Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Effigies of stability are, at times, the closest that one can hope for the manufacture of a sense of stability in the nation. When Donald J. Trump used the White House as a backdrop from which to accept the Reupublican Party’s nomination as presidential candidate in 2020, he noted that the seat of executive power “has been the home of larger-than-life figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, who rallied Americans to bold visions of a bigger and brighter future,” in ways that reveal his own aspirations to monumentality, and their proximity to his decision to enter political life. The appeal to these larger than life figures create a new discourse on monumentality across the nation, as if hoped to bridge national and partisan divides, that seemed an attempt to elevate the loss of statues with the dismantling of many icons of the Civil War, posing a threat to the increased nationalization of white supremacy during the Trump Era. Even as images of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis were removed–with statues of Christopher Colombus–to question their speaking for America, the need for a new monumentality was felt acutely by Donald Trump, as if in search for his won monument.

To celebrate the Fourth of July a month previous, President Trump used the visages of Mount Rushmore for announcing his plans to create his own statuary garden, a “National Garden of American Heroes” featuring an array of past Presidents and explorers deemed a “truly incredible group” with fanfare, beneath massive carved effigies of white Presidents, converting the tacky and outdated National Monument to a soundstage illustrative of his call for more monuments of the “greatest Americans who ever lived”–including Christopher Columbus and Junipero Serra, as if blurring church and state. The absence of any Asian Americans or south asians proclaimed an image of the nation in a manner not only divisive, but more eloquently divisive than in the past. And one could not forget that Trump had, shortly before he first hinted at a Presidential run, proclaimed plans to erect a statue of the very same fifteenth century navigator whose place in the nation’s memory is increasingly queried, as a pantheon by which he wanted the nation to be understood: plans for such a statuary garden revealed the stakes of the Presidential election, as they proclaimed the vision of the nation a second term would provide the basis to complete, when the National Garden would be opened in 2024.

Donald Trump on Juily 3, 2020, near Keystone, S.D. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Calling for heroic monuments in an era divided by racial tensions used the faces of four white Presidents to call for honoring authority, promoting new monument of the national identity, as the nation’s identity was being questioned, contested, and faced pressure to be defined. Mt. Rushmore–four faces that are the primary national shrine of white, male authority–became the place to do so, as if adding, beneath those impassive faces hewn into granite on Black Elk Peak whose steadfast gazes communicate timelessness, the odd compliment of his own somewhat stilted smile of brash over-confidence. Trump took delight in the speech before a site of national memory where he admitted to having long had the “dream to have my face on Mt. Rushmore”—a dream may have seen no obstacles in a lack of space in the granite outcropping in which immigrant sculptor Gurzon Borglum crammed four visages, whose friable rock could not accommodate another.

Perhaps Trump measured the office of the Presidency by monumentality, and hoped shortly after being sworn in to hope for a fitting monument, ignorant of the structural problems whose sculptor had been forced to alter plans and shift Thomas Jefferson from Washington’s trusty wing man, until finding the granite face unable to accommodate it–

Mt. Rushmore Memorial in fieri
Borglum’s Model for Mt. Rushmore Memorial: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln

–Trump’s attraction to the monument remained so deep that the newly elected Republican governor Kristi Nome presented Trump a version, four feet tall. Nome south to accommodate Trump in ways Rushmore could not, hoping the model fit for display the Oval Office. But the concrete embodiment of his megalomania was projected on the idea of. Garden of Heroes, as if the scenic park might eventually accommodate a figure of himself, beside his heroes General McArthur, Antonin Scalia, and Daniel Boone. While entertaining the crowd assembled July 3, 2020, profiting from the lack of social distancing policy in South Dakota Governor decreed, Trump expanded his sense of politics as one of rewards and to promote personal interests, that first led Trump to plan a monumental statue of Columbus near New York Harbord that would be taller in height than the Statue of Liberty.

Was it a coincidence that the very search for a monument that Trump had long seen as inseparable from his own Presidency–the construction of a Border Wall–was being eclipsed at the same time that statues of the heroes of the Confederate States of America, that long-lasting alternative America preserved in monuments, was also threatened? A new search for monumental building was indeed in the grain of Trump’s presidency and his hopes. The setting of Trump’s announcement made no mention of COVID-19. Indeed, the lack of social distancing in South Dakota, if it created a full audience on July 4, without social distancing or masks, set the stage for terrifying escalations of new cases of COVID-19 across North Dakota, a continued tragic spiking of weekly averages of ne infections, after the eclipse of social distancing tied to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally–

North Dakota COVID-19 Count, September 1, 2020

–before South Dakota seemed a site to flout social distancing before the founding fathers. The spectacle by allowing fireworks for the July 4 address without social distancing guardrails to advance a corrupt vision of monumentalism that reminds us all that “America First” places Donald Trump first, for a man unable to separate politics from public persona, and indeed sacrificed the public good: was she complicit in the promotion of seeing monumentality as the extension of political office by other means: Gov. Nome presented Trump with the replica placing his face among the Presidents on Mt Rushmore when he finished his speech? For the President Trump was unable to watch the monument without expecting his own face somehow be included in its triumphal display

Mt. Rushmore Memorial

Trump described the need to honor past heroes that had itself desecrated a once sacred space for native ancestors. The visages of Mt. Rushmore intended to include effigies of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody and Crazy Horse–in an attempt at replace the ancestors of native Americans with a spectacle of the theater of their extinction; the anti-indigenous sculptor, also a klansman, sought to sculpt American Presidents in an American “skyline,” and visages that, by 1941, were shown as emerging from the sacred rock, seemed historically suitable as a site for Trump to proclaim a Garden of Heroes Trump as a new reality park. The patronizing nature of promoting a garden of monuments that honors civil rights leaders, abolitionists, past presidents, astronauts and the heroes of the frontier set a strikingly segregated tenor whose racist undertones suggest a vision of the nation defined by racial divides, reflecting the racial identities of the Presidents it selects to commemorate, rather than that of the nation. The garden of heroic statuary “of Americans” would include no indigenous, Asian Americans, or Latino, but include Columbus and Junipero Serra, men whose memorialization has been contested and their statues taken down.

