A large number of artists in the Netherlands and elsewhere are intensely occupied with the history of the monument. From whence comes this interest in what had until recently seemed a genre relegated to the inactive list?
Ours is not really a monumental time. As we look at the state of things, the word that would sooner come to mind is demolition. This is certainly true in the West, in the midst of an unparalleled institutional crisis. Following the discredit of the ideologies, we now have that of the institutions, with politics and government at the top, the media and most recently, the financial institutions. Cynicism and confusion reign in a society that no longer has figures of authority or people to look up to. To paraphrase a famous statement by Andy Warhol, we would prefer to choose a new person as our shining example once every fifteen minutes. Try to capture such a time in a sculpture, in such a way that a community is attached to it. It is a clever artist who can do it.
Together with the ideologies and the institutions, one of their most important public representatives has also found itself on the trash heap. Monuments: who still cherishes them? If they had a bad name half a century ago, as the remains of a long gone past of honouring heroes and unbridled nationalism, since the ideological cleanup of the last couple of decades, there is no one who still wants to take them seriously.
This makes it all the more remarkable to find that the subject is of great interest to young artists. METROPOLIS M has already reported on Falke Pisano (METROPOLIS M 5/2005) and Jan Kempenaers (METROPOLIS M 2/2008), and follows in this issue with Cyprien Gaillard, Ania Molska and the Dutchman, Zorro Feigl. There is an especially large number of artists from Eastern Europe who are occupied with the subject, the best known of whom is David Maljkovic, a Rijksakademie graduate. He found fame with a series of video installations entitled Heritage, in which he gives a dilapidated war monument in Croatia a new, futuristic identity. But there are more, so many that the phenomenon has found its way to the major exhibitions, including the Berlin Biennial, which designed an entire sculpture park for the occasion.
The question is, what exactly is going on? Where does this investigation of a genre of art that has been under fire for decades, with its historic undertones, come from? Why this embrace of a form of art, that as Robert Musil once poignantly wrote, offered the best possible guarantee of invisibility? Is it an attempt to reconfirm a people’s own national identity, now under pressure in a globalized economy? Do people want to counter the all-pervasive negativity by using art to boost morality with tokens of grandeur, as Anna Tilroe suggested during her visit to Sonsbeek last summer? Or is the monument suddenly again being seen as an important social factor, now that relational aesthetics have proved to reach no further than the inner circle of the art circuit?
Signs of Protest
This interest has also revived in the Netherlands, although not so long ago that the monument was declared dead. That was in 1977, when Jan Wolkers quite literally dug the grave for monuments with his Auschwitz Monument in Amsterdam. This somewhat kitschy monument, which reflected a broken sky by way of glass sunk into the ground, was already a ruin in when it was conceived. Instead of proudly, powerfully and intentionally seeking the heights as a beacon for humanity, its audience must meekly lower their eyes. It is a sad sculpture, through and through, one that cannot and will not hide its own vulnerability and shame, one that therefore continually confronts the community with its own shame (nor has any other work of art had to be repaired so often, after the glass was damaged by vandals).
Wolkers created a monument that in a certain sense makes all monuments redundant, reducing them to detours of vanity. Thanks to this monument, all that has appeared as public art looks like light-hearted nonentities, kitschy symbols of human arrogance whose substance is markedly limited. From then on, it has been scandal and shame that colour public space, not nobility and pride.
It is therefore not strange to see how, since Wolkers, public sculpture seems increasingly coloured by a motif of the payback, of settling scores. The monument has become the public voice that calls authority (the community) to account, points out its failures instead of doing the opposite, the way things used to be. These are monuments that draw attention to the failure of man and society, putting them to the pillory in an apparent attempt to turn the tide.
The Netherlands’ greatest and funniest inquisitor of the moment is undoubtedly Hans van Houwelingen. In 2000, in a park in Groningen, he dumped a ton of potatoes next to a large bronze statue of Lenin, which had been brought to the city by a contractor. The public was invited to take the potatoes home to eat, or to throw them at Lenin, as a symbol of freedom of speech and a reckoning with the ideological dream that never came true. A few years later, in the middle of Lelystad, he added insult to injury when, as a criticism of the Dutch ‘polder modernism’ that had likewise failed to live up to its promises, he placed an old statue of the engineer, Cornelis Lely, on top of a gigantic pedestal, as an hilarious exaggeration of the ideals of Lely’s day. Houwelingen mockingly added that the sad centre of Lelystad could view this design as a model to look up to in its aspirations.
The Zuil van Lely (the Lely Pillar) is characteristic of the double message in the new monuments. Instead of honouring heroes or indoctrinating the public, these new monuments want to stimulate critical perspectives. They take a step back, but they also embrace, in the same way that Christo’s huge public works make things more visible by concealing them.
Since 2006, in Utrecht, a project has been under way that expresses this ambiguous movement away from and towards the monument with great refinement. In the artistic sense, Roulette, by Manfred Pernice, can be seen as an exceedingly complex attempt to pin down the rules for the function of monumental sculpture in society. On a traffic roundabout at the boundary between the old city centre and Leidsche Rijn, Pernice installed a number of concrete pedestals on which several public sculptures from Utrecht centre will be placed every six months, according to what the artist calls a meticulously directed Fahrplan.
That which seems to be merciless banishment of something that had long since lost its visibility in the city centre, appears to be a clever attempt to break through the all but petrified perceptions of large and small monuments in Utrecht’s public spaces. ‘What or who revolves around what or whom?’ is the motto that the artist has given this sculptural choreography, which on the one hand, takes public sculpture off its pedestal and unmasks it, yet at the same time rehabilitates it in a new constellation with several of its fellow city sculptures.
The result is as idealistic as it is monumental, as absolute as it is relative, a dubious tribute to public sculpture that shows that however solid and stable its value always seemed to be, the monument ultimately remains part of a living, greater whole, one in which people and sculpture continue to revolve around one another, perpetually changing positions. Manfred Pernice’s Roulette shows the oddity of our habit of providing public space with all sorts of monumental sculpture, as well as the fascination that it generates. It seems to me that there can be no better way to introduce a discussion about the contemporary significance of monuments than with an illustration of this work.