Monthly Archives: November 2019

From Russia with Love? Monuments of Global Kitsch

The transactional nature of Trump’s world view has been so much on view in recent weeks that it is hard to shock. But the cast of characters involved in promoting a grotesquely colossal statuary of the navigator Christopher Columbus, cast out of bronze in Moscow, that he planned to install staring outer the Hudson River in 1997 on a new property development he had secured. If the story of this odd addition to New York’s many monuments–it was to be taller than the Statue of Liberty, an icon of American immigration and ideals–the authoritarian imagining of the navigator long identified with patriotic ideals is an early if particularly telling illustration of how transactional Trump’s world-views,– and how removed they were from any sense of the recreation of political space.

The oddly stateless notion of the figure of Columbus–evoking rational arts, to be sure, and a lettered tradition of civility, learning, and mental apprehension of the globe, beneath which a history of colonization is barely concealed-moves between different worlds as an emissary. The poise and stature of the figure of Columbus suggests a future able to move outside a state, or navigate stateless waters in a strikingly frictionless manner. Represented in 1892 in New York as a preeminent Renaissance figure, as if without concern of his relation to his surroundings, but to be a testimony to a removed past, but self-contained in his dignity, but affirming his role in spatial conquest in multiple ways.

Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle/Peter van der Krogt

The Columbus cast in the 1996 Tsereteli monument in bronze was triumphant in his ability to move outside of sovereign boundaries, demanding recognition as a vanquisher and victor who with the support of a foreign imperial ideology and faith, in the act of claiming ownership by a single gesture over a newfound land. First presented to Trump four years before he declared himself a candidate for the Presidential primary as a candidate for the Reform party in 2000, the image of such imperial identity would have provided a model for the excavation of a public sphere by entertaining a new symbolics of global empire.

Zurab Tsereteli, “Birth of a New World” (1997)

Without any sense of triumphant reaction to transoceanic travel, the odd image of an impassive, idealized, “white” Columbus erases race, omits questions about his own relation to the new land of the so-called American continent or its inhabitants, and seems to have been carried by the winds that billow behind him as if to designate him as a royal Catholic emissary of a foreign land, or ensure smooth landing in port as he guides his ship across international waters by anachronistic means of a rotary wheel. The kitsch image of the monumental Columbus would be an aspiration to a global stage that Trump had aspired with Trump Intenational, but was sanctioned by his post-Soviet hosts.

Was the monumental Columbus, first commissioned from Tsereteli in 1992, a prescient image of a future President who would distinguish himself primarily by moving outside legal precedent and defining his exceptionalism to the law? The monumental statue had its origins in the post-Soviet restructuring of Moscow by he new image of Columbus, who seemed to view Columbus as an iconic symbol of a new world order after the Cold War when Luzkhov and Tsereteli had jointly arrived in America to present “The Birth of the New World” as a gift of friendship, recasting this emissary from foreign lands as a triumphant herald of a new world order. By 1997, Luzhkov’s attraction of billions of dollars into Moscow’s development, as housing complexes replaced historic buildings and the monumental Christ the Savior Cathedral was rebuilt in its gold electro-plated splendor of onion domes as seat of the Patriarch, after Stalin had destroyed the structure with dynamite in 1931, represented the intersection grandiose plans for monumentality.

As the monuments and buildings of Luzhkov’s Moscow, tied to embezzlement for his wife’s development business, redesigned the face of the city Trump visited, Columbus was an apt choice of subject to curry Trump’s taste for grandiosity–and Trump’s penchant to place himself outside the law. Was the monumentalization of Columbus emissary of foreign lands, this image of a bronze Columbus cast in Russia, an oddly prescient image of a future President who has distinguished himself as working outside of legal precedent? Is it only unintentional that it echoes Trump’s ability to place his own speech as existing outside of the law–and indeed to place himself, or his invitation of a foreign government to intervene in American elections, outside the law? The sense that this Columbus travelled in international waters in new ways seems but his ability to block public or congressional testimony as U.S. President,–and his own legendary obliviousness to constraint?

The increasingly nationalist figure Columbus evokes seems a way of pandering to an audience, in “Birth of a New World,” seems a figure of sovereign authority taking command over a new world, hailing or heralding an imaginary audience with grandiosity and sovereign majesty that is not only un-American, but seems to be captured in the act of remapping global relationships in 1996, when Trump confirmed the impending arrival of the statue, shortly after he returned from Moscow, where he met the sculptor, and the man known as redefining the art of the deal signed a deal to license his name for projects of non-exclusive ownership funded by the post-Soviet government, with the promise of participating in the rebuilding of Moscow’s public space in the apparent free market of the post-Soviet era as a landscape of the flowering of capitalist construction and unprecedented building development. What Luzhkov¥ branded as a Europeanization of Moscow was criticized as a Disneyfication of nineteenth century architecture to a theme park.