It channels who Borghlum’s project to include Sacegaewea beside Buffalo Bill gave way to a pantheon of white men. Boghlum had first hoped to create a boosterish tourist attraction to the frontier, promoting cowboys and glamorize a western experience, that Trump channeled in promoting the value of the backdrop to celebrate achievements of new “giants in full flesh and blood” of “great, great men” who “will never be forgotten,” in a promoting a federal statuary garden that would canonize “historically significant Americans”–over two-thirds male, if several blacks–a reality park reflecting the partisan turn of our political landscape. The project ran against the grain of an apparently non-partisan speech. In place of Buffalo Bill Cody and Lewis and Clarke, Trump embraced an array of Republican Presidents, free spirits like Wild Bill Hickok, Antonin Scalia, Billy Graham, and Ronald Reagan, beside Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas–African Americans beside southern separatist Henry Clay, in an indignity echoing including Red Cloud and Sacagawea on Mt. Rushmore.

The monumental timelessness of this vision of America in a federal garden of heroes sanctioned a “American heroes” to address `the toppling of statues of Columbus, Andrew Jackson, and Presidents as Thomas Jefferson as symbols of enslavement, in hopes to question their continued prominence in our national memories, after toppling statues of Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, dear to white supremacists, and covering Columbus with paint or destroying them wholesale: coming’s full circle, at least two statues deemed offensive, including an equestrian statues of a past President deemed offensive–Teddy Roosevelt–have been bought by a Russian billionaire eager to relocate the monument to Russian lands, adding a fold to the memorialization of historical figures; his Arte Russe foundation declared “the need to preserve their memory for future generations” that makes one’s mind turn back to the fabrication of the monumental statue of Columbus with his hand on a rotary wheel which, if comically anachronistic, Trump hoped to erect on the Hudson’s banks.

Did the statue prefigure not only his taste for monument-building, now viewed as a battleground of public memory, but his investment in practices of public commemoration in a terrifying manner?

The deep affection for monuments and indeed the affinity for asserting his hereditary aspirations of politics led Trump to write a doting fan letter to Vladimir Putin, ten years before Trump’s inauguration, after Putin was named Time‘s “Person of the Year,” to recognize the stability he brought Russia after the zig-zags of the Yeltsin years, at an uncertain moment of post-Soviet history: the citation described the demise of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” glossing over Putin’s crushing of the Chechen Rebellion and serial assassinations of political opponents.

Trump pretended to introduce himself to a figure of world politics, although his longstanding involvement with post-Soviet figures led to his first aspirations to erect an unbuilt colossus that one might imagine lay at the root of his theme park for a Garden of Heroes: for Trump hoped to install on the banks of his Hudson River properties of the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus, then rightly increasingly identified with the colonization of the Americas and start of the slave trade or “slave triangle” of the seventeenth century.

Trump sought to bring the monument from Russia to Hudson River properties he was developing, before the deal went south. But the monument of Columbus led Trump to revel in a telling moment of aspirations to monument-building and totems that did double duty as signs of authority and belonging that conceal their immobility–as if a sign of eternity. Beyond the temporal nature of Trump Tower, the New York realtor hoped to attract global interest to New York City by bringing the largest statue in the Western Hemisphere–and the largest of Christopher Columbus–to tower above the island on the Hudson’s banks, a towering bronze colossus greater in size, whose sails, mast, and pedestal condense the history of the discovery of the Amerias as a triumph far greater in size than the declaration of American principles the Statue of Liberty given by France to the United States in 1884 to celebrate Republican ideals. Rather than Liberty stepping on chains beneath her feet, in an echoing the abolition of enslavement in America as an expression of the deepest principles of equality, the royalist Neo-imperial statue was a monument eliding whiteness, Christianity, and sovereign dominion.

Donald Trump’s deep affection for monument building may well have prefigured his ambitious call for a national exercise in monument building and restoration of national ideals recalled for me the graveyard of the past of Budapest’s Memento Park, opened in 1993 collecting displaced statues of the Communist era, serving as a theater of dictatorship preserving the false future they once sought to create, their forms drained of modern relevance, but providing a receptacle for the statues removed from the city in 1989, removed from the capital city to brick platforms off nondescript highways. By underscoring both the emptiness of their rhetorical gestures and the poetics of the passage of time, the transposition of dictatorial figures to a democratic space doing double duty as an injunction to remember the past as a period–as much as to negate the emptiness of their very assertions of timelessness.

Memento Park, Budapest HU

Seeking to foreclose debates about public memorialization by announcing a Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes a park of “historically significant Americans,” Trump affirmed the relevance of statues as “silent teachers in solid form of stone or metal” as if to create a sense of collective unity as COVID-19 pandemic revealed inequities across the nation, and as the need to contain the virus prevented in-person instruction at schools for the foreseeable future. In asking “gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow-citizens . . . despite their flaws” Trump emphasized the didactic and educational ends of the theme part, not to affirm a direct relation between the spectator of a statue and the state, but that oddly circumscribe agency of many, given who is absent or excluded from the Garden set to open to the public on the 2026 anniversary of Independence Day.

If widely interpreted as a response to the removal of statues of Columbus and the changing of military bases that honored confederate generals, in its call to prevent the overthrow of monuments as an attempt to “desecrate our common inheritance” and common culture–even to “overthrow the American revolution”–the thirst for building monuments reflects Trump’s search for self-memorialization–a taste already hinted at in his discussion of the Border Wall as a monument–and DHS to tweet out with pride a commemorative plaque of Trump’s name on the first completed section of Border Wall in October, 2018.

