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This is not an act of vandalism. It is a work of public art and an act of applied art criticism. We have no intent to damage a mere statue. The true damage lies with patriarchy, white supremacy, and settler-colonialism embodied by the statue.
— October 2017 manifesto issued by the Monument Removal Brigade
Robert E. Lee never asked for them. Harvard-based public artist Krzysztof Wodiczko slyly proposes sending all of them to re-education camps. MRB imagines a day when they are “moldering away as a ruin in the trash-heap of history.” But the current and increasingly heated debate over how to represent our troubled, violently charged past (though hardly actually past) is merely the latest wave of an ongoing confrontation about whose history matters. The question that is still in need of an answer regarding the debate over public memorials that celebrate patriarchy, white supremacy, and settler-colonialism is not about what part of the nation’s past should be eliminated from view, but how we acknowledge the complex and often conflicted histories — good, bad, and ugly — that actually make up our collective experience. In truth, the current face-off is the culmination of several centuries in which the way history has been memorialized consistently reflected the interests of business leaders, municipal power brokers, wealthy arts patrons, and even main-stream academics. Significantly however, it also bears the marks of another, decades-old set of forces that includes socially engaged artists and community activists who have confronted, reinvented, and in some instances put into practice temporary interventions and performance works that challenge dominant forms of historical representation.
Opinions vary about what to do with these objects. They range from a desire to wipe the slate clean by removing all public memories of the Confederacy and white supremacy, to cloaking such monumental works beneath black tarp, much as the group Decolonize This Place — a coalition that includes Native American and Palestinian-rights activists — did last fall (October 14, 2016) with the Theodore Roosevelt monument outside the American Museum of Natural History. No, Roosevelt was not a Southern rebel; nevertheless, his equestrian statue is no less offensive. The 26th US President and former NYC Police Superintendent is depicted by artist James Earle Fraser with masculine vitality astride a horse. Head tilted back and eyes fixed on a distant horizon he wears his signature Rough Rider uniform from the Spanish American War. Flanking Roosevelt’s right side is an American Native chief, while on his left strides an African man in sandals and what appears to be a Maasai warrior’s Shuka robe. According to former Executive Director for the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, A. L. Freundlich, these accompanying figures are guides symbolizing Roosevelt’s “interest in the natural world.” According to Decolonize This Place, “New York’s premier scientific museum continues to honor the bogus racial classification that assigned colonized peoples to the domain of Nature, and Europeans to the realm of Culture,” adding that “a monument that appears to glorify racial hierarchies should be retired from public view.”
Still, there are other, equally engaging methods for confronting offensive historical monuments, such as marking the absence of public memorials to the 99% of us who have been forgotten or even erased from most urban spaces. These people include the laborers who built the city, the street urchins whose tears have soaked its pavements, and all generations of common people lacking the political or economic advantages of those who typically lay claim to management of our public memories.
In 1992, five hundred years after Christopher Columbus came to the so-called new world and twenty five years before the current crisis of historical representation, a group of over thirty metal street signs with images and texts appeared in downtown Manhattan marking the forgotten, or often altogether unknown histories of working women, African Americans, Native peoples, Latinos and Asian Americans among other marginalized groups. The project was created by REPOhistory, a multi-ethnic group of artists, educators and activists whose mission was to “retrieve and relocate absent historical narratives at specific locations in the New York City.” With one-year permits from the Department of Transportation and support from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Municipal Art Society and the administration of Mayor David Dinkins, REPOhistory installed, and later de-installed, a suite of what we might call today “alt-historical” public markers attached to lampposts and traffic signs roughly between Chambers and Wall Streets.
One plaque marked the site of the first meal and slave market at the corner of Wall and Water Streets, another described what was then the very recent discovery of a “Negro Burial Ground” at the construction site for a new federal office building. Still others detailed the first all-women’s strike in the United States by the United Tailoresses Society near Church Street, the first Chinese American community in the city once located at the South Street Seaport, John Jacob Astor’s “problematic exchanges —commercial, ecological and spiritual” with Native Americans at his former headquarters on the north side of Pine between William and Pearl Streets, and still another temporary marker recalled the melting down of a gilded equestrian statue depicting King George III whose metal was molded into bullets later used during the War of Independence. Not all of the signs dwelt exclusively on the past. Outside the NY Stock Exchange REPOhistory installed a plaque that ironically cautioned passersby about the “advantages of an unregulated free-market economy.” It was illustrated with an image of a businessman in free-fall that recalled the Great Crash of 1929.
