From Russia with Love? Monuments of Global Kitsch

3. Trump proudly announced the arrival of a model even bigger–a key word in Trump’s lexicon–than the statue Russia had “gifted” the city of Seville, similar to the statue accepted on paper by George H.W. Bush on a Moscow visit. The statue that was fifty feet taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty, a gift of France in 1886, from pedestal to torch, may well suggest that Tsereteli–who had an eye to promotion similar to Trump– in fact imagined his work might emulate as a gift of national friendship at the start of the post-Soviet era. Trump boasted about his centrality in obtaining “a gift of this great work” by Luzhkov’s preferred sculptor, who he deemed both “major and legit,” to be built on his new property on the Hudson River. Trump had invited Luzhkov to contact the New York mayor directly to arrange installing the gargantuan 600-ton statuary.

Luzhkov had styled himself as a monumental rebuilder of Moscow’s public space with speed in the post-soviet era. He quickly had begun a radical rewriting of public space in a largely pre-Napoleonic city with triumphal monuments, as if replacing large wall-paintings and statues of Marx and Lenin on the sides of building. As these images of authority of the state came down, they were replaced with kitschy recollections of an earlier age, often in the form of cartoonish decorations and mythic sculptures of Zurab Tsereteli’s own design. When Luzhkov was asked to write Giuliani to offer to present the never-built 600-ton bronze figural statue, Trump probably thought the statue might appeal to the Italian-American mayor who regularly participated in the Columbus Day parade as if it was a platform for political address each October.

The statue proclaiming the navigator’s genius and faith, was surely expected to appeal to the Italian-American mayor, who would love promoting an Italian in the New York landscape during his own mayoralty, after the new Trump buildings towered over the Columbus Circle column that was erected for the fourth centenary of Columbus Day in 1892–which had once towered above the New York skyline in midtown Manhattan at the turn of the century–even if the cartoonish nature of the gargantuan statue balanced on a ship holding an anachronistic rotary wheel as if guiding his ship to Manhattan had many wild iconographic inaccuracies.

Columbus Circle, 1907

When Trump asserted, on the first second Monday of October as U.S. President, that the “permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas” a transformative event for “our great Nation”–without mention of native inhabitants, or the absence of legal conventions–in proclaiming the national observation of the inspiration of the “skilled navigator and man of faith” “inspirational,” did he remember the massive statue negotiated with Moscow’s former mayor? But rather than present an accurate historical record, the eagerness with which Trump announced his placement of the Tsereteli monument, The Birth of the New World, in Trump’s development, was an expensive expression of his preternatural skill of selling fantasy to his clients.

Although the statue may not have arrived in New York before the 2,700 bronze pieces and copper sheets were taken possession of by a group who found the Governor of Puerto Rico–where Columbus had indeed made landfall–was able to install it, after, according to Tseretell’s spokesperson, organizations that had shown interest just “didn’t realize what’s involved in something so big,” and the sculpture had been without a home after proposals to seven other cities.

The statue’s many pieces are an inventive assemblage of exaggerated features, historical oversimplifications, inaccuracies, and exaggerations in the service of classical monumentalism and heroic idealization. Although Puerto Rico’s Senate felt it was the right place or the gift, when they heard it had been passed on by seven cities in the United States, and had been lying in a Ft. Lauderdale warehouse, since 1992, for six years.

The Birth of a New World (2017), Arecibo PR

The robed navigator of diminutive head appear to raise his right hand as if it held a globe before an imagined audience, an audience that might have been the inhabitants of the seven towers planned for Riverside South residents, recognizing residents of exclusive New York realty.

New York City would rejected the planned gift statue in the end by 1997, as had Columbus, Ohio in 1993, and it long rested in storage in Puerto Rico, an island where Columbus had actually set foot, and made landfall in 1493. But the massive statue, taller than the Statue of Liberty from pedestal to torch seemed designed for New York Harbor, if it was offered multiple times to cities in American territoriality–Baltimore, Boston, Miami, San Juan, among others–at least in its ambitions. The eventual location of the statue in Puerto Rico may reveal the unlevel playing field and batting order of the currents of globalization, which were probably the currents on which this Columbus statue had navigated as its sculptor tried to court numerous possible audiences of backers.

The statuary monument which eventually cost Puerto Rico 12 m to raise Arecibo–a striking achievement for a country that was then facing $72bn debt, strikingly omits any mention of native inhabitants. It perpetuated the very mythistory of the statue was what President Trump was describing in his October 2017 Presidential Proclamation, and literalizes the cross-bearing identity that Columbus gave himself, of carrying Christianity into the New World, in the prominent insignia punched in the massive bronze sheets of its flags, impassively presenting himself as a messenger from Europe, an emissary of the Spanish Kings to an invisible indigenous subjects erased from history.