Closely tied to building companies, including that of his wife, billionaire developer Yelena Baturina, Yuri Luzhkov’s restructuring of historical Moscow with a pseudo-historical opulence created a landscape rooted in replicas of rapid fabrication and hyper-development. It was typified by the restoration of the gold-gilded Christ the Saviour Cathedral, on whose site Stalin had built the monumental the Palace of Soviets on Moskva River–after having spectacularly dynamited the cathedral seat of the Patriarch, built by Tzars to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat, which Stalin in 1931 Stalin had detonated in a public spectacle commanded as a vanishing of all solid to air, and the instantaneous vanquishing of a sacro-imperial past that Stalin had sought to symbolically banish by rebuilding a site for Soviet glory.

The curious coincidence between recycling a new icon of imperial authority whose grandiosity might appease or please Trump, his Moscow projects paused or placed on hold, was nothing less than a form of bait for the developer even before his political designs would become known. Did the promise of a statue of Columbus inflate the ambitious developer to imagine his role on a truly global political stage? The notion of placing Columbus, perched atop a global map that wraps around the statue’s pedestal, provided a cartoonish rending of the world as a global play space, removed from political power or individual claims, suggesting a sort of global chess board of confrontation and domibnation, as if rewriting public memory of an inhabited public sphere.

Yuri Luzhkov’s itineraries with Tsereteli to Miami, Washington, and other American cities, as a power-broker of a new age of development, shopped around a dunification of authoritarian monumentalism with Disneyfied kitsch epitomized by the 1997 erection of a statue to Peter the Great, at the costs of $120 million, across from the Cathedral’s gold domes–a work that epitomized his bend of populism and overbearing intervention in the re-engineering of Moscow’s public space to rewrite public memory in a seat where 80% of Russia’s wealth was concentrated–with two-thirds of foreign investment; he crafted his own style of privatization with the development firm of his second wife, Intenko, promoting a new vision of Russonationalism and Russian chauvinism while guiding Moscow through the real-estate boom in which Donald Trump had landed in 1996. When Trump toured the vast underground shopping complex, Manezh, beside Red Square, as a potential site to build a hotel.

At a time when increasing capital was arriving for construction projects in Moscow, Trump offered a known model for global capital, no doubt familiar to Luzkhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, who exploited her husband’s office as a developer, and whose connections to organized crime has been revealed by Wikileaks. Trump claimed losses of $916 million in his 1995 tax returns, as projects failed in Atlantic City and the Plaza; he hoped to refurbish his finances by ventures in Yuri Luzhkov’s Moscow, boasting to build Trump International and a new Trump Tower–expanding the developer’s 1986 hope, about which he crowed in Art of the Deal, for “a large luxury style hotel across the street from the Kremlin” bearing his name, despite resistance at erecting the world’s highest skyscraper in competition with the Kremlin–a qualification of which Trump’s unbounded ambitions were perhaps not aware.

In Moscow, Trump had proposed a $250 million investment for a Trump International complex at a November 1996 news conference, bragging upon returning to New York that his ties to Luzhkov boded success in building only “quality stuff”–when he first dropped a public hint about plans for the Columbus statue. The trip to Moscow was not so climactic, for Trump International, although the trip led to attracting Russian investors only to a Trump International Beach Resort in South Florida.

Trump International Beach Resort in Sunny Isles. (Angel Valentin/The Washington Post)

One might pause, however, at this globe that Trump seems to have adopted as his new venture’s emblem, and the similarly gaudy image of a new globalism distinguishing Trump International–epitomized by the rebuilding of the enormous silvered globe encircled by orbital rings. This very globe long stood at the building Trump has rebranded as Trump International Hotel and Tower at New York’s Columbus Circle–as if the globe could provide a powerful basis of international brand that Trump could tap into having purchased the old Time-Life building at Columbus Circle, and the globe itself had come on its property.

The iconic statue outside Time-Life–or Gulf + Western building seems to have been prized by Donald Trump that it became a target of his desires. Yet in October, 1996, New York’s City Planning Department rejected the proposal to emblazon the orbital globe with “Trump International” on the orbital globe as a way to brand his new venture–but the developer took the shiny orbital globe, silhouetting the world’s continents on a thirty-foot wide globe, modeled after the Unisphere built for a 1964-65 World’s Fair, as fair game to brand his ambitions, as it lay on property he now owned, and even if the words “TRUMP INTERNATIONAL” were not emblazoned on it to reveal his new global ambitions, the shiny sphere was replicated, in Sunny Isles, as an icon of the global scope of Trump Properties.