The call for building more statues responded to those “determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage” was an exaggeration, but men like Confederate General Albert Pike, Presidents who owned slaves like Ulysses Grant and Thomas Jefferson, and even the composer Francis Scott Key, or Daughters of the Confederacy was a reckoning of the monumental inheritance of America, as much as a blanket rebuke of the past. But in affirming the need to build more statues, rather than to assess the objections to honoring men who owned slaves, or fought to enslave others, Trump promoted a cult of statuary, criminalizing their vandalism as federal property, as if to resolve a sense of purpose including those who fought to restrict the franchise or were associated with white supremacy he had nourished.

Trump’s attachment to monumentalization as revealed as he addressed the nation beneath the colossal visages of past Presidents, more than the relation of the statues to civic or state values; his attempt to burnish the notion of a monument to his own accomplishments seemed evident. His the promotion of more statues in such a “Garden of Heroes” took its spin from promoting a massive bronze of Christopher Columbus in 1997, hoped to be erected as rising in the Hudson estuary, not long before he entered politics, beside a skyscraper developing in West Side Yards, greater by several feet from the more distant Statue of Liberty. The proposal of a monument taller that the Liberty icon was an almost Icaran gesture to redefine the New York skyline around his own development, and to create am image that would be too costly to dismantle by the local government, once erected on the landfill he built; the monument’s arrival was brokered from Russia in attempts to broker a deal with Moscow’s mayor–betraying the very inseparable relations of personal interest and public symbolism that has haunted Trump’s Presidency, but which the Garden of Heroes might seem to purify.

One wonders if Trump remembered his plans for the massive statue as he spoke below granite faces of four white male Presidents on Independence Day, commemorating a declaration that only white men had signed, and creating a tableau of a reduced image of inclusivity that demanded consent. The Garden that he conjured on July 3, 2020 included police killed in the line of duty beside a list of male childhood heroes–Daniel Boone, Douglas McArthur, George S. Patton, and figures who accommodated slavery to American values, and slave-owning Presidents, beside Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln, in a pastiche of history that has no central narrative save to mainstream history to partisan terms in a restrictive model of exemplarity: the absence of latinos, migrants, or feminist figures underscores these are men used to being monumentalized, and now non-threatening to a status quo–or a “Dead White Male” history that Trump adores.

Embracing the heroism of the built spectacle, Trump returned to his roots in real estate promotion, embodied in his grandiose 1997 plans to erect–although never constructed–a colossal bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, fabricated in Moscow foundries dating from Catherine the Great, betraying more than a touch of Disney-esque kitsch, of an effigy of a robed royal emissary, greeting the New World, that the Soviets Union had long tried to present as a gift to American Presidents?Columbus was, thankfully, absent from the reality park he described below the backdrop of sixty foot-high granite faces of past United States Presidents–George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln–the carving of this earlier shrine to whiteness on land sacred to native Americans provided the basis of to attacked “deface[ment] of our most sacred memorials” including Columbus, secessionists, and slave-holding presidents, as nothing less than a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history”–a possessive perhaps restricted to his audience.

We’ve been having a broad discussion and debate about the nature of our monuments and the memories that they embody in this nation, that raise questions of public memory and historical legacies that enshrine inequalities and a racist imaginary–and indeed a racist geography–for some time. Even before the questioning this summer of the place of celebrating Civil War heroes who defended enslavement as a law of the land, pressing questions were raised about the scope, scale, and triumphal imaginary of the monuments of generals of the short-lived Confederate States of America, whose four-year period of survival is commemorated as a far more prominent part of our collective history with pride. And when Kehinde Wiley, in a project with the Richmond-based Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, he was struck by the equestrian monument to a Confederate general, James Ewell Brown Stuart, at the same time figural monuments have been removed or decontextualized in thirty states–as well, no doubt, as the http://monumental statues on Richmond’s own Monument Avenue, nationally landmarked but lined with monuments glorifying generals of the Confederacy, from Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis to Stonewall Jackson.

And so his 2019 response was his first effort in counter-statuary, “Rumors of War,” as a reflection on the relation of art and violence, suitably installed for initial viewing in New York City’s Times Square, that crossroads of the globalized world, to reflect on the place of the monument in public life.

Kehinde Wiley, “Rumors of War” (2019)

The concept of this commemorative statue, arriving at a highpoint in the Trump presisdency, was an artist’s intervention on the relation of monuments and the African diaspora, and indeed the place of neoclassical statuary as a remapping of violence in the national public imaginary. Trump replied with overkill to the questions that Wiley’s work raised about art and violence, as if to insist that violence–and radicalized violence–had no part in our national memory. In conjuring an array of a virtual army of statues of assorted generals, frontier figures, and further Presidents, that he hoped might transcend 2020, the President betrayed deeper ties to monuments than virtues, and revealed a keen interest in replacing a personal relation to national history with empty symbols. One could only remember the eagerness with which he had promoted a massive monument to Christopher Columbus, forged in Moscow, that the city’s mayor had in 1997 promised him as a gift, in what seems one of the earliest cases of Trump comparing himself to the nation.

To be sure, the spectacle of more statues may have hoped to reclaim a place in the national news media from which he was inexorably displaced as the novel coronavirus spread. Inability to steer attention to alleged acts of vandalism on individual statues must have nagged, as tear gas and pepper spray had been used by conjures of National Guard, Border Patrol, and Park Police against the specter of “violent protestors” across the country, but the nation was less interested in the violence, than the rising rate of infections alarmingly rising across the nation more quickly than anywhere in the globe: if the notion of a plague or illness that was beyond American medicine seemed a thing of the past we all became as vulnerable as Americans were to influenza, or other specters of infectious disease.

