Donald Trump’s 1997 aspiration to transport from Russia a monumental heroic bronze of the fifteenth-century Christopher Columbus to the properties he owned on the banks of the Hudson River is often noted as a sign of vainglory. But in its crass combination of personal self-interest, national symbolism, and the enlisting of foreign aid to procure renown, the aspiration appears an early instance of Russian-Trump cooperation rooted in symbolic synergy that bears reflection as it prefigures the merging of nationalism and internationalism that plagued the Trump Presidency. It also shows him, in surprising ways, acting like a state–monuments of national identity are not often given to a real estate promoter, but planned by a government or government actor–that followed sustained and repeated attempts in the post-Soviet era of presenting the statue of Columbus designed by Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli as a gift of state.
While reflecting Trump’s grandiosity and taste for immensity, the plans to import a monumental statue that cast the navigator embrace a monumental aesthetics, recasting the navigator as a herald of a new age in quite openly authoritarian terms. If noted Israeli universal historian Yuval Harrari cast the fifteenth century navigator as a part of the Scientific Revolution in his synoptic history of humankind, the legendary navigator provided a durable image of the global extension of the political authority of Spanish monarchs over the New World whose expansion of the familiar boundaries of sovereignty offered an icon for globalism, eclipsing the optimism of the Republican icon of the Statue of Liberty–“Liberty Enlightening the Globe“–with a far starker image of authoritarian power of aspirations to global power.
The statue made to be presented to the United States marked the fall of the Soviet Union was a symbol of opening a new era of global history. Its unprecedented grandiosity sought to be a new Wonder of the Modern World, emulating in so doing one of the classical Seven Wonders of the world in antiquity as a marker of the defense of space, the gigantic towers that were pierced on the shores of a classical port city of monumental limbs, championing the wonder of the towers Trump was building as much as being a figure of an early modern colonizing drive.
The figure of Columbus standing tall with his right arm raised, palm open, as if bearing testimony to an oath, or trying to hold up an image of a globe, would have inaugurated a new era of globalism–one Trump might well have seen as an image of the global aims of Trump International as he set sights on expanding his properties beyond New York and Atlantic City for the first time, eventually expanding properties to 19 cities across the globe, a global expansion that would bridge national and international space in ways that mirror globalization. The navigator indeed intersected with aspirations to royalty, and designs for the expansion of the Trump brand. While the coat of arms that Trump devised for his international golf course in Scotland was used before being registered, it revealed his aspirations to royalty, as the navigator intersected with a new designs for the global expansion of the Trump brand, that bridged global and national ends, by a marker of white, Eurocentric national identity. Team Trump had felt sufficiently entitled to devise a crest of an “eagle clutching golf balls” above the motto “Nunquam concedere” [Never Give Up], from 2006, even if a crest was only granted to Donald Trump in 2012, after he had received warning for using the coat of arms of an unsanctioned crest in 2008; the importance and image of tenacity that he sought to project was long planned with “Trump’s family heritage” in mind, with an eye to fashioning himself as royalty, combining a Lion Rampant to refer to his Scottish ancestry and the stars of America, omitting his German father, with three chevrons to denote sky, sand dunes and sky as components of the golf resort.
When he was granted a Scottish coat of arms in 2012, he was already prepared to take his claims of sovereignty worldwide.
The arrival of Columbus denoted and boded a mapping of transoceanic routes, to be sure, that the hopes of investing Russian monies in America and American funds in Russia promised, and which the icon of Columbus, that would not allow visitors to reach its peak, embodied beyond a simple infrastructure of transnational collaboration.
For the globalism of Trump’s personal interests was met by the Russian oligarchs with whom he had begun to do business in 1996, amassing properties for which he would devise his own family crest, as if to redefine the relation of national and international space in a new form of globalization rooted in protecting personal and Trump family interests–interests that might as well be asserted as an alternate coat of arms, such as that Trump in fact devised for his family.
