Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

If all maps are claims of an ability to take possession or claim of space, the statue was a powerful speech act. If unuttered, and never built, the speech act that echoed Columbus’ historical worlds at centuries remove echoed the intermediary role long celebrated as if the mariner were a hardly disembodied if spatially removed agent of the Spanish king, an emissary to the new world, a former wool-carder now dignified as a delegate of royal authority in a New World. The terrain is now known, but would have inflated Trump Properties as more than a brand, but a global property, a player on a global stage with properties far outside New York, and tied to new Trump Towers to be built in Moscow, as the statue that Russian leaders had long sought to present to American Presidents in the previous years as an image of sovereign authority they felt was molded to American global claims in a post-Cold War world was recycled Did it contain spying devises, or serve to smuggle precious metals into the United States, as had a statue, smaller, that was gifted to Spain several years earlier, on the quincentenary of the Colombian voyage, when it was built in Seville, unfurling an actual map of discovery, as if to show his transatlantic route to monarchs? The statue, also the work of Zurab Tsteretelli, foregrounded the notion of transit across the oceans more centrally.

In both monumental statues of the fifteenth century navigator, Columbus was far less of an independent agent, making his case, as in New York’s Columbus Circle, in a statue made in Rome a hundred year’s previous that showed Columbus speaking to the New World as natives cowered to the side–

–but an agent in a hidden network of interests, typical of the globalized world, no doubt, more than an image of unbounded optimism, where the figure of Columbus was a self-made man, able to negotiate royal authority with the theater of unmapped lands on the shores he had arrived at the end of a long journey: this statue seemed to command all it surveyed.

The extraordinarily unimated statue of the chiseled face navigator recycled a language of banal spectacularity, of course–as if it expected to be looked at and admired. The 6,500 tons of sub-export grade bronze, perhaps melted down Lenin statues, fabricated an image of global authority but seemed to cement a deal between Trump and Russian backers. The statue was without any actual foundation, saved poured concrete, but may well offer evidence of the future President’s ties to Russian elites, but his acceptance of a myth of the wholesale fabrication of authority, a proposition with no historical basis or referent, dignifying in the most prominent manner both the colonialist discredited navigator, and elevating Trump’s most recent Manhattan property development in a gaudy image of patriotism. Some feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, if to be seen from far closer in Manhattan, the monumental bronze seemed to inflate Trump’s own sense of authority, and adoption of American identity, trading in myths, surfaces, superficiality, and grandiosity in a reinvention of his sense of historical grandeur.

But history is hysterical, if you interrogate it closely, and the glorification of discovery in this monument to a navigator in a harbor first explored by Hendrik Hudson, who sailed up in search of an elusive Northwest Passage to Asia, having failed in his attempt to secure a circumpolar passage for Russians of the London-based Muscovy Company, eager to discover a new passage to Asia and of circumpolar navigation, as he now sailed his Discovery in search of an elusive Northwest Passage for the East India Company, having hit the polar ice pack in Novaya Zembla in previous years; Hudson believed two passages of water led to the Pacific, and led his crew up New York harbor–to the current Hudson Bay, until they mutinied, tragically stranding him, as crew of Discovery left him in a small ship, as they returned to England, on a voyage that was one of the more popular maps of transatlantic transit, based on the account of one mate, Abacus Picket, who returned to describe the transatlantic journey, showing Hudson stranded at one of the points where he sought passage.

Hessel Gerritz, Tabula Nautica, quae repraesentatur orae maritimae, meatus, ac freter noviter a H Hudson . . . indagata (1612)
Gerritz, detail of Hudson Bay

The first map of the Hudson was a celebration of discovery, as it turns out, but the pedestal of the massive unbuilt statue would suggest a map that Colomubus followed, but the navigator seemed chosen to celebrate had little to do with Hudson, or his work for the Muscovy Company, but was to be given by the Russian people, and Mayor of Moscow, almost four hundred years later, on the river named after Hudson, and may well have marked the new stream of funds running across the Atlantic in the post-soviet era into Trump Properties in Manhattan, inaugurating a New World of transatlantic ties–a mapping of global ties that was long strong in the cartographic imaginary of Russians. While Discovery, unlike Columbus, sailed up the North American River, Russian oligarchs proposed locating Discovery of the New World, the massive statue that was cast in Moscow on Trump Properties in Manhattan–at an opportune time.