REPOhistory initially set its sights on creating a public intervention at “The Four Continents” by Daniel Chester French, a quartet of marble statues portraying allegories of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas situated outside the former Alexander Hamilton US Custom House at One Bowling
Green. Asia is presented as a bejeweled woman stoically siting atop a throne supported by human skulls and surrounded by near-naked, emaciated serfs. A glowing cross appears behind her back as if to indicate Christian values will soon replace Asia’s despotic past. Far to the left sits Africa. Though fabric drapes her waist she is characterized as a slumbering nude figure propped-up by an eroded Egyptian sphinx and a male lion. By contrast, Europe is illustrated as a stately, fully clothed woman next to a section of the Parthenon frieze, while America sits holding a torch and an ear of corn with her foot pressing down upon the head of Quetzalcoatl, the flying serpent god of the conquered Aztecs.
Despite being erected in 1907, “The Four Continents” reflects the derogatory racist outlook of 19th Century Manifest Destiny, just as the Roosevelt statue, dedicated in 1940, made its appearance while lynchings were being carried out across the Jim Crow South, and while Northern whites rioted to maintain racially segregated jobs and neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, and Los
Angeles. Less known is the fact that African-American arctic explorer Matthew A. Henson, who is today recognized as having first reached the actual North Pole ahead of Admiral Robert Peary in 1909, later returned to the United States and worked the next thirty years as a customs house clerk. Whereas Peary was credited with the accomplishment, receiving international honors, an official Congressional thank you, and promoted to the rank of rear admiral, no marker or sign indicates Henson’s presence at Bowling Greene, though a modest plaque does mark his gravesite in Arlington Virginia.
In 1989, REPOhistory drew up plans to create inflatable “counter-monuments” that they would install illegally, in guerrilla art fashion, to confront this monument. Ultimately however, REPOhistory abandoned this interventionist historical adjustment to focus on their Lower Manhattan Sign Project scheduled for 1992. So what was the outcome of the counter-Columbus experiment in “people’s history”? It was mixed, unexpected, convoluted — just like the city that produced the project. Still, the point of REPOhistory was not nostalgia for a lost past, but rather an attempt to recognize that some histories disturb the present.
Several years later the group received Department of Transportation (DOT) permission to temporarily memorialize gay, lesbian, and trans-gendered people’s histories, this time in Greenwhich Village, with assistance from the Storefront for Art and Architecture. However, the project entitled “Queer Spaces” would be the last time that obtaining permission from the city would come easily for them. A third street sign project in 1998 was initially blocked by the Giuliani administration. “Civil Disturbances: Battles For Justice in New York City” was produced in partnership with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Its objective was to mark sites where significant legal confrontations led to the extension of civil rights for the politically and economically disfranchised. REPOhistory marked the firehouse at 250 Livingston Street in Brooklyn where Brenda Berkman worked after winning a lawsuit to become the city’s first female fire fighter, and one African-American group member who had been part of a de-segregation court case in New York posted her sign about the case outside the offices of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund on West 40th Street. Meanwhile, several other signs directly decried the NYPD’s history of misconduct and violence towards people of color. Carrying ladders and installation tools the DOT faxed a note informing REPOhistory it was not to carry out the project only moments before its commencement. “Now the signs may end up in the very courthouses that inspired them,” wrote David Gonzalez in the New York Times the next morning.
REPOhistory had its day in court and eventually prevailed, thanks to pro bono assistance from Debevoise & Plimpton. A few months delayed, the group’s “Civil Disturbances” sign project went up for one year, though not without further battles. All of this history may offer one answer to the question of what should replace monuments to racism and Confederate defection. Meanwhile, REPOhistory is not the only example of artists confronting the way the past is depicted.
In 1990, Mohawk artist Alan Michelson placed forty cast concrete markers near City Hall in Manhattan to indicate the location of Collect Pond, a large source of freshwater for the island’s indigenous population that is now completely paved over. In 2009 African American artist Dread Scott donned a sign with the phrase “I AM NOT A MAN” printed on it, replicating the iconic message placards carried by striking, black Memphis sanitation workers in 1968, except for the addition of the word not. Walking through the streets of Harlem, Scott’s social performance art provoked the largely African American passersby to consider all that has still to be accomplished since the Civil Rights Movement. Most recently an 1870 statue of Abraham Lincoln at the northern end of Union Square Park came to life, though not with the voice of the Republican emancipator, but through the faces and voices of fourteen recent war veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 2012 reanimated monument was the work of artist Krzysztof Wodiczko.
Seeking to defend artworks that buttress racial, sexual, or class domination using the 19th century concept of “art for art’s sake” is not only distasteful, it is also without either historical or aesthetic merit. As Walter Benjamin once powerfully observed, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.” In this instance, memorials and statues reflecting undemocratic and biased points of view are these tainted historical documents. Instead of returning to a model of permanently memorializing an illusory and grandiloquent past, why not consider commissioning temporary commemorative works rooted in local community histories and struggles that would reflect the multifaceted history of the United States from the bottom up, rather than from the top down? In any case, the task of representing our nation’s complicated past at this, our (latest) moment of representational crisis, must not fall only to the inventiveness of artists, but needs to be seen as belonging to all engaged citizens, as well as residents, documented or not, who have a stake in reimagining the way history will be represented to future generations.