Statues like Mt. Rushmore may have once been inspirational, but even they rang hollow. Trump seemed to bury himself in a mausoleum of memory by describing the national need for such a Garden of Heroes in a global pandemic. The role of the statues seemed to rally hope as the United States is an epicenter of infection, isolating figures of historical significance, to re-assert isolated inspirational figures of Dead White Mens’ history, to replace a living one, in a gambit to resolve a significant calls to rethink the nation’s national heritage as his Presidency seemed to wane. The President seemed eager to enshrine himself in figural monuments of President Jackson, Lee, Columbus,and Washington, in a preserve a culture of monumentality.

Before seeking the office of United States President, the feisty real estate developer Donald Trump entertained obtaining a monumental icon of Columbus, a piece of statuary of bronze that would tower over three hundred meters in height, a statue that an unknown American patron commissioned requested from the Soviet sculptor of Zurab Tsereteli to commemorate the quincentenary of the Genoese navigator’s voyage.

Trump would have entertained the idea shortly after he had purchased the iconic Gulf + Western Building on the southwest corner of Central Park, emptying the modernist icon of corporate America of all of its offices, to remake it as a skyscraper beside Columbus Circle: the sleek steel and glass beside a steely globe was remade as a luxury development taller than New York zoning laws then had allowed in 1994, and came with the steely orb that was, akin to an astrolabe, an icon of the old World’s Fair, an image of globalism. The new Trump building would dwarf the statue of Christopher Columbus on a pedestal nearby, and met needs of succeeding Trump Tower as not only a “premier residential site–[but] one of the best in the world,” as his brochure put it.

Rachel’s PhotoBlog

The construction of a building near Columbus Circle in 1994 with a Trump name made it part of the realtor’s properties, and perhaps plans for global expansion of the soon-to-be-inaugurated Trump International. Did plans for expanding Trump’s brand to Moscow by 1997 turn to the heroic statuary designed by an old friend of Moscow’s notoriously corrupt mayor? It would not be a stretch to image discussion turning to erecting a larger monument of the navigator that Zurab Tsereteli, his old schoolmate, had made, which other American leaders had rebuffed, and of a new site for the navigator standing aboard a sailing ship, that might make due on the investment an unknown oligarch had made for the monument. Might it be located to the site of development the realtor had begun on the Hudson, placed in all its glory as a colossus overshadowing the Statue of Liberty in New York’s port?

If the shadows that the monumental statue of the navigator who had convinced the Spanish monarchs of a westerly route to the Indies pilot would fall over Manhattan, had this structure been built, the hopes that Trump had entertained since the Gorbachev Era of “restructuring,” to explore deals to expand his brand, on a belief “some people have an ability to negotiate” that is innate: and in 1984, soon after a Soviet Ambassador arrived in Trump Tower,  to plan “building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin, in partnership with the Soviet government” soon before he enrolled in the 1988 Republican primary, where the positive polling prognosis led him to launch a shot in the Reform Party’s candidacy, headlining a ticket under the auspices of Jesse Ventura. Trump’s hopes for an initial joint venture with the Soviet government had morphed, perhaps as a result of one looking for a deal, to a a belief that “Soviets are reportedly looking a lot more kindly on a possible presidential bid by Donald Trump, the New York builder” on the eve of the New Hampshire primaries, noting that Trump was tied to “the notorious, organized-crime linked Resorts International,” and returned to the post-Soviet city hoping for a contract for Trump World Tower in Moscow.

The 1997 offer of the monument as a “gift” fitting a builder who specialized in building monuments to himself, without a sense of a global context–and unable to separate his own personal gain from the promotion of his brand–provides, perhaps, the deepest irony of the hopes for this arrival of a symbol of post-Soviet Russia rebranding its own geopolitical hopes and aspirations. Trump was far more of a monument builder and brand promoter rather than a realtor or investor; he confidently monumentalized buildings by bestowing on them his name, and had promised similarly promised to supersize America, in ways that melded with his own massive ego. Making monuments was Trump’s trade since the Trump Tower, from The Plaza to Trump Palaces in Atlantic City, as monument-making was an investment from which he spun a sort of career: for this reason, Mark Singer aptly and importantly characterized Trump as specializing in building monuments to himself, first Trump Tower, in 1984, and he relished that its sawtoothed silhouette fit into the skyline of New York to be a tourist attraction; Mark Singer likened his monument-making to a performance art of deeply compulsive proportions, as the salmon-hued monumental marble atrium of Trump-like that, in the increasing simulacrum of America, were the same fantasies that he pedaled as a Presidential candidate, on an odious platform of strong policing, disenfranchisement and hate.

The appeal of the monumental statue, that he began talks with Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor, to approve for this landfill development,–to whom Luzhkov was advised to forward the request “to make a gift of this great work by Zurab” in “the City of New York!”–would adopt an icon of the nation, of Russian fabrication, whose patriotic value would have been instrumental in his brand. Trump oddly returned to promote this brand, before promoting “our collective national memory” as a fragile good, if his defense of Columbus as “truly inspirational” for “our great Nation” as a “skilled navigator and man of faith” who was “transformative . . . for our great Nation.” Trump returned to a rehashing of such patriotic claims of the National Garden of American Heroes strums patriotic chords that seemed designed to make it hard to be against, as well as including something for everyone from Antonin Scalia, Rev. Billy Graham, Founding Fathers, and past presenting, who are lumped with “opponents of national socialism or international socialism,” as a response to an assault on our collective national memory,” embodied a collective in stone, rather than addressing real problems of the rising infection rates of the novel coronavirus, unemployment and economic decline, and police violence and systematic racism.

