Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

21. Donald Trump touched lack personal gain in granting personal approval to place a massive standing monument on the lands rezoned for residences. The confusion is shocking. He had planned placing the grotesque monument that perverts the narrative of the nation on landfill expanding the banks of the Hudson River, boasting to have brokered as a “gift” of the Russian people, but imagined the placement of the colossus would promote the exclusive residences he had planned to a new level of grandiosity, with little consideration or attention to the project that spun out in international proportions, promoting dated symbols of allegedly universal identity on private lands for personal gain.

Trump hoped ties between New York’s and Moscow’s mayor in the post-soviet era would help him aspire to a long desired level of monumentality in Manhattan “beyond the grandeur and excellence that has become synonymous with projects of the Trump name.” Is it pure coincidence that the monumentality on offer came from Moscow? The search for constructing a building of greater monumentality in Manhattan led the thirty-nine year old builder to blur self-interest and political symbolism in ways that bely his insistence to “have nothing to do with Russia.” Trump searched for backers for a complex that surpassed the scale of Trump Tower, even proposing building a Trump Castle on Madison Avenue in New York in 1984 with crenellated towers, moat and drawbridge. The progression from the sheer pomposity of a conceit of crenellated towers on Madison Avenue to the monumental statue of Christopher Columbus is barely believable.

The proposed statue that Moscow’s Mayor–and other post-soviet apparatchiks to whom Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was tied–proposed to be taller than the Statue of Liberty actually seemed surprisingly tailored to Trump’s tastes The Donald thrilled at the prospect that the bronze building materials of the monument alone–“It’s got forty million dollars’ worth of bronze in it, and Zurab would like it to be at my West Side Yards development,” Trump crowed to reporters, imagining its scale and monumentality and pleased as punch at a pronounced preference for his property as its future site.

Trump sought the sort of triangulation between recognition, promotion, and status that the massive monument promised to capture, by telling his Moscow ties to contact Mayor Giuliani, even if it had waited for some time to find a site for its erection, probably already having been sipped to the United States and waiting in storage. Giuliani was probably also so impressed at receiving a request from the Mayor of Moscow that he would fancy himself as meriting something like the position of Secretary of State–an appointment he boasted to friends was imminent back in 2016–and felt himself elevated onto a global stage.

November, 2016/Hilary Swift, New York Times

When Luzhkov’s favorite sculptor designed the monument of Columbus, the idea that was proposed to George H.W. Bush in 1990 and then in 1994 to Bill Clinton lines up with the unexpected musings that Trump made about his possible interest in a Presidential run. While he had made few statements about public affairs through 1988, he famously entertained the possibility on April 25, 1988, on his past Reality TV ally Oprah Winfrey, who he had even later repeatedly entertained as a possible running mate, in what seems a bizarre episode of infotainment tokenism. If for Trump, the Columbus monument’s grandiosity would have been a marker of exclusivity, elitism, and natural right–although how the FAA would have approved the statue to be placed on the Hudson, or how it would have been supported by landfill remain unanswered questions.

Moscow had three years earlier turned as a strategy of foreign influencing in the final years of the Soviet Union to “bolder use of material incentives” as ways to cultivate lines of foreign influence, rather than ideology and underground spies as agents; at time when the realtor Donald Trump was boasting of his acumen in deal making, as the KGB was seeking to recruit “prominent figures in the West” who might display as characteristics that money might exploit that revealed “pride, arrogance, egoism, or vanity among subjects’ natural characteristics.” Is there any likelihood, reads a 1984 questionnaire distributed to explain this shift in the direction of cultivation of foreign sources to work toward Soviet advantages in ways that did not expect, that the”subject could come to power (occupy the post of president or prime minister)”? Russia certainly had something to offer Donald in the same period, and in the post-soviet era, he sought–building rights. Donald Trump’s renewed sense of unbounded aspirations seems captured by this early picture of himself caught at Mar-a-Lago, a house which had been turned into a club from a private property in 1995, capturing his confidence and excitement at opportunities for expanding his real estate projects circa 1997, and the extent to which those aspirations were unrestrained.

Trump at Mar-a-Lago, 1997/7/Max Vadukul

Trump was particularly vain about his ability to win building rights in New York and other cities, and his creative use he was making of rezoning to create a new exclusive residence in New York to surpass Trump Tower. And the approval that Trump gave to the monument–thirty years before he planned the angled oblelisk in Moscow emblazoned with the word “TRUMP” towering over the skyline–reveals an eery if recurrent concern with the monumental and the building of a massive totemic image of the nation for personal vanity and gain–a monument to a New World that seems to embody exactly the sense of gigantic totems Trump sought to equate with his brand, the body of the giant robed navigator oddly out of proportion with its far smaller head.