In its open emulation of a new Colossus of Rhodes, a bronze statue of 280 B.C. that extended one hundred and eight feet tall, only to collapse in an earthquake some sixty years later. This bronze colossus would be nearly three hundred foot tall bronze statue; it would echo how the colossus “bestrode the narrow world” but be situated as a freestanding statue efore sails emblazoned with royal emblems, if adopting a similar pose of an outstretched arm of open palm and bent left arm–left arm resting, unlike Helios, on an anachronistic rotary steering wheel, staring rather blankly out to space from a privileged position in a small ship, as if he were a puppet, more than a world navigator.
The statue cast in three foundries–including one of the oldest in Europe, dating from the age of Catherine the Great, assembled a range of bronze sheets, copper, and steel, in a monument that seemed devised to be the greatest size possible, dominating the skyline with sails and mast against which the towering figure of Columbus was set–as did the Colossus of Rhodes, known only from images, but evoking a wonder of the ancient world.
The powerful vision of the approach and arrival of a monumental Neo-Augustan vision of Columbus, right hand outstretched, raised above his head in a salutation of adlocutio, left arm bent at the elbow, as if addressing the continent to inaugurate a new age, captured by its title, “Birth of a New World.” As if sustaining a globe, or gathering the attention of his audience, the oddly nostalgic image of a Columbus with an open palm of his right hand seems less posed to speak than to hail the New World as he arrives from overseas.
Trump valued it most for containing forty million dollars worth of export-grade bronze (able to evade export taxes, and no doubt be a tax write-off for his projected building), excited by the transaction about which he boasted to journalists as evidence of his new global status as a magnet of Russian oligarchs’ funds to Trump Properties, before Trump ever entertained hopes to indulge his aspirations for self-promotion into the political sphere, but as he imagined himself to promote brokered property deals of increasingly global consequence that redefined his identity from a New Yorker–expanding from building the tallest tower as monuments in neighborhoods of Manhattan, from the East Side (Trump Palace) to midtown (Trump Tower) to the west side (Trump International) to Chelsea–through the mid-1990s, to make a new name of unbounded goals on a global scale, as an icon of Columbus aptly seemed to express.
The planned statuary of the iconic explorer long cast as a national hero panders to such tropes of heroism and imperial grandeur they are rarely examined as a precedent for Trump’s extension of promoting hotels and buildings to an international currency of indebtedness, codependence, and obligation–and linking of his hotel chain into an international web of realty development. Raising questions of the relation between the national and international in a global market, the promised statue stakes problems of reconciling personal interests with public interests, moreover, that would be rehearsed throughout the Trump Presidency.
The oddly deterritorialize Columbus, erasing the memories of a figure identified with colonization by 1992–Columbus Day was reframed as Indigenous Peoples Day in Berkeley CA in that years, as protests spread in the nation calling for reconsideration of its celebration–the statue of a smooth-faced Columbus with a royal insignia in sails behind his back and a medal about his neck seemed no less than an erasure of temporalities, deriving from the post-Soviet society in which the monument was forged by Zurab Tsereteli, a sculptor whose public statuary was preferred in the post-soviet period, known for the proliferation of his statues on Moscow’s streets, and who would go on to complete new bronze busts of both Lenin, Stalin and Gorbachev for an Alley of Rulers, as if to restore their authority as Russian leaders.
The growth of a new statuary in Moscow was striking, as dense statuary of Marx, eighty statues of Lenin, and Soviet leaders was removed from squares, pillars, and plazas–as over 5,500 were removed from the Ukraine–including sixty-six foot tall bronze authoritarian statues eagerly moved to halls for monuments like Moscow’s Fallen Monument Park–
–in a massive removal or erasure of memory that left striking urban absences–if they were not indeed melted down and resmelted for other monuments.
The statue of Columbus would export a new idiom of public authoritarian statuary to the shores of the United States in ways Trump was eager to sponsor. The Columbus monument, of greater size than the sixty-foot statues of Lenin, is less a marker not of international waters, but of conquest. Its placement would have glorified Trump’s coversion of the landfill area of the old rail yards that once served ships arriving on the city piers to a boondoggle of capital.