Brandell Studios, Architectural Rendering

The provision of Trump with a new image of Columbus on his own Hudson Yards development would be, perhaps, an alternate glorification of hi self-fashioning and marketing as a truly international developer. Was the discussion of the arrival of Tsereteli’s monumental figure of the navigator meant to hold an image of the orbital globe that Trump saw as an emblem of his new expansive network of global real estate properties beyond New York City

The brokering of new sites of power and monumentality were both local, and occurred on an international stage. Was the statue of Columbus that Luzhkov brought to America nothing less than a bid to rewrite the memory of the navigator as a figure of the place of commerce in the globalized world. The monumentalization of the voyage of discovery installed eventually in Puerto Rico in 2016, on the eve of the Trump Presidency, hinted at a new image of authoritarianism to come, blurred and with soft edges: in casting a Christopher Columbus on steroids as an emissary of royal Catholic majesty, he seems almost an emissary of a new global order. If a relic of the rebuilding of Moscow under the Luzhkov’s corrupt mayoralty, when billions arrived in Moscow for rebuilding d to the awarding of building and development contracts often tied to Intenko, his wife billionaire wife Yelena Baturina’s real estate company, over the eighteen years he held power since 1992 in Moscow, rewriting the past by the free market, this unmoored Columbus, arms elevated in apparent victory, offered a disturbingly authoritarian image, inaugurating hidden financial exchanges in a new global era of illicit international transfers and underwater financial transactions.

This Columbus seems dressed in neoclassical robes to bolster his authority, and anachronistically cast as guiding his craft by a rotary wheel, but as an emissary of sovereign right, who claims a pride of place as existing outside any legal code or precedent. The evocation of such a figure of extra-legal majesty, and truly transnational authority, seems crafted from a symbolics of authoritarianism, dear to a devout sculptor who would specialize in Neo-imperial statuary, who had already reclad Tsar Peter the Great in Roman robes in a strikingly similar sculpture.

While no-one imagined at the time that Trump boasted to all who would listen that he had negotiated the arrival of such a statue that Trump would be United States President, the “gift” he announced was conveyed from the Russia people moved outside international laws. At the time, his own global ambitions as an hotelier drew attention post-Soviet society. And the approach, made by Moscow’s Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, cast an icon of patriotism in the guise of authoritarian nationalism, recasting the iconic figure of American nationalism in a sovereign fashion removed from legal precedent, democratic practice, or inclusive politics.

In deeply disturbing ways, the combination of self-interest and public interest, or the inability to distinguish self-interest and public interest, that is so characteristic of a Trump Presidency, seems encapsulated, before the fact, by the cloaking of the proposed arrival of this massive monument, whose height he specified as greater than the Statue of Liberty from the base of its pediment to torch, on a proposed riverside development on the Hudson, as a marker of personal and national grandiosity. The “gift” he claimed to convey from the “Russian people” would serve as an adornment to his projected properties, and elided international politics with international commerce of undisclosed nature, but touching on tax-free transfers of goods and cash, in ways that turned on a figure–the fifteenth-century navigator–who acted outside any body of laws, but as the emissary of a sovereign decree, in ways that were already disturbing to be seen as a basis for national identity.

The model was already presented as a gift to the United States when in 1992 Moscow’s new elected populist mayor Luzhkov proposed gifting the statue for the Columbus quincentennial, its size larger than the statue of Peter the Great would assume when it was erected in 1997 in Moscow, which assumed such status as an evacuation of public space. As billions of dollars entered Moscow–$4.6 billion of foreign investments in 1996–the monument that did not provoke engagement with the past but propose a traditional model of global authority suggest a distraction, a worthy precedent for Trump’s late massive monument of a border wall. As Columbus in “The Birth of the New World” seems to obscure all else to fill the fragmenting of the post-soviet state, the public statuary seeks not to create a new innocence and stability, in a time of uncertain post-Soviet social order, but a celebration of identity removed from social improvement, or from meaningful political action and inclusiveness.

Trump was eager to promote the promised arrival of the monumental statue to media outlets when he returned from surveying real estate prospects in post-Soviet Moscow, boasting about his contacts with the affable Georgian sculptor who had won the Lenin Prize and was awarded Hero of Socialist Labor. As much as only an artist, the sculptor Trump treated with customary familiarity by praising “this great work of Zurab” as a gift that it “would be my honor if we could work it out with the city of New York” manufactured his own authority as an international intermediary in ways that omitted that “Zurab” was not only an artist, but a bit of a figure of state, who identified his work as an artist as a Hero of Socialist Labour who designed war memorials, and statues in Soviet embassies throughout the world; since 1997 was President of the Russian Academy of Arts, offering multiple post-Soviet monuments including for 9/11 to other countries on behalf of the state.