When Trump returned to Moscow in 1997, with plans for a Trump International project, these concerns were far from his attention. But discussions with the Moscow’s opportunistic post-Soviet mayor of the flamboyant monument-builder turned to the monumental statue, that seemed to transcend the statue of Columbus existing beside his new property. For was not the monument of bronze more of a Russian doll, concealing far more than its sleek exterior the navigator betrayed? The Disney-esque kitsch of the immense ahistorical navigator astride a ship in a port where he had not set foot, oblivious of his surroundings, was an exercise in myth-making. Hand resting upon a rotary steering wheel of the sort Columbus never saw, and never existed in his life, the monument magnified the authority of “Columbus” stripped of historical associations, an image of “kitsch” emptied of any aesthetic experience, akin to Trump’s emptying of office buildings of their contents, as a colossus standing outside high art and without aesthetic aspirations: designed to please its audience, but having failed to attract western sponsors as a massive glorification of Columbus as a monarchal emissary to a New World he would conquer, the statue reminds one of its pretensions, and currying of an audience, as if to move the observer by its hyper-reality of an industrial-grade bronze monument of 6,500 tons of sub-export bronze, its immobility more of an effigy that is self-congratulatory than inspirational.

A monument in search of an audience, it suggested a weird sense of the logic by which Trump would himself pursue a global audience from 1997, seeking to restyle himself as an expert in nuclear disarmament, public office, using his belief “some people have an ability to negotiate” whose negotiating abilities embraced strategic arms limitations, recast the bona fides of a realtor as a bona fide international operator, and indeed ambassador to Russia in the Reagan era, as an office able to ingratiate his firm to overseas audiences, to meet aspirations for “building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin, in partnership with the Soviet government” and seeking acclaim, with an uncanny tone-deaf sense of his surroundings.

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

As Trump was trying to turn a trick in resuscitating Trump Tower Moscow, boasting of plans he drew up with Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, and Robert A.M. Stern for luxury apartments towering near Columbus Circle, did the discussion ever turn to the statue now contested as a part of the national memory? The residential complexes he planned was, after all, more than a building, a monument, emblazoning his name/brand on above the Moscow skyline with prominence that it seemed, somehow, to him to be due–

–as if emblazoning the name “TRUMP” in Moscow’s skyline would place his name among the influx of money he promised the building would attract, even if few Russians then recognized the name of the realtor as a status-symbol that, in 1997, would have been worth covering their high price. Trump argued the complex could attract global buyers, however, as if to inflate his own brand, that would have made the statue of the navigator who was hired by Ferdinand and Isabella to discovery a new sea route to the Far East in three small ships, and was more than ready to assume credit for the “discovery” of a land first spotted by a fellow sailor, Rodrigo Bernajo, and rename the populated island San Salvador, leaving behind some of his crew in Hispaniola, before he converted the claims of discovery to a title–Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Governor of the Indies–that magnified his own global status, even as the indigenous revolted against the regime settlers sought to impose in the renamed island of Hispaniola.

Columbus had, of course, come from a family of wool carders in Genoa, the fabrication of global status as bringing Christianity to the new world that the monumental statue reified, embodied claims to having “discovered” the New World were full of a bombast that was pure Trump–whether Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Tsereteli knew it or not.

But in working the possibility of a deal, mere mention of the building he worked on transforming to luxury apartments at Columbus Circle, which he boasted toward above a monument of Columbus, would have turned the attention of Mayor Luzhkin and his real estate developer wife to the incomplete monument of Columbus,–a monumental statue which Boris Yeltsin hoped to present both Presidents Clinton and Bush as a sign of his commitment to future partnership between the countries–in an attempt to jump-start investment in his economy, by a monument that would have consciously been akin to a symbolic marker of their hopes for displacing the special relation of the United States and the European Union; its presentation on the quincentennial of Columbus’ arrival would upstage the presentation of the Statue of Liberty, commissioned earlier by a French abolitionist, but unveiled in 1886 to celebrate the quadricentennial of 1893?

Perhaps, as Trump contemplated what sort of monument to plan across the street from Red Square, and imagined one towering above the Kremlin, the realtor flew, like a moth, too close to the flame, and was invited to accept a towering bronze monument to Columbus to erect near his riverside complex, as a prominent marker of a new relation of Russia and America. While these images were made in an LOI 2015, in a planned 120 story “world class luxury condominium,” with pool, Trump World Tower Moscow, the initial plans for Trump tower began long before Michael Cohen lied, but perhaps in the prospective conversion of Federation Tower as a building he might brand with the Trump name, just before 2008, and which Trump wanted to repurpose in 2013.

Buzzfeed News

About the time that Trump visited Moscow in 1997, discussion turned to the shipping the body monumental piece of Columbus statuary–the largest built–to New York, whose head was already in the United States territory. “On the banks of every great river in the world, you’ll find a monument to excess,” observed a bombastic character in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide observes, on British imperial plans for a port at Calcutta. The building of the port recalled an imperial relation to sovereign territory in the 2004 novel was, perhaps in retrospect seems a bit of a tacit critique of the plans for constructing the world’s largest statue, over 182 meters, and 54 meters above the pervious record-holder of the $55 million Spring Temple Buddha in Huenan, China, and uses a 6,500 tonnes of steel around a concrete core to monumentalized a figural symbol of Indian unity, whose cost won much scoffing from local farmers.

Trump made monuments to excess that prefigure the statue of Christopher Columbus that he was eager to accept from Moscow’s Mayor, who had earlier tried to resolve the site of a work by one of his favorite sculptors of public statuary, for the banks of his unbuilt Hudson River development. While only six feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, it would be magnified by far greater proximity to Manhattan–and be part of the New York skyline that he was so eager to include himself in more prominently, that he traced the skyline, as if he was identified with it, and gave it away as a souvenir.

