Toppling sculptures

Image from a Guardian article by Lea Ypi titled By tearing down our statues, Albanians stopped learning from the past

Who defines the status of public art?

Current events, as well as past ones, show that this status is changeable. Interpreting Benjamin’s concepts, Foster writes that “the uniqueness of the work, its aura and originality, depends on context and interpretation, the work’s status is not stable. Specificity (in place and history) is not a given: it has to be repeatedly claimed by a community.” (Foster p.238 ). The status of our public art is constantly re-assessed by the community. The continual, every day, public support for each public art is a sign that the values it embodies are still relevant.

When an artwork loses its relevance it is either neglected or violently disposed of. This act itself may in the future be re-assessed in turn.

Bristol, UK, 7th of June 2020, Edward Colston’s bronze statue thrown in the docks, photo by Kair Gravil via REUTERS

Public art (as indeed all forms of art), is very effective in building a sense of a stable world. Heidegger claims “the work opens up a world and keeps it abidingly in force”(Heidegger, p.169) At a time when systems and ideas are changing, the buildings/ public art associated with the “old gods” get physically vandalised. In its physical aspect “the battle of the new gods against the old is being fought.” (Heidegger, p.168-9) This commonly observed practise is currently taking place in the UK, US and Belgium.

A statue of former Belgian King Leopold II stands in the city of Ghent, Belgium June 11, 2020. The colonial-era monarch’s troops killed and maimed millions of people in Congo, Leopold’s personal fiefdom from 1885 to 1908. Adam Hochschild, the U.S. author of the best-selling book “King Leopold’s Ghost,” concluded that about half the local population perished under the Belgian monarch. Villages that did not meet their rubber collection quotas were made to pay the debt by providing severed hands. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Most people in post-communist countries will recognize elements of this. The dismantling of the connections with the immediate socialist past was taking place in the 90s. It was done by renaming roads, taking apart sculptures, changing facades of buildings and similar. In a poignant scene from the film Goodbye Lenin, half of a bronze sculpture of Lenin is flown by a helicopter across the sky. It turns and almost beckons the character in its departing journey.

Scene from Goodbye Lenin A film by Wolfgang Becker

The meaning we inscribe in such events can change with the point of view and the time distance. Ypi remembers her parents’ words on the day the bronze statue of Enver Hodja was toppled. ““We are free!”. But, “Fast forward 30 years, and they regret their words.”reflecting on this event from a time distance has changed their position. Ypi uncovers issues not visible in the heat of the moment. She warns against focusing solely on the symbols of historic injustice “Conversations about the symbols of historic injustice make sense if they are framed as debates not about the legacy of the past, but about how that legacy still shapes the present.”(Ypi 2020) Colonial practises through the system of core and periphery are still in force.

BENJAMIN WALTER, 1999. Illuminations. London: London: Pimlico
FOSTER NICOLA, Restaging Origin, Restaging Difference: Restaging Harald
Szeemann’s Work. Journal of curatorial studies, 8(2), 232–258
HEIDEGGER MARTIN, 1993 Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger. Routledge
YPI LEA, 2020. By tearing down our statues, Albanians stopped learning from the past. The Guardian, June 14

Toppling sculptures