Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

For Trump, debate about the figure of Columbus may have led the kitsch statue to be at last fetishized, in ways that the original plans for its installation as a patriotic symbol on steroids. Even if attacks vandalizing Columbus statuary grew recently as a Columbus Day protest, the first proclamations of Indigenous Peoples’ Day began as the quincentennial approached in 1990-92, and the statue was loaded as the commemoration of First Nations was adopted in the second Monday of October in at least two cities and one state–South Dakota–if it is now recognized by ten states and multiple public and private universities, before statues of Columbus were smashed in San Jose in 2001, but after the Haitian revolutionaries deposed the bronze statue of Columbus from its pedestal in Port-au-Prince 1986, identifying him with colonialism by putting the placard “Foreigners out of Haiti!” revealing the navigator as an exterminator who prefigured Hitler: the statue pushed into the ocean waters was retrieved and redeposited, attacked by the crowd as a symbol of American interference, finally not retrieved and erected again.

In contrast to broad queries about the celebration or commemoration of Columbus in 1992, as Howard Zinn presented profit and enslavement as primary motivations of the navigator, fueling the desecration of Columbus statues, the flat-footed proposal for a still larger immobile colossus of the fifteenth navigator eliminates all native presence. The bronze behemoth that was proposed to American presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton was refused, perhaps the statue planned for the coincidence of the Columbus quincentenary and start of post-Soviet Russia was so openly haunted by imperialist and totalitarian tones: facilitated and encouraged by Moscow’s new mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, a major sponsor of the monumental sculptures of Zurab Tsereteli, which had recently reshaped Moscow’s public space, the image of Columbus as an autoctrat who, Tsar-like, embodied the plans for the nation, seems to have recycled a myth of Manifest Destiny from an oddly royalist optic, but recast in Stalinist tones of the never built Palace of the Soviets, more than an image of independence: if the monument to Lenin planned to be 415 meters, at Stalin’s urging, was never built, the monumental statue rendered in 1937 was a purified Lenin’s authority at the height of the Russian purges in a symbol of sovereignty, designed to be taller than the Eiffel Tower.

purge of Boris Iofan, Design for Palace of the Soviets, with Statue of Lenin (1937)

Was the statue of Columbus presented to Donald Trump a normalization of American empire? Globalization can be placed in a genealogy of trnasborder spaces, and the readopting of Columbus as a figure of the transborder in the era of increased flow of Russian funds, commerce, and traffic to America was incarnated in the imperial reimagining of Columbus as a figure of cross-border conquest. It is no surprise that the monumental statue planned as the largest in the Western Hemisphere, if not immediately erected, arrived in the territorial outpost of Arecibo, a Puerto Rican island the marks the edge of American territory, months after the inauguration of Donald Trump–only to be buffeted from Hurricane Maria’s winds.

Did residents of Arecibo ever consider melting down a statue that Trump had boasted contained the same President who withheld aid for the recovery of a devastation Hurricane Maria caused on the island, after the arrival of a sculpture boasted to contain $40 million in bronze in an impoverished fishing village. As if preserving a similar dialectic of power not frozen in the images of lopsided landscape of a globalizing world, where the statue of Columbus gained new meaning in the circulation of global wealth, local residents believed that its arrival (and installation at a cost of $20 million) would bring capital development to the hamlet, perhaps akin to how Trump promised to develop a Trump International in Moscow boasting unprecedented social exclusivity by investing $250 million in Russia. Was the statue, whose arrival must have been worked out in Moscow during negotiations for the new Trump development in post-Soviet Russia, seen as a tacit recognition of Trump as affirming the special tie of Trump and Russia in 1997?

If now-President Trump had once crowed in 1996 that Russian had gifted a statue of over $40 million in bronze, Arecibo may well have considered scrapping the statue after Hurricane Maria caused $90 billion in damages in 2017, destroying or damaging 300,000 homes, while awaiting $42.5 billion allocated for disaster relief, while receiving less than $14 billion as Trump accused their governor of “robbing the U.S. Government blind!” Yet in what seemed a massive failure in his first test of Presidential leadership, Trump allocated far less disaster relief than had been the case in previous responses to Hurricane Harvey (2017) or Irma (2017) that hit Texas and Florida, an insufficiency that already revealed growing health disparities. from monies in survivors’ pockets to small businesses to flood insurance, despite hugely incommensurable mortality rates and destruction.