Was there an echo of this mysterious attachment to global transit of profits in the allegedly cost-free transport of a massive piece of statuary to be built on the Hudson River’s shores? The Muscovy Company itself folded in the Russian Revolution of 1917, but the river, Donald Trump argued, was the very site where “The mayor of Moscow . . . would like to make a gift” to the American people,” a site to celebrate a massive statuary entitled “Birth of the New World,” that he had told the press after his return from Russia in 1997, he crowed in presenting the project as so separate from his own interests to immediately raise eyebrows of a tie: “It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York!”

The figure already rejected as a gift by at least two sitting presidents, Clinton and George H.W. Bush, was ostensibly a token of friendship for the quincentenary of the celebration of Columbus–whose fate was then being reassessed as a national figure–if his symbolic prominence to the nation has been vigorously asserted by Donald Trump, who improbably elected U.S. President, would issue a proclamation celebrating Columbus Day the second Monday of October out of “commitment to [a] continuing . . . quest to discover . . . the wonders of our Nation,” and, in fact, the “wonders of our nation, world, and beyond,” that seemed to link Columbus to a language of wonders, akin to the wonder of this monument that he created, as if in emulation of the Colossus of Rhodes who had been the model for Lady Liberty, modernizing Manifest Destiny of a frontier nation by having “tamed a continent,” if he had barely arrived at one. The mythos of manifest destiny that found a surprising embrace–to “reaffirm our values and affirm our manifest destiny”–depart from actual geopolitical maps to evoke a broad mythic imaginary.

The weighty bronze statue was never built on the Trump properties that it would be an advertisement and triumphal celebration of, as well as a new symbol of Donald Trump’s most recent gambit–Trump International–an outsized image of lucre, the modern version of the Colossus of Rhodes that would be stand in rezoned landfill off Manhattan’s shore, heralding as a new exclusive real estate development in 1997, and the return of Trump to a global state, with support from Russian oligarchs: the image of Trump, reinvigorated from a trip to Moscow to speculate on a Trump Tower Moscow, seemed poised to transport a new global wonder to New York, as he began refashioning his austerely designed apartment in Trump Tower in gold-inlay Louis XIV style. Was not the massive statue a monument to himself, for Trump the Realtor, worth consideration as an attempt to reposition himself on a world map?

The simulacrum of the other wonder of a wonder of the ancient world–and its tallest building–would be the tallest offshore statue in New York, taller than the Statue of Liberty, and the largest statue in the Western hemisphere, a calling card for his newest development, designed to situate Trump on a global map in ways that had never been done. While Trump has since won election to the U.S. Presidency, the bizarre notion of constructing a public monument by privately negotiated relations to a foreign country did not seem irregular to Donald Trump, and the openness that Trump revealed to accepting a “gift” he calculated to be worth over $40 million in bronze alone, if requiring another $20 million to install, was mentioned as Trump returned from a trip where he proposed a $250 million investment for a Trump International complex in Moscow, in November 1996, and after losses of over $916 million in Trump seemed an attempt to return to the spotlight able to indulge his inner narcissist.