Donald Trump, 2008

Was it also a point of entrance of Trump into his authoritarian stage? To be sure, the current defense that Trump has launched on social media as President of the preservation of monuments–and the rabid charges he has made against “hooligans” and “thugs” who deface monuments as assaulting national memory–a disgust that may be authentic, but betrays some greater sympathy for statues than for people; for sure, it rings hollow for someone who has assailed individual rights The Constitution enshrines, is puzzling, and odd—as is the support he had given to figures of Columbus in the face of recognization of their authoritarian and racially insensitive use of iconography and territorial claims. As used Twitter to threaten to incarcerate those who had defaced statues of George Washington with red paint, based on the Monuments and Statues Act, calling protestors Anarchists and claiming “We have them on tape!” threateningly, and indeed reposting grainy photos of suspected vandalization of monuments at Lafayette Square in Washington DC, to his over 80 million Twitter followers, his serial tweets predicted a “battle to save the Heritage, History, and Greatness of our Country!” as a new culture war, distracting from the deep inequities revealed in the ravages of police violence or COVID-19. Does Trump display more affection for monuments than individuals?

The sympathy and indeed self-identiicaiton with statues and monuments–described to his social media followers and supporters as “DEFENDING AMERICAN HISTORY FROM THE MOB”–has indeed accentuated iconoclasm as if it were a talking point of political advantage, identifying if not equating his political authority with a shared iconography of civic identity and white nationalism that boosts symbols of the confederacy, under the guise of the preservation of “legacy,” “American values,” “civic heritage,” that seems to seek to convince his supporters he is able to stave off dangerous destruction of property and white privilege that can be naturalized in the land.

 

George Washington Effigy vandalised in Washington Square Park in New York, 2020 (EPA)

The monument to patriarchal authority echoes Modi’s statue, but the Russian-made statue that was first made to celebrate the 1492 arrival of Columbus that named America openly recalls an era of mapping when one could lay possession to space in a map–indeed, even to the extent of claiming possession of much of a continent. Its authoritarian image and profile recalls the doctrine of “America First” doctrine that Trump embraced openly when he began his political career; for if the doctrine is based on the exclusion of a foreign “other” perspective, including any migrant–anyone not a member of a clannish nativist white “America”–the statuary of a Columbus stands so oblivious to the other, announcing his arrival as a foundational act of government, in an immobile heroic relation to the land while hailing a New World–captured the rhetoric by which the historical Columbus hailed a new continent as a possession of the Spanish monarchs deputized him to take possession on their behalf.

Perhaps this is an “America First” modeled after the very leaders who created such similar monumental statues of patriarchal authority as Narenda Modi, Kim il-Song and Kim il-Jong, or the subsequent 2016 statue of Prince Vladimir the Great, who united Russia and Ukraine as Orthodox Christian states in 988, bearing a cross, that he presented as founding not only the Kievan Rus, but “moral foundation on which our lives are based.” Much as Putin’s namesake Vladimir holds a weighty cross on his shoulder, the statue of Columbus was always an odd gift for a nation separating church and state, as it celebrated the visionary nature of Columbus as a converter of natives, with encoded Christian symbolism in the royal crosses engraved on its billowing sails, as if he were a mythic founder of a state that never existed in America, but would be accepted in the global financial capital where Trump was expanding his promotion of real estate developments to a global scale. The stolid statue of weirdly royalist as much as patriotic ideals seems to have used its Neo-Augustan robes of his monumental bulk both to pose as a new Colossus, akin to the ancient marvel of Rhodes, and to conceal, beneath them, as if under the presence of public duty and patriotic heroism, not only a claim to the supremacy of the white, educated race in the global playing field, but the hope for private gains that led Donald J. Trump to return from Moscow with hopes to build the statue on the Hudson, on a pilot of landfill he was developing near midtown.

1. The statue strikingly foregrounded a conceptual confusion between public shows of patriotism, rolled out with so much pluck and stagecraft, and the search for private gain, not an eery predecessor and embodiment of what we have come to expect from Trump as United States President? As a Russian doll, as much as a fifteenth-century navigator, the ahistorically dressed navigator, one hand guiding a rotary wheel not used to navigate in 1492, taps a mythistokry to conceal the financial interests of a real estate promoter of newfound global ambitions inside an icon of national prestige.

This autocratic neoclassical Columbus, an unbuilt monument that has not come in for public attack, would have staged an autocratic ideal of government destined for Trump Properties in a Hudson River lot of landfill on Manhattan, looking with thin-lipped autocratic supremacy upstream, as if akin to the Colossus of Rhodes that had indeed been a model for the Statue of Liberty that the Columbus appears designed to surpass in height and monumentality–and whose body was perhaps expanded to ensure its greater height than the iconic Liberty statue given to the United States on the quatricentennary of the Columbian voyage–as if a rejoinder to Liberty Illuminating the World–would have provided an off-kilter rejoinder to the monument to Republicanism. Indeed, if the Statue of Liberty might be seen as an affirmation of Republican values and the rejection of enslavement, sponsored by a French abolitionist who had studied Constitutional Law, who had imagined her holding broken chains in her left hand as well as lifting a torch with her right, the magisterial salute of this Columbus echoed a sovereign relation to the land, although its kitschy visage seems removed from any clear political agenda in its immobile naturalization of authority.

The very Trumpian aspirations to monumentality that had led the realtor to propose hubristically building a Trump International Moscow beside Red Square towering above the Kremlin in 1997, an icon of the Russian capital–perhaps led them to send him home, with the offer of a statue of the navigator Columbus that would be tower above the Statue of Liberty downstream in New York harbor not only in appearance, but actual height. The revelation by Mark Singer that Trump had eagerly entertained if not negotiated the possible arrival of the massive cultic statue forged in Moscow to New York’ s new mayor, Rudy Giuliani, the “great work” of a Moscow sculptor he guaranteed was “major and legit”–would be a new Colossus of Rhodes, of sorts, not defending the nation, but a wonder of authority that would surpass his Taj Mahal as a new wonder of the world.