And what better place to position the image of the fifteenth-century royal navigator than to detract attention from the Enlightenment inheritance of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the People, over which it would tower from the perspective of Trump Properties, in the New York skyline? It is telling that if Tsereteli’s later contribution of a statuary honoring 9/11, “Tear of Grief,” located in Bayonne, NJ, is situated in a site where it is seem before the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor–as if to redefine public political space and to take the place of the Statue of Liberty as the image that defined the visual experience of all who arrived in New York Harbor, rewriting the experience of universal ideals with mourning and global fears. The monument that used steel from a former Soviet military factory located in a Soviet “secret city” called Dzerzhinsk, suggesting its tie to a project of national calculations as much as a generous gift.

While artworks are branded an autonomous aesthetic status, the placement of Teresteli statues in embassies and consulates in Brazil, Portugal, and Japan, suggest we examine their role as an art of state. The promoting of the Russian-Georgian sculptor’s work transformed a relatively obscure Georgian artist to a figure of state in the post-Soviet era, as millions of tax dollars were pilfered to instal his folk-like sculptures in Moscow’s public spaces, imbuing with a false populism that suggests reproductions of kitsch inscribed with globalist ideals. The image of creating a new space of public admiration was central to Tsereteli’s works of art. “Make way, rogues of political blackmail,” reads a 1997 inscription on his monumental statue to Peter the Great, for founding a navy that was used to invade Ukraine, “Welcome the ship which has sailed into the eye of a grand Moscow scandal./ At the head of the tiny vessel . . . /Stand Peter in bronze!” The glorified elevation of its vision of authoritarian identitarian politics, familiar to post-Soviet Moscow as a new glue of public space, suggested a symbolics of political unity that Trump may well have taken as a model for global politics.

The attention-getting image of Columbus as a glorified authoritarian figure, to stand beside Manhattan in the Hudson, may have been far to heavy to be supported by the landfill of Trump Properties. The statue, weighing in at approximately 6,500 tons of sheer bronze, would not be likely to be supported by the landfill Trump had rezoned for residences. Rather than most solid metal sculptures built in Moscow, where a similar image of Peter the Great was erected in 1997, the image of Columbus would be hard to support. But the monument whose imminent arrival of which Trump boasted as an adornment to his most recent developent reveals a complex entangling of symbolic icons, redefining public spaces, and personal gain,

The recycling of patriotic platitudes in the monument during the post-Soviet era seems an attempt to refurbish Russia’s relation to the world. The monument Trump promoted was hardly designed with Trump in mind, or his property development as its intended site–but Trump Properties offered the perfect presence for its erection in ways that might be under the radar. Tseretelli had presented the statue, “Birth of the New Man,” to the city of Miami in 1992 to mark the cinquecentennnial of Columbus’ arrival, through a businessman with multiple Moscow business interests, Sol LeBow, who helped broker an early deal for the 600-ton sculpture by ponying up $20 million to install it off the beach, which brought both Luzhkov and Tsereteli to Miami’s City Hall during the Columban cinquecentennary in 1992, before Trump entered the scene. Once rejected, it was offered to the city of Columbus, Ohio in 1993, but rested in storage in Puerto Rico, an island where Columbus had actually set foot, and made landfall in 1493, before Zurab or his handlers proposed Trump serve as an intermediary who might erect it on his own property development whose monumentality would illustrate the majesty of the complex boasted to hold the hemisphere’s tallest building.

The image Tseretelli designed may have been preferred by the sculptor, but certainly made the rounds on the international stage. For Tseretelli presented a smaller version of the monument to UNESCO’s center in Paris in 1994, and a larger version in Seville in 1995, continuing to seek a global stage for the gigantic bronze monument, “Birth of the New World,” a vertical sculpture of the navigator before royal flags only installed in Puerto Rico in 2016. If the presence of patriotic populism provided a cover for transporting the statue across the Atlantic–or moving it up the seaboard–the prominent Muscovite’s backers, probably including not only Mayor Luzhkov but Vladimir Putin, who had begun to work in Moscow in the Department of residential Property Management; Trump was identified to bring the monument of the fifteenth century navigator to the New World as a new triumphant image of globalism.