But amidst such long-term devastation across the debt-ridden island–

–the statue stood as a reminder of the lopsided status of the United States economy, in increasingly melancholy impotence on Arecibo’s waterfront, testament to lopsided imbalances in a global economy, on a grassy hillside just fifty miles from San Juan, impressing locals who had believed it would herald the fishing village’s future development.

Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg

The new icons of reformed memory that Tsereteli’s work had encouraged in Moscow led the monumental gift to be presented as a calling card that announced that Moscow was now open nature as a center of trade and investment. It also seemed to coronate Trump as an improbable beneficiary of largesse: Trump had regarded the arrival of the over three hundred foot statue of cast bronze as destined to be erected “at my West Side yards development,

The oddly metamorphosed icon of nationalism and patriotic destiny would now herald a luxury housing development, combining or blurring private gain and public good in ways typify the Trump era. While designed for the quincentenary of the “discovery of America” by the fifteenth-century navigator, the prospective placement of the statue on a luxury property development, removed from public space, adopted a triumphal relation to space, almost at odds with democracy. boom The sheer bombast of the gesture by which the thin-lipped autocratic Columbus would salute Manhattan before a backdrop of three broad sails marked by royal crosses inflated by wind as he appears to arrive from overseas seems to reassert the authority of the navigator in “Birth of a New World” to the old world.

The optics of the monumental statue and its placement were odd. It is not hard to see why it was not built. But it offers a hidden mapping of the an figural fascism of a new political imaginary of American authoritarianism–the historian Robert Paxton argued that an American fascism would not of course only re-use fascist symbols, which in themselves represented a powerful statement of the ties of each member of a nation to its state, even if they were symbols, but rather something like “Christian crosses” and “stars and stripes,” the massive statue foregrounded the very crosses that affirmed the Christianity of the nation–central for a sculptor who is a committed member of the Orthodox church and nationalist–and projected a new American identity by which Trump was particularly taken.

If we might reduce the appeal of the monument’s construction to a sense of personal narcissism, its arrival parallels Trump suggesting Presidential candidacy in 1999 on the television show “Larry King Live!“–by announcing his lead in polls for President with false modesty. “The polls came out, and they said if I ran, I’d do very well,” Trump said as if he wanted to conceal his ambitions or present his election as foregone; “I don’t know, I just don’t even know. I mean, they put people’s name — they put various celebrities’ names in, and I did very well in polls, and, all of a sudden, people started calling . . .”–as if a seed for the idea had not been planted in his head. The sense of direct public acclamation of leadership, the sort that Trump recognized in the New Hampshire polls of 1999, when his name was proposed for the primary, as the nominee of the short-lived Reform Party, run by ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura, provided the very sort of acclamation Trump demanded as Republican nominee and within his party, a sense of acclamation that echoed the odd, then-unbuilt statue of Columbus which then languished in an abandoned factory in Puerto Rico.

Keystone/Getty Images; Mandel Ngan/AFP 

The bronze statue of the fifteenth-century navigator Columbus planned to be erected on Trump’s development on the Hudson River in 1997 has a curious history indeed. And it seems, in teh light of the 2016 Presidential campaign that catapulted Trump to public office, to capture and incarnate the confusion between private gain and public good that has characterized the Trump presidency, and Trump’s political career. Trump excitedly boasted that the massive head arrived in the United States, describing his achievement of securing the statue as a “gift” from the Russian people and Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, whose close ties to the construction industry he sought to attract to post-Soviet Moscow from 1992 to 2010 and the body forged in Moscow would soon join it to stand over a river where docks once rose. The Lenape who fished in the Hudson hd of course never met Columbus, but the navigator’s triumphant visage would rise on Trump International’s new exclusive properties, in what would have been a triumphant face forward for Trump that concealed any sense of the rapaciousness of taking possession of a New World.

The bronze statue that would have towered over Manhattan’s West Side would have been the tallest in the Western Hemisphere–at one hundred and ten meters tall, just taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, as if an odd partner to the robed Liberty, torch aloft, the elevated hand of the imperious navigator seemed to declare he had arrived, investing himself with a power of presence closer in proximity to Manhattan: the regal messenger, right arm raised high, frozen in triumphant salutation to a New World, seemed a Neo-Augustan conqueror, robed in Neo-classical style, like Liberty, but without a book of laws or declaration, but a puzzlingly absolute stare, arm on an ahistorical rotary wheel, atop a small symbolic caravel. An assertion in empty air, a floating signifier that only seemed to float, a made-in-Moscow massive icon of unheard of bronze magnitude, this image of Columbus reborn magisterially surveyed a continent on which he had barely set foot, the odd inheritance of his claims, made over four centuries earlier, redeploying a “Doctrine of Discovery” to justify setting foot in new worlds; the statue cast for Trump in Moscow announces the victory of a new globalism financier by underwater financial currents, laundered funds, and foreign backers.

