Thursday, December 09, 2010

What Makes a Monument?

Last night several artists participated in a Smithsonian-sponsored presentation and round-table discussion concerning the problematics of modern day "Approaches to Public Art, Placemaking, and National Commemoration." Their essential message was: monuments, as they're traditionally conceived and built, are boring, and they quickly fade from the foreground of our memory and conscious, eventually losing their meaning all together. "Monuments are doomed to be invisible" one artist explained. It seemed a spot-on idea for the dead history capital of the world.

Each artist offered distinct but congruent solutions to the problem of dead war-figure monuments. Krzysztof Wodiczko, Harvard professor and artist in temporary and interactive light installations, expressed his wish for existing monuments to be "reactualized," reconnected to modern life through new artistic undertakings (multimedia, performance art, etc). "There are so many historic buildings and monuments," he explained, "for which the contradictions between the ideals for which they were built and the actuality of the way life really is happening in front of them, is left unexplored." Sounds a bit heady for a stodgy old Washington, D.C. But its a profound thought, that calls for further contemplation.

Julian LaVerdiere, artist and designer of the World Trade Center Tribute in Light, expressed his wish to see monuments not become celebrated for a singular statue or brick, but derive meaning through their ability to offer a "transformative experience" to the visitor. He cited a potato famine memorial in New York City at which the artist had simply picked up an acre of a fallow Irish farm and plopped it in the middle of a city square. Both LaVerdiere and Justine Simons, Director London's Cultural Agenda and Programming for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, voiced their support of temporary public art instillation as a substitute for monuments. Wodiczko said, "I don't mind permanent monuments, as long as they change," eliciting a large laugh from the audience.

Host and moderator Thomas Luebke, Secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Art, said what everyone was thinking, or at least what I was thinking, when he observed, "Too oten memorials in D.C. just feel like real estate development." But how does a city with so many watch-dog groups, and so many politicians waiting to get involved, attempt to "wake up the landscape," as Simons suggested? She attributed much of her success in staging the temporary memorials of Trafalgar Square's 4th Plinth to her ability to "rid the process of all politicians and politics." The temporary nature of the projects "rid the process of some of the anxiety," she explained, "and allowed us to experiment and test the boundaries."

At the end of the presentations and subsequent discussion, the audience wasn't exactly left with a solution, but that's never how these kinds of things work. Instead, listeners were left with several provocative ideas to contemplate. How do we wake up the landscape with interactive, meaningful public art and memorials? How do we keep monuments alive? What is the future of place making in a fractious culture, and a divisive climate? And how do we sneak some interesting public art past the NCPC, ANC's, District Council, and the Committee of 100?


Anonymous said...

Once again, the "contemporary art" community shows that it has little idea what beauty is and perhaps even less of an idea how to make art that communicates to anyone but themselves.

Anonymous said...

These are great ideas to actually engage people to remember what the monuments symbolize. How many times do you drive by the Washington monument and actually think about George Washington and the founding of the country? It would be great if monuments could constantly change to allow people to think about their meaning more often.

I only need mention one monument to prove this point. World War I Memorial. They didn't build that originally to be obscure and meaningless, but yet that is how it is viewed (or more often not viewed) today.

Anonymous said...

It's a provocative idea, but how can monuments be dynamic? And do they really have to be dynamic in order to be relevant? The Lincoln Memorial doesn't change but it is capable of moving people emotionally -- based on the power of the sculpture of Lincoln and the quotations from Lincoln that speak to us today in a powerful way. The Vietnam Memorial is a successful monument in terms of having a deep impact on people, but it doesn't change day to day. So "success" must not be only a function of changing constantly.

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