The Columbus in “The Invention of the New World” would be an addition to the building that would supplement its authority, a symbol of a patriarchal order, unlike the figure of Lady Liberty, with whom Trump’s public image as a sovereign ruler has been broadly fraught. The subsequent association of Columbus and white supremacy made the statue a less than desired proposal, and Trump’s eager proposal to erect the monumental statue, five feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, on his properties, went nowhere: if the modern colossus was an emblem of sorts for his new globalist world, the image was animated by monarchical rule, and not by democracy and republicanism, had fell on deaf ears when it was proposed to Presidents George H.W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton, he no doubt felt it could be he a triumph of his own deal-making if built on his private lands

Did he appreciate its political conniptions of using an icon of white supremacy whose objective identification with America had been questioned from 1992? While America has long denied its imperial identity, the statue seemed a bid to recognize it, if it was also a Russian reading celebrating the authoritarian image of the navigator as a figure of state, and a nationalist symbol. The story of this weird fantasy image of Columbus, as a navigator who arrived in a New World in peace, saluting the continent over which he was taking possession in thin-lipped solemnity, was both a kitsch of a monumental who seemed to bear regal insignia around his neck, rose an arm affirmative as an imaginary past of the founding go the nation, as if this monument in bronze would set a precedent for “Make America Great Again”—conjuring the allure of an imaginary past demanding complete the complete assent from observers, as if to allow no possibility of choice for native inhabitants, and to remove a myth of the New World and America from an idea of freedom, more akin to a westward progression of empire, driven by sails decorated by royal crosses of the most Catholic majesties Ferdinand and Isabella, than by recognizably American values. If the notion of a monument-building had long been a sleight of hand, since Theodore Roosevelt transformed the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred to the Sioux, accords to the Sioux in an 1868 treaty to the Sioux in perpetuity, if in fact only until prospectors arrived, as a monument to American empire, named after the general who commanded American soldiers to slaughter unarmed Sioux women, men, and children, by using the sleight of hand of monumentality to transform a sacred site to a massively offensive cultic icon of Presidential supremacy–the very site where Trump chose to propose his new monumental project of a “Garden of Heroes” on July 4 2020 in South Dakota.

Mt. Rushmore

If the Roman poet Horace had famously boasted his own writings would outlast monuments in bronze in the Augustan era, in an age when writings on papyri were imagined less durable than epigraphic inscriptions in stone, the bronze monument whose imperial relation to space mediates a tradition of Augustan statuary in kitsch. And if Horace seems to have punctured Augustan vanity by identifying his poetry as a testament outlasting monuments of bronze or pyramids, displacing the written object by a new language of monumentality fitting a man with global aspirations.

The colossus Trump sough to erect on his property at tax payers’ expense was presented as a gift from the Russian people, although it was rejected as a Soviet gift for the quincentennial celebrations of Columbus. The new version would be, of course, something of a monument to his vanity, and it occluded personal and national interests in a way that prefigured the Trump Presidency, if its construction predated Trump’s political aspirations by a few years. He had recently poured money into boondoggles–the Taj Mahal built in Atlantic City for $1.2 billion in 1990, promoted as “the eighth wonder of the world,” but the 360-foot bronze statue of Columbus seemed a way to use Russian donation to promote his own public prominence in Manhattan, as if it would restore his public citizenship in New York, if it was a quite kitschy image of the navigator as a Renaissance hero, transcending the very masted craft representing the Santa Maria, as if a statement to his global grandiosity. The “Birth of the New World” was never built near New York, but was erected in time for Trump’s inauguration as the tallest statue in the Americas, although the monolith known locally as “La Estatua de Colón” is located at the edges of American territoriality, on the island of Puerto Rico, where it packs less punch as a celebration of the navigator as a discoverer, after resting in an abandoned factory for years in Cataño, PR.

Back in 1893, visitors to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL could enjoy entering a replica of the ship, which had itself sailed across the Atlantic from Spain, entering it as a tourist attraction. The show was the third American iteration of a “World’s Fair” tradition, but in celebrating the navigator who traversed the seas as a home-grown version of globalism, it cast the globalism of worlds fair traditions that had begun in the Crystal Palace in an American idiom of Manifest Destiny-with a large water pool that represented the transatlantic voyage of the fifteenth century navigator, in a replica of the caravel similar to the skiff in which the new statue of the navigator stood–

Chicago’s Colomban Exposition, 1893/Monovisions

–amidst the neoclassical buildings of the Exposition that were called a “White City,” in an exposition that notoriously excluded figures of African Americans, but boasted a range of ethnographic villages.

Larger than life, mounted on a similar boat, the bronze Columbus of 300 meters in height majestically surveying the shore of Arecibo in Puerto Rico where it now stands, addressing no one, its sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, impatient at the refusal to erect the statue in the many American cities to whom it had been offered–first New York, where it was to be built on the premises of a luxury development entrepreneur Donald Trump promoted on the Hudson River, where Trump crowed Zurab “wanted to have it built.”

The many stories of the monstrosity have perhaps detracted attention from what it would have looked at on the Hudson River, or the hubris with which Trump invited or solicited the offer as a cementing of friendship with the post-Soviet elites as he sought to build a Trump Tower Moscow in 1997.

The monumental statue concealing the act of dispossession of native lands seem to have appealed to Trump, and not only because the six hundred ton statue that Donald Trump hoped would promote his latest luxury housing enclave. If the statue is ridiculously ahistorical, planned for a place the fifteenth century navigator never arrived holding navigational tools he never used, the 6,500 tons of sub-export bronze almost erected on the banks of the Hudson River, selected as the site to be “gifted” by Russian oligarchs who had long globally peddled a massive statuary two American presidents had demurred, probably both an aesthetic grounds and for its autocratic form, an imaginary of conquest almost foreign to Columbian iconography.