This Columbus was, after all, not only a kitsch figure but a father figure of the nation. Trump was invited to adopt the monumental figure to his development. As much as the notion of discovery and world-making was a Renaissance trope and trick in trade, staking claims for the Spanish King within previously uncharted territory, deploying a “Doctrine of Discovery” to justify setting foot in new worlds, the statue announces the victory of a globalism of bold if far more concealed form of underwater transfers between two nations that are designed to evade their laws, not to be openly mapped. Its position materialized how the historical Columbus claimed, on October 16, 1492, that indigenous subjects would make good servants as subjects of the throne of Castile, appropriating their identity as a way o taking possession of the island of Haiti where he first disembarked, claiming its possession to an audience of few, “by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled” in stock phrases vividly cementing unfurling a royal standard to the act of taking possession five renamed five islands–San Salvador, Santa María de Concepción, Ferdinanda and Isabella.

The historical claim now celebrated as an act of discovery, by raising one hand like Augustus over a different island seems a transnational salutation of confident appropriation, unlike any other global monument to Columbus, and far greater in size. Were plans for the statue imagined as a new image of global power T he piece of kitsch may have been left open to interpretation as a reinvention of global power, whose stature heralded Donald’s arrival on a global stage in faux historical terms, as if his realty achievements were in league with the global navigator, and Trump Properties a new symbol of the fluidity of global capital: Trump must have detected a heroic image to lend grandeur to his properties, and remake his fortunes in New York, as they were in decline after the failure of his Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, if not a reflection of his sense of self. The iconic image of majesty seems to have appealed to Trump to define his prominence in a public arena and arrival as a global realty developer, if with Russian help. The statue Donald Trump wanted to erect by the Hudson River was never built, but maps an exchange of symbols of global power that he was hopeful to develop with Russian aid.

For Donald, the monuments grandeur was a monument to self and glory: it hardly mattered that Columbus never sailed up the Hudson, or that he had never set foot in any of the continent’s land mass. The statue was symbolic, a glorification of the developments that Trump International would be building on both sides of the Atlantic, if his Moscow tower also went through as promised. An image of grandeur that was oddly divorced from the landscape, or from any setting, a “floating signifier” of authority symbols built on solid land, but acting as a floating monument–

Sculptor Zurab Tsereteli Describes Projected Statue in San Juan, PR

–finally assembled as a monumental bronze statue in Puerto Rico in 2016, presented an image of global authority that seemed, in its original planned site of Trump Properties, to be, at over 600 feet, taller than the iconic Statue of Liberty,–as if the ambitious realtor Trump and sculptor teamed up to imagine it would replace the icon the French government presented the nation at the centenary of the Declaration of Independence, “Liberty Illuminating the World,” an optimistic ideal of republicanism, with an image of monumental Neo-Augustan bravado–imagined as a New Wonder of the New World, upstaging the statue in New York Harbor with which cartoonists have seen Trump’s anti-immigrant politics as in long combat.

What better counter-statuary to a model of international republicanism and civil liberties could one imagine than an icon of national identity? Even leaving the royalist imagery of the three flags of the navigator’s miniature caravel aside, the shining statue of the navigator Trump imagined might brave New York’s gritty skies seems a bit of a Brave New World image of authoritarian triumphalism, more ill-defined and cartoonish than the 1894 monument to republican ideals and laws that became a symbol of the rule of law, democracy and extension of voting rights–as well as immigration.

And although Trump’s political career may seem a stunning change in fortune, guided by shifting political waters and divisive global politics as well as uncertainty and economic insecurity, was its course already being charted in the idea of locating this national icon on what were only nominally Trump Properties? The statue was not intentionally political, but would the daunting size of this statue’s presence on the Hudson River have intentionally tried to knock Lady Liberty off of her pedestal?

Lady Liberty Abuse”/Salt Lake Tribune/Pat Bagley

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

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