22. The size of the monument was taller than the Statue of Liberty from foundation to torch, as if to diminish the place of liberty in America’s geogrpahy. Although the invitation Trump negotiated to place the statue on the Hudson River’s banks on his property was declined, the odd choice to accept a gift to the nation on Trump property was either a prescient confusion of personal and state interests or a precedent for trafficking in a gift that might help the realtor enter the Moscow market. (The statue was cannily similar to a nationalist statue that the same sculptor recently made installed in 1997 on the River Moskva, as it happened, of Peter the Great, to commemorate his foundation of the Russian Navy to stage the Tsar’s invasion of Ukraine–leading to some speculation that the two bronze bodies might have been exchanged.)

Trump probably would have appreciated a tax write-off for the statue. He must have believed the 600 ton bronze statue of the fifteenth-century navigator guiding small vessel to port beneath flags of punched crucifixes on a pedestal. The grotesque size was appropriately monumental to attract public acclaim, if the absurdity of constructing such a statue on landfill and expecting it to be within code as well as costs cannot really be explained: if it seemed a good idea to Donald, he probably appreciated the monumentality of the project more than planning the nuts and bolts of installing 600 pieces of bronze on the river banks. The figure of the navigator, one hand on a rotary wheel of the sort Columbus never used, suggesting piloting but conveyed little sense of motion or movement, but seemed o inspire awe. Built to rival Christ the Redeemer of Rio de Janeiro and Statue of Liberty–Tsereteli compared it to both–the Columbus might be best described as the result of trying to imagine a hybrid of the two iconic statues of the western hemisphere.

Only it was even bigger! The monumental image of immobility seemed to mark a sense that Trump had himself arrived on a global stage, and looked out from a timeless past, of an image of authority having arrived, as if to flaunt building codes, laws of air clearance, and the ownership of the airspace that he claimed came with his canny rezoning of the West Side Yards as a site for residential development.

Trump’s acceptance of the statue was an indulgence of seeing himeself as a figure of state–or figure of para-state–who trafficked in a symbol of authoritarianism apt for a triumphant celebration. Never mind that the figure of Columbus was increasingly interpreted and understood in those years as a colonizer, and agent of conversion; in Trump fashion, he pushed back by seeming to highlight those very themes in the planned monument, casting the conversion of natives by royal mandate as a part of national history, an indulgence of mythistory he presented as “major” in its restatement of an image in the face of historical debate. The statue whose appearance he had effectively acted as accepting from Tsereteli and his oligarch benefactors accentuated precisely those features with a grotesque grandiosity. Was it the basis for how as U.S. President Trump proclaimed Columbus Day a celebration of the navigator making landfall in ways that “set the stage for our great nation”? Trump’s familiar First World view of European settlement was clearly embodied or reinforced by a monument combining crosses, royal insignia and sovereign gaze, a if to stare down indigenous inhabitants in blank but imperious ways.

The monument would announce the exclusive development on the old West Side Yards as a new site of luxury and global destination, on a level, heralding a transformation of long-undeveloped landfill where trains once picked up dry goods from docks in the Hudson River into exclusive residences. The six towers’ exclusivity replicated the vertical remove of Trump Tower, and the development; removed from Manhattan island spatially and indeed geographically, set far above the street and a community west of the island’s traditional shoreline, the statue announced the expansion of the urban realty to rezoned land, into a region promoted as Trump City to underscore that exclusivity at a time.

Coming shortly after his 1984 plans to erect “the tallest building ever” in Columbus Circle on the old Coliseum, the claim seemed a bit stock to some in Manhattan, but Trump was obsessed with height, including a proposal of 137 stories and a thirty-story atrium, to make its sq footage me meet with city code, among a “pretentious parade of overblown urban skyscrapers” whose cliched design had no place in Columbus Circle.

Proposal for 10 Columbus Circle/Murphy Jahn 1986

21. We know Trump was long interested in the aesthetics of building himself a monument and monumentality–he had been meeting with Philip Johnson, he who had been Father Coughlin’s in-house designer, admirer of Italian fascist-era architecture who had imported travertine marble to Park Avenue and gave his stylistic imprint to steel and glass skyscrapers that are akin to paeans to social status and wealth of aspirational heights, Johnson’s love of wealth made him convinced he would shape Trump’s tastes. Trump preferred shiny gold to rosy marble, however, and greatness in size. Trump, long style-conscious and insecure, had been meeting with Johnson as the man who had effectively redesigned Manhattan’s skyline in the pre-Trump Tower age, and was a master from whom he sought guidance to surpass in seeking to remake Manhattan’s skyline again.

And when associates of Moscow’s notoriously corrupt mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, gate keeper of all Moscow construction in the Yeltsin era, proposed delivering a monumental statue of Christopher Columbus “as a gift” from he people of Russia at no cost to the builder–Luzhkov described it as a “gift” to the nation from his esteemed favored sculptor Tsereteli, a Georgian aristocrat and former cartoonist–Trump was sure a re-eleceted New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, would be eager to accept a monument to the Italian-American hero on New York’s great river. It might even sweeten the terms of the terms of the property deal able to be wrangled. The prominence led Giuliani to see himself as a sort of confidence man with exclusive personal ties to Trump, a role he has come to inhabit once again in current years.

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

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