If all maps freeze cruel dialectics of power and inequality, the image of Columbus, arm on a rotary nautical wheel not used on his transatlantic voyage, suggested a poetics of dispossession that was broadly revisited in the United States at this very time. Although the statue would be adopted as an icon of the “anti-Christopher Columbus attacks from the political left wing in America,” as if facing threats of a desecration of models of heroism, the totem to Columbus that defined the taboo nature of expanding political discourse to critique Columbus’s historical identity, the endurance of the massive sculpture “Discovery of the New World” in Arecibo recapitulated a logic of discovery: even as the liabilities for disaster approached $50 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget, did the town ever consider melting down the 6,500 tons of bronze to recoup their monetary value?

Columbus had become something of a trope or specialty of monumental sculpture that Tsereteli had adopted in the 1990s, at a moment when increased questioning of the iconic nature of the navigator had begun to grow. While the unpaid import taxes on the massive bronze monument had caused it to languish in the harbor, it formed part of a range of massive sculptures of the navigator from Tsereteli’s productive studios, more kitsch than national icons, but that provided an odd tail-end to the construction of Columbus monuments around the world, as if to recuperate a tired tradition of monumentality for an audience it had trouble finding. Completed from the pieces stored in the factory in 2017, after it had been rejected as a monument suitable for the 2010 Central American and Caribbean games, and not erected on the Mayagüez coastline; it was also rejected as a project suitable for the cities of Baltimore, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, or Columbus, Ohio, the ghosted monument finally found a home–after import taxes were resolved–although it is difficult to balance the aesthetic ugliness of the monument with the charged subject matter of glorifying a navigator who had been increasingly out of synch with a global map, if not purged from its surface.

As kitsch as the surface of the Columbus colossus is, hopes of eredting the monument on the Hudson suggested an overlapping of spatial imaginaries that demand to be untangled. The retrospective glorification of the fifteenth century Genoese navigator was in the end less easily aptly situated as a global hero on the coast of the impoverished island, raises questions of the how Trump desired the coastal monument on his properties, imagining it as an icon for Trump International as his real estate business sought to expand beyond New York City to boost its fortune. Did he propose it as an option to a sculptor who was still searching for a home for his bronze statue, in storage in Puerto Rico, and gathering dust, when Trump saw the somewhat smaller statue on the Volga for which it was the prototype? If the monument to Peter the Great installed in 1997 to commorate the foundation of the “navy” in 1693 of Russia’s first Emperor was only , the statue since planned to be relocated to Leningrad, Archangelsk (Russia’s only port city), or Petrazavodsk, is but a third as tall–ninety eight meters–but towers above Moscow above the city’s architecture as monumentally as allowed. Yet the the attempt to rehabilitate Columbus as an icon of globalism that restored post-Soviet-American ties was imagined by Trump as a means to confirm his fantasy of his new global profile, as it was entertained by Moscow’s elite to be seen as a symbol of friendship and a new world order.

If the global map seemed apt as an icon of the voyage of Columbus on the obverse of the coin minted in the fourth centenary in 1893,

–the tired trope of the monument glorifying the navigator was adopted wholesale by Trump, as he sought a new, global icon of his ambitions, conflating his business interests with the apparently abandoned icon that Tsereteli’s prowess had so awfully embodied, a new image of a new Stalin, that had served so appropriately to embody–as Tsereteli remained unhappy with the lack of a site for his statuary that he has promoted globally–with a decisively smaller Moscow monument, of Peter the Great (1672-1725), that commemorated the three-hundredth anniversary of founding Russia’s Navy, and triumphal naval mission to Ukraine down the Volga. As the “Mother Volga” that ran to the Caspian Sea was long a symbol for Russian unification Peter the Great championed–“Mighty stream, so deep and so wide, Volga, Volga, our pride“–and a symbol of Russian modernization, and consolidation of the Baltics and of Crimea, the statue erected in Moscow in the very year of Trump’s visit to search sites for a Trump Tower–1997–and may have led him to propose placing the Columbus colossus on the Hudson. He would have seen the newly erected monument to Peter the Great, that persecutor of the peasantry, as a national hero who had become inseparable from military success and culturally transforming Russia in the Soviet period–and idealized by both Yeltsin and Stalin–celebrating his foundation of the Russian Imperial Fleet as a central to his imperial claims.

Monument to Peter the Great’s Foundation of Navy, Moscow (Zurab Tsereteli)

The national icon was designed to replace the prominence of spires on the Moscow skyline, and has been widely opposed. Although ships are hardly models of navigation or exploration, the evocation of an era of conquest, navigation, and the decisive expansion of borders that the Peter the Great statue celebrated in all its kitsch was a bizarre step-child of a triumphal image of global networks in not only the Columbian Exposition, but the very global supremacy Donald Trump hoped for in Trump International.

JackTindale/Twitter

It surely admitted the imperial nature of the United States more concretely than any defense of the nation. The appeal of the massive statue was quick to gain an almost cultish meaning in the light of open attacks on Columbus’ monumetnalization that began around the time that Trump announced the statue’s arrival in 1997, or from 1989 by pouring blood on Columbus statues. The lionization of Columbus grew to counter fears of attacks on Columbus statuary on the mainland as tantamount beheading a cultural figure in an act of wanton sacrifice–rather than a political act–and they had grown by 2015, and dismissed as monumens that embodied the nation by 2020, as a rejection of Trump’s politics of race-bating swept the land.

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, commemoration, Donald J. Trump, globalization, monuments

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