlier posts, many people now find some publicly represented figures reprehensible. However, not many permanent monuments in Britain have been recently deliberately damaged or de-commissioned because of the politics or actions of the person/subject depicted.


Nelson’s Pillar Dublin erected 1843 removed 1966

The most famous incidents are probably those resulting from events in neighbouring 20th Century Ireland, notably attacks to statues with controversial figures such as William of Orange, Nelson’s Pillar (blown up by the Irish Republican Army, later demolished in 1966 and subsequently replaced by the Monument of Light) and the Lord Gough monument. An enlarged photograph of Daniel O’Connells’ statue to the Winged Victory of Courage, showing bullet holes in the angel’s breast, was shown in a recent Tate Britain exhibition – Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm. Such events undoubtedly remain live in some people’s consciousness.

My sense is that generally monuments in Britain tend to become like comfortable shadows, not quite invisible, their meanings blurred, their commissioners and makers equally obscured. They may be appreciated as familiar sculptures or ornaments by local communities and serve a purpose on the tourist trail, like labelled archaeology. If raised on steps they provide visitors with somewhere to sit and eat sandwiches and have their photograph taken. Is this a reflection of comparative peace and ease in the land or complacency and indifference. Or they can be ignored and compromised by town planners and developers, in any country, when profit over-rides history and sentiment.

Fourth Plinth
left: 2005/7 Alison Lapper pregnant, Marc Quinn
right: location

Monuments come into the foreground mainly as a focus point for state or national events. Perhaps it’s time to revise the concept. Has the ubiquitous but successful temporary site-related intervention taken the place of monuments? An enlivening buzz around a subject that doesn’t clutter up the place for too long, like the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square? This monumental platform was never completed with a monument and is now used for a major new, publicly commissioned sculpture each year,_Trafalgar_Square
Nevertheless monuments prevail. Recently impressive is a distinctly permanent, gigantic bronze horse-head in Central London, which highlights and commemorates the plight of working animals that perished in wars across the centuries.

I sense that western interest in Soviet monuments, whether as scholars, artists or tourists, remains because they locate unfamiliar and fascinating historical contexts and provide reference points for consideration. People and events represented, such as Lenin and Stalin, had a huge impact on their country’s citizens and the world, yet mysteries still surround them, and we are fascinated in this history. It feels necessary, as part of our understanding and sensitivity, to know whether such monuments are still ‘visible’ to and have an affect on local people, particularly anyone who has a direct memory of or has suffered under an oppressive regime.

It is also possible that, as ‘westerners’, we find some of our own monuments ‘exotic’, especially the more obscure or ancient or simply unfamiliar. In which case understanding the subjects and contexts for both our own and other nations’ monuments opens up questions and reveals attitudes. This approach is evident in the film Hollywood by Swiss artist Daniel Brefin, set in Kutaisi, Georgia, which illustrates a contemporary public’s ambivalence to the Stalinist era in an amusing and lightly ironic way, despite some misgivings and the fact that Stalin still remains a terrible figure in present consciousnesses.

Novvy 9.6.2014

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