The configuration of capital by the magic trick of reclassifying landfill of the West Side Yards as residential had led to it becoming a magnet for international investment–greeting America or hailing Manhattan, a robed eminence of curiously reduced head, whose body seems to have been made more monumental than the skiff he is on could accommodate, hardly in the proportions of a Vitruvian man, of 6,500 tons of possibly recycled bronze, removed from the map, and indeed removed from the violence of the narratives of enslavement, military conquest, confrontation, and commercial settlement, as well as violence that were the consequences of the Columbian project?
Heralding the birth of a New World, the statue reveals an odd erasure of temporalities in its evocation of a mythistokry that had been shaped in Russia to replace the monumetnalism of a socialist past, but is even an emptier icon of grandeur. How to explain the transatlantic transfer of so many tons of bronze, originally hoped to be a gift to Washington D.C. in 1992, marking the celebration of the quincentenary of Columbus Day–or the appeal of the statuary to the developer Donald Trump? The question is perhaps poorly posed, but the nexus of interests in assuming a new global authority that was shared by Trump, post-Soviet oligarchs, and real estate barons is oddly compelling and demands resolution.
The plans for the arrival of a Moscow-forged monument to Columbus would also mark Trump’s entry in a shady international network in the late 1990s resulted in the curious migration of the heroic statuary pastiche of the fifteenth-century navigator staking royal claims to transatlantic property–renaming Caribbean islands after his nation and Christian pantheon of saints. In mapping the islands as San Salvador, formerly Guanahani, Hispaniola–currently Haiti and Dominican Republic–Juan de la Cosa, a cartographer-navigator who owned the Santa Maria, participated in the current rage of renaming, drawing boundaries around, and mapping ties of power over expanse–
–enumerated the individual islands where flags set by Columbus during his first voyage, of which de la Cosa could provide personal testimony as the owner of one of the three caravels that made landfall in the New World.
The cartographer was taking part in a broad collective effort of renaming, bounding, and explaining empire across a terrestrial expanse that could barely be conceived even if it could be measured, staking claims to those magnified Carribbean islands where Columbus did in fact make landfall. The map so laboriously made by de la Cosa foregrounded the islands that were multicolored to resemble the genre of isolari of the Aegean, but planted the Spanish flag on a renamed Hispaniola, confirming the voyage had successfully renamed the islands, placing them below Spanish flags.
The arrival of the navigator echoed modern statues, as well as the poesis of early modern geography of naming, bounding, and declaring sovereignty over untold expanses rendered open to subjugation and control: the images of the region in the Letters of Columbus, an early best-seller, promoted the possessions of the monarch in the New World as a direct appropriation in the name of the Spanish monarchs, promising an abundance of spices, metals, and indeed the inhabitants themselves–and their souls as potential sites of conversion.
Was naming of the statue of Columbus off of Manhattan may gesture to Columbus’ renaming New World properties for Spain’s sovereign as if to channel a motif of the promotion of real estate development? The inclusion of the crosses on Columbus’ sails in Tsereteli’s monument echoed the early woodcut. And the arrival of Columbus in Manhattan seemed to announce the inauguration of a new era of transatlantic exchange between Russia and the United States; forgetting the lesson of Ozymandias, perhaps, recuperating a shared icon of imperial authority seemed in this context to promote the legendary status of self-made man as an icon that the self-centered realtor would over-eagerly identify.
Trump would identify his towers and his self as a colossus that he no doubt narcissistically felt would embody his own grandeur as much as the grandeur of his buildings. For the figure of Columbus, as much as a discoverer of new lands and America, or an agent of the king, would serve to promote the developmen to international investment sufficiently exclusive for foreign royalty–Trump recently redecorated of his private triplex penthouse in Trump Tower, were he lived since 1983, in faux Louis XIV decor, replacing famed designer Alberto Donghia’s original understated decoration with help from a casino designer who jazzed the slightly austere modernism up with gilded boiserie, a bronze Eros and Psyche, rococo ceiling frescoes of Apollo, crystal chandeliers and a diamond and gold encrusted front-door and gold-leaf furniture–to join Donghia’s original concession of a gold leaf ceiling in an opulent decor.