It expresses, indeed, the very “Doctrine of Discovery” that provided a framework for Christian explorers, long after Columbus, to justify setting foot in other worlds, and legitimize colonization, a rationale or logic of “claiming” discovery particularly galling to Puerto Rican indigenous, as it echoes the proclamations that Columbus himself made, both in speculating that the indigenous inhabitants of the islands he made landfall “should be good an intelligent servants” in his Diario, treating them as if they were already the subjects of the throne of Castile, in his log book of October 16, 1492, and unilaterally taking possession of the first island of Haiti on which he had set foot after having made a proclamation of possession to an audience of nature off his ship, taking possession of them “by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled,” for the royal highness of Castile, linking the unfurling of the royal standard to the act of taking possession of and renaming five islands–San Salvador, Santa María de Concepción, Ferdinanda and Isabella, to illustrate ownership by the Catholic monarchs of these new lands and their subjects.

Is there no better expression of this taking of possession than Tsereteli’s monument? “I found very many islands filled with people innumerable,” Columbus wrote in his first letter about his voyage to Luis de Santangel, in an instant that has been pictorially remembered and re-remembered over five hundred years, and all of them I have taken possession of for their royal highnesses, by proclamation,” upon arriving in the Indies “with the fleet which the most illustrious king and queen, our sovereigns, gave to me.” Whatever the Russian sculptor make of this foundation myth that Columbus had himself begun, the 600-ton sculpture now set on the shore of Puerto Rico rather boldly makes to current inhabitants of another island where Columbus set foot in November 19, 1493.

Trump must have found apt the statue’s heroic and imperious regal gaze as he first encountered it in Moscow, probably in Tsereteli’s studio. He could barely contain excitement at positioning the work on his land in 1997, and eager to accept the monument as a gift to the nation, putting himself in a position of grandiosity rightly belonging to presidents or figures of state, but acting, as Tsereteli had in advocating the statue be a gift to Presidents Bush and Clinton, after having had monuments built in London and New York, at the United Nations Plaza, in 1990. Trump was pleased to accept the monumental station the land that Trump’s trademark rezoning had allowed him to raise from the river and reclaim as residences at no cost+. and if the residential complex is often cast purely in the past tense, discussed like Atlantis, as the “lost city of Trump” –perhaps since he laid such hight stakes on it to dub it “Trump City”–building out of the West Side Yards of Penn Central to a luxury housing complex provided a basis to stage Tsereteli’s proposed monument.

Tsereteli Exhibits 1999 Sketh of Birth of the New World

Its location would reflect Trump’s increased search for an acceleration of illicit flows of Russian money in hard times to puff up his grandeur and indulge his vanity. The massive statue of Columbus–taller than the Statue of Liberty!–transposed from a register of patriotism to promoting a residence boasted to be the very tallest in the world–was complimented by a statue that was the tallest in the western hemisphere. If Trump seems to have felt himself the producer, architect, and planner of the structure itself, whose maquette he seemed to present to the world with pride as a child–the image and painting of the spire of the central tower of Television City would dance in dialogue with the huge statue of the discoverer.

Trump with Murphy/Jahn Model for Television City, 1985/1988

Hopes for marking the complex to be named Riverside South on the banks of the Hudson River in New York City of a monumental bronze statue of the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus cast in Russia–“Look on my works, ye might, and despair!“–adopted colossal statuary of a figure Trump has affirmed as central to the nation–and preparing for its settlement by Europeans as President as a promotional illustration of his latest property’s value and its status as a global destination.

4. If we now acknowledge the global scale of Trump Properties’ holdings or business negotiation as an alternate map underlying all geopolitical interests, Trump’s focus on Manhattan properties in the mid-1990s led Trump to entertain a 600 ton bronze statue cast in Russia on the properties he was interested in developing in largely personalized ends.

Even Trump Properties reduces the scale or extent of its global ties, in a map using pinpoints to map properties that obscures the transnational scale of licensing deals, investments, and financial investments:

The transactional nature of the proposed monument of that global navigator was already a contested national symbol. But Trump was clearly excited to accept as an anonymous Russian “gift” of a curious statue of Columbus from an anonymous donor, allowing them to use his property to locate a monument of the navigator whose “spirit of discovery” he praised as fundamental to the nation from a foreign agent. For the transnational nature of the monument–sponsored in some way by a state or para-state actors, who remain in the shadows–of national symbolism, if contested symbolic value, is perhaps particularly troubling. Does it reflect the two-sided nature of any real estate map, demonstrating the location of ownership, but obscuring the financial web that underlies “ownership,” often enabled by funds flowing from overseas from China or Russia?

