Colossus on the Hudson?

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 colossal statuary of Christopher Columbus cast in Moscow above the Hudson River in 1997 reveals an early illustration of how transactional Trump’s world-view was as he first became attracted to the prospect of expanding his brand to Moscow. Indeed, the potential of the arrival of a monument to Christopher Colombus that Moscow’s then-mayor would dangle as a robed statue greater in size than the Statue of Liberty that has long dominated New York harbor since 1876. While we often date the notion of a Trump Tower Moscow to the visit of Ivanka Trump to Moscow to explore options for a luxury hotel there in 2006, to “connect” with possible business partners in the heady post-soviet period, seeking to license his family name as a brandname to luxury residences, and securing funds from a Russia’s Foreign Trade Bank.

The proposed monument to the fifteenth-century navigator he presented as a “gift” long preceded it by a decade. The towering figure cast in Moscow would be the largest of the western hemisphere; crafted from low-grade bronze worth a purported $40 million in materials, the daunting monument would, Trump boasted, be a welcome gift from Russia’s government on New York’s skyline; he felt he helped organize of a “great work” to arrive in New York in ways absolutely above board, and described its artist Zurab Tsereteli as unquestionably “major and legit” with a customary allowance for superlatives. His public comments reveal few allowances, customarily, for the impact of installing the massively monumental statuary on the New York skyline that he knew so well; this much was left implicit in Trump’s customary hyperbolic promotion of a building as a monument to the press as a global destination–or a structure bigger than could be found anywhere in the globe. He had in 1996 he declared an arrangement to license his name to for a project of non-exclusive ownership he boasted would have funding from the Soviet government in Moscow in 1986, declaring himself “impressed with the potential” of Russia’s capital and, after meeting with Moscow’s mayor, the possibility of Russian backing for the luxury complexes.

Trump saw his engagement in luxury residences as a new form of monumentalism, as much as an art of building. His tastes for monuments, as much as residences, is apparent in the images not only of Trump Tower, but were the hallmark of Trump Properties. His optimistic estimation of Moscow as a site for Trump Properties to expand globally reveals a terrifying interchangeability of urban skylines, rooted less in place, than in the potential for building a local construction of truly international impact and transnational scope. His orchestration of such a project was itself rooted in evading local restrictions, to be sure, but enabled by capital moving frictionlessly across national borders in the form of illicit international financial transfers, money laundering, and shadowy deals to evade taxes. The non-specifity of monuments and the almost mobile nature of building projects was balanced by the backers he could assemble for each, linking local agencies whenever possible to a web of backers, institutions, creditors, and tax abatements in a cocktail that cannot be understood as a local economy. The complexes were almost interchangeable+ Trump considered the Russian developments on the scale of Las Vegas, which he partnered with to built in 2002, and planned two years earlier, viewing it as a similar expansion of the Trump brand. Trump’s eagerness to pronounce Moscow distinguished by potential for a Trump tower–and “I’ve seen cities all over the world!”–in 1996 showed more interest in locating a Trump Tower to confirm the international status of his brand and buildings of global destinations.

The construction of global destinations indeed obscured global politics, as Trump Properties became the determining map of global relationships in those years, when licensing the Trump Brand held the promise of an international economic comeback for properties on a financial precipice. The place of self-interest as he head of Trump Properties effectively redrew the international maps, in ways that may have made Columbus a new, and unexpected symbol of the global international capitalism that would be associated with the Trump brand. As Donald staged financial comeback of sorts on international terrain, brand obscured nation, as Columbus became a witness not of discovery, but the instauration of a new global order, and gestured toward Trump’s own prized adeptness of navigate the waters of international finance.

As the institution of the Presidency became the basis for forging ties of Trump Properties to foreign governments across the world, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar to Kuwait to Turkey to Afghanistan to China, since Donald Trump’s assumption of the Presidency, Foreign government officials are now regular expected guests at the gala openings of Trump-owned properties in Istanbul, Ankara, Macau and Mexico, opening possibilities of approval for the expansion of Trump Properties or Trump trademarks; the overlap grows as foreign ambassadors from Russia, Romania, Malaysia and China have visited and held meetings at Trump International in Washington, DC, and even held state-level meetings at the hotel with White House officials, as Trump International to gain better access to President Trump.