There is an oddly similar currency of mythic routes in the continued picturing in Russian maps of North-West passage that imagine the promise of a new route of commerce as late as 1784 a path from “unknown shores of North America” opening to the global East,–

New Map of Discoveries by Russian Vessels on the Unknown Shores of North America (1784)
(Bernard Osher Library)

–the imagined route of Russia through Trump’s revolving funds and bank accounts through New York from about 1997 suggest the underwater transit of offshore funds along a new map of the Pacific, born perhaps in Moscow, but seeded in Donald Trump’s head. Did this new map lead to the arrival of this oddest of all global statuaries of a misplaced Columbus, emissary of a foreign power trying to plant ties to across the Atlantic?

If the monument by the Hudson River would have not only upstaged the World Trade Center towers, then illuminated at night over the Hudson that reflected a matrix of electric light, but the distant Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor–it would be a full seven feet taller, and considerable closer to Manhattan. The monument would confirm Trump’s arrival on a global stage. The unbuilt monument to excess forged in Moscow Donald Trump hoped to erect on his riverside properties was oddly timed, given the recent revision of Columbus in our national imaginary; the smooth visage of the navigator smoothed all associations of rapaciousness of plunder and conquest in its ahistorical image of the fifteenth-century navigator atop a skiff, one hand on a rotary wheel,–as a sign of a new frontier–

Birth of the New World,” Zurab Tseretetli

–in a site where the actual Columbus had never arrived, but adopts a triumphal attitude as if acknowledging the homage and obseiance of unpictured audience of native inhabitants, assuming the oddly anachronistic image of a Roman salute situated in the New World.

The oddly stiff neoclassical robes, unlike the smooth folds of Liberty’s statue, suggested a monarchical visage, oddly overstated by the billowing sails that seemed to blow his ship forward from overseas, blurring multiple ahistorical fictions in a statue he must have read as a sign of global majesty and of his arrival on a global stage, as much as a massive tax write-off. Although the monumental figure of Columbus in Neo-Augustan garb, facing the New World as a new lawgiver or Caesar,–

–or an emissary of foreign rule, if its true iconographic point of reference seems to be the Colossus of Rhodes, also built in a harbor, monolithic in height, one of the lost wonders of the ancient world that seems oddly befitting for a real estate promoter who had just completed, if at great loss, the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Wrapped around its base, at least in the current version that has been installed in Puerto Rico, months before Trump’s 2017 inauguration as United States President, as it happens, at the edges of American territorial claims, was a Portulan chart, or a modern version of one, suggesting a sign of transatlantic conquest–a relic of the alleged “Columbus Chart” that was promoted by Charles de la Ronciere in 1924 as an artifact the navigator had presented to the Sovereign of Spain, Ferdinand, a portolan chart for ocean travel, that Columbus, who had identified himself only as a “wool-worker” in 1472 when he lived in Genoa, before he came to sell maps as a sailor, probably after the Genoese map trade had declined and fallen on hard times, found a new career for himself from the Don to the Cape of Good Hope to the Atlantic to the British Isles to Groenlant–“His habitat populous monstruosus“–if the map that Columbus had consulted is likely to have not been a map with an image of angelic birds, but a map that pictured a contracted world–on which was used to include the newly discovered continent by 1507 in a wall map that remapped the contours of the inhabited earth.

Walll Map of Henricus Martellus and Martin Waldseemuller’s 1506 Printed Wall Map of 1506

Although the nature of Columbus’ cartographic sources led the United States to pony up $10 million for the privilege of storing the engraved maps in the Library of Congress in 2003, the portolan was more likely resonant as an image on which a tradition of emblematic was widely elided. Indeed, the famous use of the form of the portolan–more popular than the Ptolemaic map for much time–may have lay in its ability to communicate maritime travel and the enormity of oceanic expanse on a surface that was almost magical–and far more magical than scientific, as the aura of this manuscript map, presented to Cardinal Richelieu, who was then Minister of Navigation for Louis XIII, in this chart made by a master in Marseilles, that prominently foregrounded the French monarch standing tall against a potentially treachery from the Sultan of Algiers, as the Holy Roman Emperor seemed oblivious to the dram unfolding on its surface.

