TOWARDS A LEXICON FOR NEO-MONUMENTAL THOUGHT / UDI EDELMAN
*This preliminary lexicon was published in 2019 in There and Not There: (Im)Possibility of a Monument – 11th Kaunas Biennial Catalog, Lithuania. An earlier version was published in the catalog of Neo-Monumental, Center for Digital Art, Holon, 2018.
One of the outcomes of the research about the contemporary social, political and artistic relations with monuments is a nascent lexicon, offering an investigation of the logic of monuments at present times. Throughout the upcoming years, this lexicon will hopefully evolve to formulate new outlooks on the treatment monuments demand, the treatment they are awarded in practice, as well as their place in corporeal and mental realms.
Following are several fragmented towards a lexicon for Neo-Monumental Thought:
How many people notice the specific shape of a modern monument? Even more so, how many know what is one about? The majority of its uses today are far more grounded in the everyday: providing shadow in a sunlit square, a platform for demonstrations, a meeting point for a city rendezvous. The physical presence of monuments in a space shakes off the narrative attributed to them, by those who commissioned and created them, and remain as physical objects for transient use instead.
Many of the monuments created in the twentieth century abandoned the figurative form in favor of the abstract and geometric – expressions of impetus and sublimity, disintegration and destruction, emptiness and loss. The human body, which in previous centuries appeared in the image of the ruler, the military or religious leader, almost completely disappeared. In its stead, a different body appeared, the body of people temporarily present at the monument. This new form sought to contain the human body visiting the monument, to mark a path for it to move around and inside it, or to surround it with additional bodies and form a single community of remembering bodies. In this respect, the living human body, the audience, is asked to surrender and become part of the monument’s form, and to carry onward within it the memory and the narrative.
Imagine the military leader standing on a pedestal high above the square, gazing into the distance, to the invisible horizon. How much distance is there between his gaze and the human bodies walking past under him? The shape of monuments, their size, and their anomaly in the surrounding landscape, bestows upon them the distance and separateness of holiness, that which separates the mundane from the sublime in the foundations of a community. Can monuments be touched? Any such touch is liable to be considered sacrilege by those charged with the community’s narrative. Thus, touching a monument, whether in play or defiance, brings it down to earth and impairs its holiness, and might also imperil the touching body.
The narrative, thanks to which any certain monument was created, keeps appearing in ceremonies and events, be it by those who wish to retell the tale the monument points at, or by those who want to address a certain inappropriate gap separating the monument and its subject from the current history and self-perception of an element within the community exposed to it or affected by it. In the case of the latter, the monument becomes the focus of a struggle over the narrative itself. That is the present case around the USA, in campaigns and attacks against monuments that praise Southern heroes of the Civil War; similar cases rise in Europe around monuments for racist figures from centuries past; and such was the case in the former Soviet Union in the early nineties, on the background of the crumbling of the communist bloc and subsequent national awakening. All of the above mark instances where the new narrative can no longer dwell alongside the story around which a monument was erected. Something must change.
The manner in which the charged meaning of monuments stand out in the public domain turn them at certain times to focus on conflicts between different groups. In these conflicts, often revolving around revised national tales, monuments are toppled by angry mobs, systematically taken down by a new regime, or endowed with an alternate history. Often, the above operates virally: the destruction of one monument leads to the destruction of another elsewhere. Monuments topple like dominoes. Destruction takes place over a period of time, until the conflict ends or until all monuments are erased or replaced.
1989 and the fall of the wall separating East and West Germany also symbolized the end of the monument epidemic in the Soviet Bloc, when hundreds of statues of Lenin, Stalin, and others were destroyed or toppled, leaving behind empty squares. It was a dramatic moment in which the political struggle focused on a direct clash with the physicality of the monuments. With time, new or renewed national monuments sprang up that sought to organize a valid logic and institute national stories in new ways, to overcome the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc and the empty pedestals in the squares. In contrast, in the past decade in South Africa, the US, and Europe, we are witnessing numerous instances of monuments in public spaces that are once again becoming the focus of narrative struggles, in place of disadvantaged groups struggling for their status. In the present wave, however, destruction and toppling are merely one possibility that is often expanded into a series of protracted ephemeral gestures by artists and activists in interventions, narrative disruptions, changing or exposing injustices, and a demand to look at and consider the presence and meaning of monuments in public spaces.
The archive contains thousands of propositions for monuments never to be realised; ghosts of spatial gestures in architecture and sculpture. Examining these propositions serves as invitation to study the rationale of the monument, the unrealised sculptural ambition, and to learn about the role and operation of the monument prior to being cast and fixed in space, facing material constraints or getting embroiled in the policing of bureaucracy and politics en route to realisation.
Out of This World
The seemingly extra-terrestrial form is a distinct trademark of brutalist monuments of the Soviet Bloc and especially that of the monuments in Tito’s Yugoslavia. It is a phenomenon not to be seen in disconnection from the contexts of the cold war and the superpowers’ space race. Having said that, that alien formation too is just that certain period’s costume, worn by the basic principle of every monument as such. In other words, that outer space form is just an extreme, specific expression of the way every monument relates to the environment within which it is placed: alien, anomalous, from another place, standing out in its distance from the daily and the regular.
In a lecture from 2014 W.J.T.Mitchel askes "What do monuments want?" and answers simply, "They just want to live for ever. They don't want to die. They want to survive, to defeat death [..] They don't want to be history, they want to be alive in the present. They are creatures of memory [..] History put things in the past, they are dead and gone, and won't come back, but memory is where the past come back".
Despite the desire of monuments (and their builders) that they exist forever, many simply become forgotten, sad and neglected, crumbling as the generation or regime that built them disappears. Were they to be rediscovered, it would be as historical artefacts.
"One cannot love a monument, a work of architecture, an institution as such except in an experience itself precarious in its fragility: it has not always been there, it will not always be there, it is finite. And for this very reason one loves it as mortal, through its birth and its death, through one’s own birth and death, through the ghost or the silhouette of its ruin, one’s own ruin–which it already is, therefore, or already prefigures. How can one love otherwise than in this finitude?"
Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law,” Acts of Religion, London: Routledge, 2002. 278
A World Without Monuments
Could a world without monuments be imagined? A world in which they’d have fallen, crumbled, vanished without trace, with no new monuments to replace them? What world should that be? A world without memory, without wars and death, without victors or enemies.