Citizens for Ethics and Responsibliy in Washington

The figure of Columbus provided an unlikely but compelling symbol of globalism, if not an earlier age of globalization:: while I questioned the pedagogy of beginning a course on globalization with Columbus as did a colleague at California College of the Arts in 2006, the image of spanning the Atlantic, blurring of national and international power by commercial ties, was cast as a unilateral victory in the rather ominous statue Tsereteli had designed that Trump wanted to erect on the Hudson River in 1997.

If the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle was ceremoniously carried from Little Italy to what was then the center of Manhattan, the colossus would be donated from the Russian government for display on a tract he owned on the Hudson. He claimed the monument’s sizable head had arrived already, and the body would be delivered from Moscow, underscoring the value of the deeply transactional tie. The apparently diminished size of the monumental bronze statue assembled in Puerto Rico by 2016 may hints a head on the smaller side for a body pontentially have been enlarged to be 600 feet taller than New York’s iconic Statue of Liberty, as if Trump or its sculptor ad imagined it would replace an iconic statue given by the French government in 1886 at the centenary of the Declaration of Independence, “Liberty Illuminating the World,” long understood as promoting an optimistic ideal of global relations.

Was Trump offered the statue by the Russian Government, who promised to cover all costs of its delivery, aspiring to be a new offshore icon of American national identity? If the below 1875 drawing raised funds for the base for the monumental personification a global ideal France hoped to gift the United States, a story of the triumph of global conquest was the subject of the statuary whose arrival Trump boasted he brokered.

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, Presentation Drawing of “The Statue of Liberty Illuminating the World” (1875)

The story of the never installed monument of Columbus, the fifteen-century navigator of contested centrality in stories of nationhood, promised a theater blending personal gain and global politics in truly cartoonish ways. But the possibility that Russian oligarchs seem to have extended of the “gift” of the navigator long celebrated as having “discovered” America on his personal property seemed to dignify not only Trump Properties, but increased the potential power of viewing one’s residential development on the international stage. Did the monumental gift lead Trump to imagine himself as a representative of the United States government–and perceive the transactional possibilities opened by being a figure of state–that may have attracted him to the political sector?

1. Trump hoped to erect an icon of the nation on Manhattan island without committee review was implied in his discussion of a deliverable already partly in the United States, as if to strong arm the city into accepting it as the latest addition to his conversion of the West Side Yards into a new complex of luxury housing. Trump boasted to journalists immediately after his return from Moscow, already elevating the towering monument to exceed the height of the Statue of Liberty as a personalized transaction he had gained for the nation. We don’t know how the Russian sculptor gained Trump’s attention in Moscow, but the recent addition of a monument to Peter the Great of 1,000 tons that would be erected near the Kremlin in 1997 could offered a model illustrating the monumentality of such an addition to urban space.

Trump has a keen eye to global competition, and eagerly promoted the image of a monument of the fifteenth-century navigator of unquestioned authority and greatness–assembled over twenty years later in the Puerto Rican fishing town of Arecibo, at the outer edge edge of United States territory–promoting a hackneyed, offensive and problematic monument to the father of colonization with personal pride.

A sense of pride was understandably felt by the Georgian Zurab Tsereteli at having found a home for his monument, but Trump’s eagerness to spin adding the massive monument on newly developed properties–for which he had already received federal subsidies–as a public good suggests an exercise in his customary use of superlatives, blind to their political context. It certainly suggests the skill of Trump’s Russian handlers in reading the close ties between his vanity to his interests in transnational properties, and introducing the realtor to the King of Kitsch, client of Moscow’s powerful mayor. The transactionality of Trump’s complicated transnational expansion wasn’t clear, but the ties of transnationalism and egocentrism lie at the center of Trump’s interest in opening two Moscow luxury hotels, in ways his eagerness in promoting the monument of the navigator that the Russians thought an apt gift of transatlantic friendship.