There were no maps on the statue of Columbus, save the map that unfolds on its current pedestal. But is the statue of the regal navigator not a map in itself, recuperating a regal relation to space, as was preserved in the portolan chart presented to Louis XIII by the Superintendent of Navigation, eager to ingratiate his monarch. The map on the pedestal of the current statue in Arecibo was a reference to a similar domination over space, in decorative form, including a large wind-rose that was removed from any actual utility as a chart.

The sense of a symbolic dominance over space, of course, was far more important than an actual guide to space: an assertion of dominance over space, the image of Columbus was a gift of the Russian people to New York, and to America, in 1997, from what we gather from the public statements Trump made, excited at the prospect of the offer arriving on the grounds for a real estate development on the Hudson River he was eager to promote. Was the monumental statue not an attempt to ingratiate the unbounded ego of The Donald by the Russian oligarchs who sought to plant a tie to the New World where increasing sums of tax-free money would arrive by various underwater financial schemes in coming years? Gifted by anonymous oligarchs, who seem to have designed to gift the statue that had been hoped to be given to an American President for the Columbus quincentenary, the statue ended up mediated as a gift to New York from the Russian people in 1997, just shortly before Trump entered his first bid to be elected U.S. President.

Trump had famously declared himself to be considering the Presidency as an office in 1988 to Oprah, in an offhand manner. Since he claimed to be considering a run at a future date, the statue that had been offered to President Clinton and President Bush in 1990 and 1994, respectively, who seem to have demurred or declined the grotesque statue that they saw mostly in models, one of which was brought to the White House by Boris Yeltsin in 1990. If the prototype may have been sent to the Knights of Columbus in Maryland, where it was destined for the harbor, the small model that was on offer at an auction house in Florida recently suggests the circulation that the proposal for this statue of a man on a boat, the very incarnation of indvidual agency in relation to the New World, removed from any networks of power or of funding, was intended to make: the odd choice to emphasize the navigator’s agency was not surprising to have fallen on deaf ears, but to have appealed to Trump, possessed in deeply delusional ways of his own genius as a realtor as able to reach a deal in Moscow, and win a statue to take home to New York.

The statue was offered to Trump during a real estate trip to Moscow of 1997, ostensibly scouting new properties, from which he returned with the plan for the massive statue beside Manhattan, greeting, one presumes, residents of the waterside development from their windows. His pride in the statue’s arrival grew soon after his return to Manhattan. Public discussion of the monument from the start involved such typical Trump chicanery to distance the arrival from his own interests–“The mayor of Moscow has written a letter to Rudy Giuliani stating that they would like to make a gift of this great work by Zurab [Tseresteli, the Georgian sculptor of monuments, who he must have met in Moscow]. It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York!”–his Russian ties overshadowing mention of Columbus as a patriotic symbol–although Trump later notoriously defended as “truly inspirational” for “our great Nation” the historical influence Columbus held as a “skilled navigator and man of faith” transformative “for our great Nation.”

But can we map this failed monument, whose story has partly been told, not only in terms of property development, but the misplaced fetishizing of a cartoonish rendering of the fifteenth-century navigator as an emblem of the new course of the hidden underwater flow of transatlantic funds? The tax-free flow of millions of dollars of laundered funds seems to be marked by the statue, ostensibly celebrating America, but echoing an old regime sense of royal majesty, to be deployed at a development promoted by the property developer who had lavish Louis XIV tastes, having modeled his other residence after Versailles, long before he became United States President. The statue was presented by Trump as a “gift” he had negotiated to arrive in the United States, and volunteered to serve as nothing less than the middle-man to negotiate its arrival through then-mayor of New York, his friend Rudy Giuliani, and a conduit of what was offered by Russian oligarchs–mapping not only the arrival of the statue in Arecibo, PR, but the network of ties that linked Trump to Russia?

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, Donald J. Trump, globalization, monuments, real estate

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