John Alex Maguire/REX/
‘Birth of a New World’ by Zurab Tsereteli

The planned arrival of the monument designed by the court sculptor of Moscow’s mayor, Zurab Tsereteli, led Trump to gloat about the Neo-imperial visions of the fifteenth-century navigator raising his right hand to hail the world in an imperious neoclassical salutation of open address, that the sculpture was designed for his properties–“Zurab would like it to be at my [new] development,” blurring state and personal interests as only Trump can. While no one wanted the massive statue, which would long remain in limbo, the curious tracking of this gigantic monument spoke to Trump’s sense of grandiosity that may well have inflated his sense of himself as a global figure, and indeed paralleled the launching of Trump Properties on a global stage that makes one wonder about the power of monumentalism and Trump’s attraction to monumental art as a nexus of personal interests and state power.

The developer crowed about Zurab’s preferences as if to promote his new friendship with Moscow’s post-Soviet oligarchs’ preferred monument man, as well as to subtract himself from a grand affair of state that was working out around his land. The gambit to offer an apparent icon of patriotism, refracted through Tsereteli’s imperial lenses, shows an image of Columbus whose imposing presence stepped off a boat he apparently guided to the shores, hailing his presence before Christian-Imperial flags that double as the sails of the original caravel, an eery emissary of a new world order, offering no recognition of the inhabitants of this new land.

Trump was an unlikely medium of the monumental sculpture showing Columbus, hand raised in a gesture of imperial salute, as if victorious over a new continent, a statue that had itself in face mirrored the transatlantic voyage in traveling from Moscow, where it was cast, to the New World. And unlike the elegantly poised figure of Columbus poised contraposto Columbus standing elegantly atop a pedestal in Columbus Circle, the geometric center of New York City, the Columbus that Trump boasted to be built on rezoned landfill on the banks of the Hudson was Neo-imperial and gigantic in size. The sculpture that itself echoed the statue to Peter the Great of such massive proportions that had replaced the Soviet realist monuments of the past with a folksiness bordering on cartoons, in stone sculptures and brightly colored surfaces that captured Russian folklore and state emblems for the Russian Parliament in the White House, blurring state functions and public art with sacred art, who Moscow’s mayor acclaimed as a “new Michelangelo for our time.” When Trump celebrated the sculptor as both “major and legit” in 1997, was he only echoing the praise Luzhkov bestowed so lavishly on the Georgian-Russian sculptor whose work he had preferred as a new public language for state-sponsored art at a moment of historical change?

The comparison between Tsereteli and the papal sculptor Michelangelo, who was commissioned to design St. Peter’s dome by Pope Paul III, as a symbol of papal opulence and the chief architect of what would be the tallest dome then existing in the world, and a symbol of ecclesiastic grandeur, was telling. Boris Yeltsin visited the sculpture and called it “truly horrible;” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn bemoaned the “massive and third-rate memorials” by which Moscow was increasingly “disfigured” as such state largesse was conferred on a romanticized past so huge and immersive that it all but erased the present, and seemed an unlikely hybrid of the cinematic and the folk that seemed to be most distinguished by abdicating any ethical code of governmentality. The very overwhelming nature of monumentality seems to drown the viewer in a mythic sense of transcendence of the state, and rehabilitates an imperial sense of conquest as natural.

But the comparison to Michelangelo would of course have appealed at base to Trump’s vanity. What was the inspiration for its future placement on Trump’s property? He had returned from Moscow, “impressed with the potential” of Russia’s capital and, after meeting Moscow’s mayor, investigating the possibility of Russian backing for the luxury complexes in the post-Soviet era, when intelligence sources were hoping to cultivate new foreign ties. The power of Tsereteli’s statues lay in their increasing universal reproduction of that, as Bruce Grant has identified in his compelling analysis of patronage of Tsereteli’s public statuary in Moscow, keeps an imaginary state in public eye even in corrupt regimes, that in its immensity all but erases civil society–an aesthetic, or lack of one, that seems oddly similar to the illusion of a symbolics of prosperity that Trump International increasingly sustained. Grant ties Tsereteli’s ability to sustain an “artful prosperity in elite Russian circles” in the post-Soviet era not only as a sign of corruption, but of how corruption offer a set of practices that reconstitute the state.

The Columbus figure that serves as a symbol of a “New World”–a figure rewriting the notion of the Soviet “New Man” or “man of the future” to be created by socialism, a superman emblematic of a world of post-scarcity, a man of selfless individualism, the sculptures of Tsereteli remove the state from political practice, and indeed rewrite the relation of the realtor to the past, by providing an authoritarian image of globalism or globalization from Russia with Love.

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Filed under Columbus, commemoration, Donald J. Trump, national monuments, Zurab Tsereteli