Four years after Trump Tower opened in early 1983, a building Trump celebrated as a global destination, he began to contemplate international expansion of Trump Properties. The realtor surveyed half a dozen sites for Moscow luxury hotels in a visit to prepare for Trump Tower Moscow. The possibilities of the project kept alive through 2016 plans for a “Moscow trip” planned as late as the Republican National Convention, offer a curious starting point for his political emergence, embedded more in private gain than public service; indeed, the coaxing emails exchanged about planned working visits to Moscow with mortgage tycoons that paralleled Trump’s praise for Vladimir Putin’s politics suggest a confusion of public service and private gain that was inextricably entangled, an entanglement that seems evident in the monumental proportions of this Russofied image of the fifteenth-century navigator Trump would long be inclined to proclaim commemoration of Columbus Day as fundamental and transformative in “the development of this great nation,” as he proclaimed Columbus Day an occasion of national celebration, if one only recognized in 1934 as such, at the urging of the Knights of Columbus.

If the extended engagement reflect Trump’s insatiable thirst for expanding his brand, stretching from Trump’s first broaching possibilities of considering a Presidential run in April 1988 to his nomination to run as Republican nominee,–and a telling 1984 KGB memorandum, directing the Russian intelligence agency to shift its cultivation of foreign contacts to unofficial assets, to “prominent figures in politics and society, and important representatives of business and science” in the twilight of the former Soviet Union. Prominent figure as Trump provided, moreover, likely targets to blur private and public interests in multiple ways.

If the 2019 Impeachment Hearings of 2019 have begun disentangling the threads of the truly transactional nature of the Trump presidency after the start, the pronounced lack of division between personal gain and political office seem embodied in the odyssey of an unbuilt monument, the acceptance of which as a gift from the people of Russia to the United States first put Trump in a position of national representative able to wrangle both private gain and equity from the Moscow contacts he met to expand a chain of luxury hotels.

As Donald recounted in his Art of the Deal, the topic arose out of sociability while seated beside Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubinin in 1986 as discussion naturally turned to Trump Tower and the possibility of a Moscow analogue: “One thing led to another, and now I’m talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government,” as if the hope for Russian realty were a sheer coincidence or fate that he began to engage, mutatis mutandi, in negotiations with the Soviet tourism agency, moving around more chess pieces on a personalized monopoly board. Dubinin was tasked as Ambassador to reach out to United States business elites, as Politburo aimed to understand capitalism, and went to Trump as its font: the letter Trump soon received with “good news from Moscow” of jointly managing a hotel in Moscow provided bait that Trump would long pursue, long “impressed with the ambitions of Soviet officials to make a deal.” He also first gained anew sense of himself as a politician with responsibilities of national representation

Invited to Moscow on an all-expenses trip in 1987, he examined half a dozen sites for two hotels, but balked at ceding 51% control to Intourist state agency. By 1997, things had changed, and by 2016, Trump Matryoshka dolls were on sale in Red Square.

Matryoshka Dolls in Red Square, Moscow (2016)/Preston Bailey

The discussion of Trump’s engagement in Moscow however turned to the location of a massive statuary of the “discoverer” of America, an odd gift from a former enemy state. Trump was invited to place what was to be the largest statue in the Western Hemisphere upon planned riverfront Manhattan properties, which must have seemed a great deal, perhaps in hopes to pursue a better deal on the two luxury hotels Soviets invited Trump to build. He may have accepted in an attempt to curry favor from his Russian hosts, in recognition of the transactional nature of all real estate deals, negotiations, and accords. But the massive monument seemed designed for Trump’s tastes–and resonates eerily with his famous preference for celebrating Columbus Day as a national holiday, despite the clearly hurtful resonance of Columbus in a globalized world and pluralistic democratic society.

