Is a new monumentality possible today?
What are the forms it could take?
MONUMENTALITY is the property of an artistic image related to the aesthetic category of the sublime.
Its content is socially relevant and expressed as a large sculptural form
imbued with heroic and epic themes that affirms positive ideal.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia
It seems that the concept of monumentality is entirely obsolete in this day and age.
The history of monuments has fallen into the past.
Instead of monuments, we have theme parks: multimedia spectacles that are from time to time commissioned from famous artists and architects
in order to commemorate some agreed-upon historical fact.
These spectacles have neither formal innovation, nor do they depict heroes who have accomplished ‘great feats,’ only innocent victims, reminding us “Never Again…”
There are also different performative anti-monumental practices performed by a number of mostly marginalized groups (artist included); they tend to be interventions with already existing monuments.
Often, they mock them, or question their validity, re-codifying and destroying their image in the urban space and in the common memory of communities.
Naturally, the government relapses into archaic habits, casting things in bronze, casts them out of marble, and erecting these monsters in the centers of their decaying power. There’s almost no arguing that monumentality in its classic, elevated forms has saturated, and today’s citizens live surrounded by monumental symbols that have been drained of meaning, obsolete rituals of living memory.
But is this really the case?
And is it important to preserve any part of this most important tradition?
Our project, Face to Face with the Monument, was inspired by the Soviet War Memorial on Schwarzenbergplatz in Vienna.
We believe that this canonical example of Stalinist monumental art, erected immediately after the end of the war,
is still capable of stimulating critical discussion regarding the significance of monument politics and the forms
that the commemoration of important historical events can take on today.
It has been 70 years since the victory over Nazism. Much has changed during this time: the USSR had disappeared,
there is a new, global world that positions itself outside of all forms of ideology and rejects all historical teleology.
Today, discussing progressive social ideals seems at the very least naïve; for a long time, it was taken for granted that
all of these ideals had already been realized and that all that was left was to work for perfecting their manifestation.
However, everything turned out more complicated: the new situation of the crisis of the free market and the burgeoning clerical and nationalist moods tell us that the long-standing argument between the (allegedly) outmoded silent archaism and verbose contemporariness is not yet resolved: the artist must once again immerse herself in its headwaters in order to respond to the call of her historical moment.
The situation developing around Soviet war monuments has suddenly, unexpectedly for everyone, taken on a new life in the midst of the escalation of the second cold war.
The democratic uprising of Ukraine was a clear demonstration
that even today, the political discourse is unavoidably intertwined with a whole knot of unresolved historical traumas;
the iconoclasm is an inescapable desire for a transfiguration,
wherein the argument over who the real hero
is can still only be resolved with armed conflict.
From the very beginning, our project has been devoted to the attempt to construct a direct dialogue with the past.
Our initial idea was simple: we wanted to erect an installation (like scaffolding, but more complex, a reference to Tatlin’s tower) around the Monument to the Soviet Soldier and allow anyone who wishes to climb to the top and be face to face with the statue—a ghost from the past.
However, our idea faced serious resistance. This simple and spectacular gesture that could have drawn attention to the Soviet monument and involve it in a public dialogue with the city was rejected by the Russian embassy, which has jurisdiction over the monument, and without the permission of which no public art project can take place in its vicinity.
The response of the Russian embassy and the government it represents was understandable: for them, no dialogue—much less a critical one—about the sacred past should exist.
We were forced to regroup, step back and get perspective, which forced us to reevaluate our ideas and outline the tasks of a critical assessment of monumentality anew. This was especially important as our project was now taking place against the backdrop of the dramatic developments in the escalation of the military conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
In this conflict we see how both sides use the events of the distant, ideologized past in order to legitimize their present political positions. We see how deeply they’ve become entrenched in search for their identities in the context of the tragic conflict between Nazism and Stalinism, unable to turn this experience into a lesson in memory and forgetting that could form the foundation for a joint future.
The blatant non-modernity of this situation is apparent against the background of the main paradigmatic shift in the contemporary politics of memory, which is based on the constant reconsideration of the concept of the victim. The idea of victimhood is a challenge to the archaic opposition of victor/vanquished. The archaic symbol is always a martyr—a hero who sacrifices himself for a great idea. The images of the victims of the Holocaust, the Leningrad Blockade, the Gulag, and the Holodomor have all been commemorated with different practices, which have become new stages in the development of the practices of monumentality.
An enormous and painful discussion on the representation of history (about witnesses and responsibility, an ethic turn in memorial politics, on trauma and the work of mourning, asymmetrical violence, the polyphony of social memory, the universality of the norms and measures of crimes and so on) that began in Europe after the war remains incredibly relevant today, allowing us to resist any forms of archaization of consciousness.
However, in order to overcome making the practices of monumentality banal, we must remember what Benjamin says on judging history:
To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes… The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
Today, when the world has approached a new, dangerous boundary, Benjamin’s prophecy calls us to create new milestones in the past. If we are truly prepared to remember and fight, first and foremost, we must establish the sense of ourselves in history—and not only in history, but in the history of the struggle.
Only then can we find ourselves on top of the most important task: to ‘save the dead’. Only in this case can the piles of rock, marble, steel, the groves of trees (with and without blinking monitors) come to mean something: not only for coming generations, but as an active political force in transforming the world. For this reason, it is now, in this moment of growing danger, that it is so crucial to consider new forms of monumentality.
To remember means to struggle.