When Donghia tragically died from AIDS in 1985, the designer thankfully never saw the obliteration of his concept with faux rococo renovations. But they captured the standard a Trump building aimed to offer. By 1996, when Trump had taken to promote casinos in Atlantic City, Trump quite grandiosely described the impending arrival of the monument as a “gift from the Russian people” whose delivery he had arranged at no expense, in quasi-regal terms, and in an interview with the New Yorker, promoted the arrival of the massive cultic statue forged in Moscow as something New York’s mayor would sign off on, and we should wait for. The “great work” of the prominent artist Zurab–the “man is major and legit”–that would soon arrive to grace–or dominate–the New York City skyline, rhapsodizing about the monument’s arrival without describing how it would be erected, signed off on, or even came to be proposed. Trump acted as if his interviewer expected nothing thirteen years after Trump Tower than a more massive next big Trump thing.
Was the sense that if the city had tolerated Trump Tower, it would be ready to accept a towering image of the navigator, medals draped around his neck, and royal crosses prominently blazoned on the sails of his ship?
Brokering the gargantuan bronze statue–what seemed a booby prize of international negotiation–as the fruit of newly acquired expertise in gaining capital from foreign markets. The regal sails that billowed behind the gargantuan–and historically grotesque–fifteenth century navigator who seemed to greet Manhattan island impassively from afar, foregrounded a cross on the medal around his neck that Donald probably thought was a “T” for Trump, but echoed the very sails of the caravels in Columbus’ Letters,–
–to judge by the statue as it was assembled in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, over twenty years later.
Trump then rather gleefully promoted the statue’s arrival from Moscow to journalists as a trophy of his own rebounding international currency, as if it was a confirmation of his new arrival in the class of a global real estate promoter. He energetically did so only after returning from his second trip to Moscow, and first visit to post-Soviet Russia, which was first being integrated into the free markets that Trump then seemed to believe he emblematized. And in Russia, Trump had inserted himself within a local kleptocracy of real estate grabs in hopes to find financing for his overseas projects in projects he had surveyed. Is the monument a celebration of Trump’s own image of his own grandiosity, or is the attempt to broker a “gift” from the “Russian people” a precedent for the false populism of the current President? In 1997, it was another case of Trump being Trump, his aspirations to grandiosity reaching new heights.
For although monuments are usually created by states, as ways to come to terms with memories or preserve them, Trump boasted he accepted the nearly three hundred foot statue from the Russian people, praising it as “six feet taller than the Statue of Liberty,” as if that was sufficient grounds to accept the already built bronze monument. He must have done so for personal gain, but the offer of a monument of national symbolism was not described in terms of American nationalism, but as something that would appeal to the Italian-Ameircan mayor Rudy Giuliani who had offered Trump multiple concessions for rezoning; it was undoubtedly part of a transaction that mutually beneficial, either a massive tax write-off, a sign of his own grandiosity, and affirming his own personal gain. The national associations that the Russians assumed were implicit when they had approached U.S. Presidents–George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton–with the statue, were all but absent.
Is it even possible that the massive bronze statue was even redesigned for Trump, to meet his desires? Perhaps the diminished size head hinted Tseretelli had cast a still larger body to make a monument meeting a demand the statue be taller than “Liberty Enlightening the World”–a “new colossus” itself, ut one that was famously associated with openly political values, when it was given by the French Republic to the American state as a token of political solidarity, admiration, and a defense of openly republican ideals that the French believed would soon be dominant in the world. If “Liberty Enlightening the World” was to cast republicanism across the globe, in ways that emulate the contemporary International Map of the World whose optimistic internationalism was promoted by French geographers, did hopes to erect the massive statue of Columbus celebrate underground circulation of global capital, offshore investment, and untaxed wealth that defined the post-Soviet era?
1. But if the Statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World” unveiled on October 28, 1886 towered over the business buildings of New York, almost 306 feet over sea-level, after being presented on July 4, 1884, echoing the transnational project of the American Revolution to “lay a foundation for erecting temples of liberty in every part of the earth” that sculptor Auguste Bartholdi wanted to be as “grand as the idea which it embodied,” was supported by champions of grandiosity as Theodore Roosevelt, the transnational currents of international capital and finance that underlay the arrival of the statue–not holding a tablet of laws, or raising a torch of enlightenment, but a white man surrounded by royal symbolism, perched on a small skiff.