Across the discontinuities of the post-soviet era, the tools of intelligence cultivation have suggested prominent continuiities although dynamics of global economies and globalization have shifted. However, there seems a rather remarkable continuity in the inextricability of private profit and national symbols hard-wired in Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for accepting on behalf of the United States the monumental commission of a statue of Christopher Columbus, forged in 1991 in Moscow, but as yet undelivered, what had seemed undeliverable after demurrals from several cities, from Miami to Baltimore, to loom over the Hudson River.

The unbuilt monument was perhaps best known by the inflated version of Tsereteli’s monumental head of Columbus, an anti-monument inflated as a protest in Plaza de Colón in San Juan, Puerto Rico, behind a statue of Cristóbal Colón,  constructed on occasion of the fourth centenary of 189w, showing holding a globe and a flag. The arrival of a new monument Columbus of Tseretli’s design was slated to arrive in Cataño, Puerto Rico, precipitating a local crisis in government. The arrival in Puerto Rico occurred after seven cities in the United States decided against accepting the “gift” of questionable political impact and aesthetic appeal. As the bronze monument of Columbus remained in thousands of pieces in a rum warehouse, the inflated white head poked fun at what seemed to be a failed monument on May 20th, 2006–to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Christopher Columbus–not desired by Puerto Rico, but installed on a classical pedestal built in 1893 by Americans–in what might best be called an “anti-monument” to the practice of commemorating the navigator as a discoverer whose voyages led to the “Birth of the New World,” as Tsereteli had grandiosely entitled his as yet unbuilt sculpture.

Inflatable Head of Columbus, San Juan PR 2006

The inflatable protest art echoed what had been the most prominent marker of the unbuilt monument. It is striking for resembling the anti-monument of an inflatable protest “baby trump” blimp angrily wielding a cel phone–a dirigible that suggests how much hot air went into Trump’s style of personal self-promotion that would follow President Trump’s public appearances for some times nd was flown at Trump’s authoritarian fourth of July celebrations in Washington. The twenty-foot tall helium balloon first appeared on Trump’s state visits to London–and has itself since gone on world tour. Perhaps the global prominence and cache that Baby Trump quickly gained greater as the dirigible as a vehicle of protest, a negative anti-monument to the near global monumentalization of Trump Properties, whose urban ubiquity whose sense of assault extends beyond architectural or aesthetic criteria.

As prominent positioning of the inflated head of the Tsereteli statue in San Juan openly mocked the monumentalism of a statue eventually assembled on Puerto Rico–far from inhabited regions, far from Plaza Colón in old San Juan–it was inflated as one of the many acts of protest that greeted news of the statue’s imminent arrival. It never circulated globally, like the Baby Trump balloon. But the inflated head contains the Donald Trump’s fingerprints ambitions, and deeply compromised search for deals lying at the heart of the story the statue’s curious provenance.

Leo Murray, “Baby Trump” (2018)

The inflation of both dirigibles suggest the aspirational nature of Trump as a political figure. The ambition for personal inflation is illustrated in Trump’s hope to bring a monument weighing 600 tons of $40 million worth of bronze sheets after he probably saw the monument Tsereteli made of Peter the Great of equal size, erected in 1986 on River Moskva to public chagrin; the addition of similar statue seemed only fitting for the grandiose developments Trump then planned on property rezoned for residences, which he conceived as a counterpart to the latest iteration Trump proposed of the tallest building in the world.

Indeed, in a world where everything has become smaller, and space has effectively contracted, the over-the-top grandeur of positioning Columbus on a scrolled Corinthian column once again, celebrating the navigator as having made truly global progress across the Atlantic, here revealed on the map that decorated the current base of the monument finally erected one of Puerto Rico’s uninhabited fishing villages, outside the capital of San Juan, seemed a blatantly self-serving appeal to a mythistory of discovery, perseverance, innovation, and individuality erected on the basis of a mythic map, made to promote a legend that never existed, but that may well have led Trump to fetishize Columbus as a figure and image of authority on the map of the nation that he has in his head.

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Filed under Columbus, commemoration, Donald J. Trump, national monuments, New York Skyline

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