Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

18. 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 h7w 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. The idea of squirreling such a statue into the public space of New York City, where it would stand beside an exclusive remove from the city and most o its populations, but dominating its skyline, stands in sharp contrast to the open monument that attracts visitors from all over the world in the New York Harbor, overseen by public parks.

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 increasingly admiring praise for Vladimir Putin’s politics suggest a confusion of public service and private gain that was inextricably entangled.

The extent of entanglement evident in the monumental proportions of this Russified 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 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. after he had invited to Moscow.

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 suggested prominent continuities 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 The Donald’s enthusiasm accepting a monument on behalf of the United States of a statue of the national icon Christopher Columbus, forged in 1991 in Moscow, to be sure, but which at that point was undelivered and deemed undeliverable after demurrals from several cities, from Miami to Baltimore. Would it loom over the Hudson River, far more prominently than the old 1892 statue chiseled in Rome, that looked away from Trump’s recently acquired property at Columbus Circle? For Trump’s logic is always based on upstaging, and this monument beside Trump’s other properties seemed ready for upstaging.

Columbus Statue in Columbus Circle, New York

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.

19. The monumentality of the statuary has provoked its own mockery, in dirigibles, oddly akin to the dirigibles that greeted Trump’s own emergence as a global political figure. 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 aesthetics. Indeed, Trump International in New York City provided a perfect place for staging a demonstration against the remapping of global security and national identity in the Trump Presidency by 2019–as if to foreground utter incommensurability nature of Trump as realtor with global internationalism.

Jay Dobkin

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.

To be sure, if the inflatables of Donald Trump that have appeared increasingly in the news and on our streets have become a familiar form of public protest, it is telling that what began as international indignation at the election of so pronounced an anti-internationalist as U.S. President, feared for declaring his opposition to climate accords and climate change, would migrate into the American landscape, gaining resonance as a realization of dismay at Trump’s manipulation of a spectacle of politics, and a spectacle that dishonored and disgraced the public office he held.

Leo Murray, “Baby Trump” (2018)

For if Baby Trump was first floated in London’s skies to mark a presidential overseas visit, the revulsion at the denigration of politics to a spectacle in the Trump era, a spectacle waged on social media more than in public spaces, seemed a reclaiming of public space as an arena of political engagement. The inflation of both dirigibles aimed to puncture, to be sure, the aspirational nature of Trump’s personal self-inflation as a political figure. In ways that resembled the floats of a Columbus Day Parade, the inflatable anti-monuments gained a global currency as a touchstone of protest, rather than commemoration–a protest that registered the undue prominence Trump had acquired in a social media spectacle, evident in the reference to the mobil phone in Baby Trump’s hand.

Trump has explicitly positioned himself as a center of spectacle on social media to alter a political landscape. The sudden prominence of dirigibles that ascend to the sky seems addressed by floats as if parodic versions of the floats of a Columbus parade, spontaneously across the globe. Is it worth remembering how much these inflatables began abroad, and were imported as icons of protest, because they captured so perfectly revulsion and disgust at Trump’s domination of the spectacle, recasting of news as a spectacle, and amazingly adroit denigration of political office as included in the spectacle as well? If the destruction of the Twin Towers in 9/11 became recast as spectacle–if they were not immediately understood by the attackers as a form of spectacle–we must acknowledged how perfectly positioned Trump was to reclaim a sense o spectacle, and shift it to our southern border, and how fluidly Columbus was cast as a nationalist image against migrants, and oblivious to indigeneity or indigenous inhabitants of the continent. (Did Columbus prove a facile tool on offer for a massive rewriting of history and a historical record?)

Anti-Trump protests returned the inflatable floats of Trump as a similar way of claiming attention in the public eye. Floats of Trump as Chicken or Baby Trump both gained new energy as the process of political impeachment of a sitting U.S. President moved to a full vote in the House of Representatives in December, 2019–s the participation in the Impeachment vote extended to the mocking nature of the anti-monument inflatables that were brought too capture media attention at public protest, attracting much photography. and hoping to appear on the nightly news The appeal of the inflatable chicken had caught on as an icon of public protest, as if to undermine the deft use Trump had made by positioning himself at the center of a spectacle, analogous a public parade–now labeled as a larget of the impeachment process–

Oakland CA (2019)

The dirigibles’ appeal no doubt reflect shared perception of Trump’s boundless ambition for personal inflation by hot air. And by evening, the orange top of that inflatable acquired an eery glow by the side of the marquis of Oakland CA’s Grand Lake Theater–whose old marquis advertised an urgent plea to “Save Our Democracy”–which belied the carnivalesque air of the evening the night before Representatives voted, as Trump himself bitterly complained he had been offered no fair due process–and less due process than, assuming heights of disproportionate rhetorical inflation, those women killed in the Salem Witch Trials.

The glowing float seemed optimistically illuminated by a sunset in the electric lights in California, but the afterglow could not obscure fears of the extent to which Trump had become a monument in our midst who ran against the grain of our democracy..

Oakland CA/December 17, 2019

The misogynist underpinnings of Trump’s invective against impeachment as akin to a Star Chamber was cast in a kitsch historical clothing that seemed to seek to dignify it by appealing to a shared historical public memory, and position his place within it, if in unabashedly misogynist ways that desecrated the memory of those burned as witches. The rhetorical incommensurability seems to seek to protect his memory in the nation’s historical record in ways that eerily reflect the almost protective role he adopted as President to the cult of Columbus to which he had shocked many by his open defense. That outsized vanity of the canny realtor’s longstanding personal ambition was illustrated in Trump’s oversized hopes to bring a monument weighing 600 tons of $40 million worth of bronze sheets.

Trump probably accepted with enthusiasm the monumental statue as perfect for his new properties after he had seen the monument Tsereteli made of Peter the Great of equal size, itself erected in 1986 on the Moskva River to public dismay and despair, as a desecration of public space. 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.

If the image of authority was one that seemed only to be seen from afar in 1996, as a new world order seemed to have arrived after the end of a Cold War, did Peter the Great indeed hint at the plans for cultivating Trump as a contact, and inserting a newly modulated language and image of political authoritarianism in American political discourse and debate?

Zurab Tsereteli Peter the Great as the Founder of Russian Navy (1996)

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

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