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All Fall Down

The life and death of public monuments

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Guy Tillim, Henry Stanley, 2004. Courtesy: Michael Stevenson Gallery and the artists.

Guy Tillim, Henry Stanley, 2004. Courtesy: Michael Stevenson Gallery and the artists.

On a near cloudless afternoon in February, six days after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, a large crowd assembled in the town square of Tobruk, a Libyan port city near the eastern border with Egypt. As the mood ratcheted up and fires began to blacken the sky, a dozen or so young men mounted a makeshift plinth, positioned themselves behind two free-standing green monoliths commemorating Muammar al-Gaddafi’s colour-coded political tome, The Green Book (1975), and toppled the sculptures. Responding to the wild cheering, 25-year-old chemical engineer Tawfik Othman recorded the crowd on his phone camera: some jubilantly celebrated with arms hoisted, others indifferently watched with hands in pockets, and not a small amount filmed the goings on for posterity and YouTube.

Boris Groys is perhaps right when he says that the internet has created more people who are interested in image production than image contemplation. But it is not for this reason that Othman’s excerpt from a revolution intrigues; rather, it is the event itself – the enraged destruction of a symbolic object. Partly due to their scale and visibility, it is often public monuments and sculptures that invite such unambiguous responses.

Arguably the most famous example of this sort of de-sublimated art criticism, at least from recent times, was the toppling in April 2003 of Iraqi artist Khaled Izzat’s bronze sculpture of Saddam Hussein, which formerly stood on Baghdad’s Firdous Square. ‘It was kind of like the statues of Lenin coming down, or the swastikas being blown up in Berlin’, staff sergeant Dave Sutherland told The Guardian a year after he arrived in the square in a tank and was ordered to destroy the sculpture. Izzat, a former professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad, had envisioned a less inglorious end: ‘I expected that when the regime changed, these statues would be brought down. But I thought they would put them in a museum, at least.’ It was not a naïve expectation; at least, not entirely.

Opened in 1993 and situated a 20-minute bus ride from Budapest’s city centre, Memento Park displays public sculptures dating back to Hungary’s four decades of communist rule. Although diverging in styles, the 40-odd works on view all possess that belaboured, hectoring impulse that marks public art in authoritarian states. Memento Park’s most peculiar work is, however, a contemporary work, an interpretation of an eight-metre effigy of Stalin that briefly towered over Budapest in the early 1950s. In October 1956, the relatively Lilliputian-sized residents of Budapest used steel cables, blowtorches and axes to topple this imposing exercise in Socialist Realism. News photographs show Stalin’s severed head, punctured and spiked with a road sign, lying on a cobbled square; only his leather boots remained in place on the stone plinth. Memento Park architect Ákos Eleod took his cue from this latter image and in 2006 unveiled a brick plinth topped with two empty boots.

The dismembering of Saddam Hussein in 2003 reiterated this resistant performance, although it is not the only example. During one of his numerous visits to the Democratic Republic of Congo, South African photographer Guy Tillim tracked down the discarded statue of the Welsh journalist and explorer Henry Stanley, which formerly overlooked Kinshasa, in a government transport lot. The bronze statue had been carefully severed at the feet during Mobutu Sese Seko’s ‘authenticity’ campaign (a localized version of Negritude) in the early 1970s. That the sculpture survived another three decades is remarkable, more so when you consider the legitimate outrage a monument to a white explorer in a pith helmet provokes – but then outrage and monuments are narrowly paired concepts. On the Tuesday following the liberation of Tobruk, young men continued to mull around the town square, some still occupied with smashing pieces of the green painted concrete sculpture. ‘There’s that absurd book!’ one man was reported crying out.

Perhaps the difference between Libya and Congo is time. As days turn into weeks, wounds turn into scars, monumental (and monumentally stupid) gestures of state will tend to lose their purchase. Rather than inspire or haunt, they simply become curious or newly meaningful. Earlier this year Iraqi authorities controversially backtracked on an equally controversial 2007 decision to demolish sculptor Adil Kamil’s triumphal silver cutlasses, The Swords of Q-adisiyah. Partially disassembled, Iraqi workmen were despatched to repair one of the bronze-plated hands. What strange fate awaits the gold painted fist crushing a US airplane that formed a central prop to Gaddafi’s theatrical ‘rats and cockroaches’ speech inside his Bab al-Azizia compound on February 22, five days after the fall of Tobruk? Consider the options: one, annihilation; two, polish and reuse; and three, retirement to a desert sculpture park. South Africa suggests a fourth possibility: the Houdini escape trick.

Until 1995, 31 May was the day when white South Africa commemorated the country’s departure from the Commonwealth in 1961. In a bizarre coincidence, on 31 May, 2001, concrete reinforcements in a parking garage beneath a public square in Pretoria gave way. Artist Coert Steynberg’s 3.6-metre bronze head (1972) of J.G. Strijdom – Minister of South Africa from 1954–8 – looking every bit as earnest and concentrated as Lenin, fell five floors and broke into five pieces. Although reassembled and currently on loan to a museum in Modimolle, 200km north of Johannesburg, the head is still missing an ear.

Sean O’Toole is a writer and editor living in Cape Town, South Africa. He contributed an essay to David Goldblatt’s updated 2016 Steidl edition of In Boksburg (1982).

Issue 139

First published in Issue 139

May 2011
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