If Liberty stands atop a broken chain, evoking the defense of liberty in the recent national trauma of the U.S. Civil War, and embodying justice, the figure of an anachronistic Columbus embodied not an icon of national identity of values to be honored across the globe–progress; determination; victory over oppression–affirming the nation as still providing an “asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty,” in Thomas Paine’s words–that U.S. President Grover Cleveland heralded as an unprecedented symbol of the “open gates” of the nation.
Whereas President Cleveland recognized the statue as embodying a yearning for Liberty after the defeat of the “monstrous injustice” of enslavement, he celebrated the statue as framing desire for liberty in international terms. For all the heady emotion of the opening of a post-Soviet world, the monumental statue rather marked the circulation of unregulated goods and shady international finance. The arrival of the monumental statuary of Columbus was an act of political amnesia, celebrated something like a foundational claim to power destined for private property, cleansing the remembrance of colonization as a victory in a flattening of historical perspective that borders on the classic definition of kitsch–what Milan Kundera described as the “absolute denial of shit” and blanketing of the experience of colonization or the grotesque nature of nationalist claims, in a “mass art” that seems to degrade the meaning of the nation, debasing abilities of remembrance.
Public monuments are traditionally conceived as planned by a state, city, or community,–sanctioning a common remembrance or celebration. The oddly hybrid resurgence of the navigator as a national symbol in this monument, a figure not of the nation, but of a global market for monuments that was erased from any attachment to place, seems emptied of any language of remembrance, displacing “kitsch” from what the Nazi government had once defined as a demeaning of the national symbol from the purity of how it created an “inner relationship” of the symbol and art object, but rather by giving it new currency by loosening the figure of the navigator it cast as a totalitarian figure of immense weight–six thousand tons!–and size from any symbolic associations of nationhood, but suggesting a muscular dominion by a commanding prominence that might migrate around the globe by pathways of global capital.
In contrast to the creation of monuments that might symbolize a nation, Trump’s position as receiver of a statue post-soviet governments ld him to entertain a gift of state that seemed to him a great deal for his brand and his property,–as a massive promotional device and visiting card, a sign of Trump making an even greater name for himself and his family on the New York City skyline. If in 1997 he had fulsomely promoted properties he had developed in New York’s Columbus Circle as being “One of the great buildings anywhere in New York, anywhere in the world,” one can almost imagine the interchange with Russian oligarchs where Trump noted the magnificence of the old Gulf+Western building he had promoted, by adding his name to it, leading to Luzhkov’s ears to prick up at the mention of Columbus, ready to suggest he had the perfect statue to adorn it, and Trump upping the ante by offering to place it at his newest, and even more majestic, property on the Hudson River, where the navigator could be situated off Manhattan Island–a place where he had never sailed. Tsereteli, Luzhkov, and Trump all found a common coinage: they all trafficked in mythistory, more than historical accuracy, wedded closely to the promotion of awing grandiosity.
The image of the male mariner who was taller than the Statue of Liberty oddly diminished the ideals of the Statue of Liberty by recasting its universalism and universal values in an uplift that seems to demand consent removed from politics, but impressing viewers by its size: would the monument with such a surprisingly small head be in fact raising the name of the Trump brand, redounding to the glory of the buildings that Trump had so carefully wrangled from the city by buying lands that he had recast as residential, at huge personal gain? The odd itinerary of Columbus retraversing the seas, not from Spain to the New World, but from Moscow, seemed only to signify the opening of the Russian market.
The peculiar re-use of aesthetics of post-political Augustan neo-imperial statue suggest a promotion of a unique type of historical amnesia around the figure of Columbus, removed from any sense of encounter with native peoples, and indeed from commerce with a New World, as a civilizing figure triumphant over the land, as if to preserve his salvific identity as a robed emissary of the most Christian King, greeting the New World as emissary of the monarch, removed form any colonial context. The almost cultic nature of this statue as a symbol of obeissance–
–whose kitsch was almost an intentional debasement of the nation it seemed to celebrate, promoting values inherently foreign to democracy?Continue reading