Trump perhaps little essential regard or oversight of where the funds needed flow, as long as the monument–Christopher Columbus, Trump Tower, Riverside South, the US-Mexico Border Wall–was built. And if the map that now lies at its base–the statue was installed in Puerto Rico, finally, with Tsereteli professing pleasure at its location–shows nothing like a map of the sort Columbus used, and reveals no trace of native inhabitants, it conveys a sense of arriving at a chosen destination this was perhaps exactly what Trump wanted in it. While the map–a Mercator projection created a century after Columbus’ voyage, decorated with a wind-rose–shows the unfurled banners on three caravels approaching the newly discovered islands–may have been added to the base of the monument installed in Arecibo in 2016, when Trump was at different stage in the arc of his own storied life, the pieces of the sculpture are likely identical, as the pieces of the 300 foot tall sculpture had been waiting in storage in Mayaguez since at least 2008, ten years after the pieces of the monument had arrived in Puerto Rico in 1998, twenty years after the 1991 sculpture of the “New World” had been cast in Moscow and respectfully considered by six other possible sites in the “New World.”

Zurab Tsereteli, “The Birth of the New World,” deal of base (Arecibo PR, 2016)

The location of the figure who was an icon of geographic discovery and mobility, whose truly monumental scale would move a contested symbol onto the grounds of an exclusive set of luxury residences with a private shopping center, Olympic sized pool, and exclusive remove. As President of the United States, Trump has been described as primarily interested in “big things” that related to himself, and the colossal monument was not only “big”–larger than the Statue of Liberty!–but met the complex in projected scale, towering over the urban skyline and Hudson River.

The use of Columbus in parades, public monuments, and indeed place-names in America is concentrated on the east cost–he is often shown and celebrated as America’s version of the Renaissance man.

Peter van der Krogt, Statues of Columbus in Continental United States

By the time that Trump seems to have decided to accept what a Russian sculptor–and his unknown patrons–presented as a sign of comity, it was clear that the presentation of the “gift” probably served multiple ends of mutual favor–arriving as it may have from the Mayor of Moscow who controlled bids for local real estate, since Boris Yeltsin assumed the Presidency of the post-soviet state. In a land suddenly stripped of past monumental icons of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, where these very monuments seemed to “melt into air,” the prominence of a monumental that Trump boasted was fashioned from $40 million of bronze as a free gift raises questions of above the board transactions and the covering transportation costs and materials–let alone what this monumental Columbus, for which American never asked and whose symbolic value was being contested at the time of the 1992 cinquecentennary of 1992, when the identification of Columbus with a multiethnic nation or in relation to human rights was far less clear than it had been in 1892–when the centenary was celebrated to great hullabaloo as an occasion of national pride.

Trump almost conjured the promised arrival of a Columbus, larger indeed than the Statue of Liberty, reveal a sort of vainglory–BUILDER BRINGS BIG BOY CRISTOFORO TO HUDSON SHORES–as part of a turn toward monumentalism far more post-Soviet in style than American in origins, in spite of the symbolic status that Columbus so long enjoyed in the United States as almost a founding father. But the celebrative headline that Trump might have imagined undercuts the deeply transactional nature of the sculptural monuments Tsereteli produced during the Perestroika period, from London to Moscow to Tiblisi, which seem to have had a transactional value as a transnational economic exchange, whose “gifting” was a form of hawala system of the transfer of prestige, where Tseretli’s sculptures were presumably paid by some patron or backer, moved to a foreign country or nation, and presented benefit to a third party, with no funds being directly transacted about the sculpture’s installation.

Tsereteli’s earlier work, predating Perestroika, was less well-known, it gained an international currency of its own from 1990, proving a post-soviet sort of breakthrough total art whose gifting to nations seemed to inaugurate an end to the Cold War; the presentation of his massive sculptures were not clearly funded, but redounded to other figures abroad, most of Putin, or the place of Russia abroad. Did Trump ofer a means for Tsereteli to stage a gift to the United States that Trump found of potential personal symbolic benefit without financial outlay?

The arrival of the statue also may well reveal the heavily compromised nature of Trump the realtor. For in trading the iconic nature of Columbus as a heroic figure, Trump seems to have intersected with the increasingly transactional nature the the building of monuments acquired in Russia–and especially in Moscow–as a source of personal benefit and enrichment, at the same time as the statuary of the Soviet regime was being torn down. With nothing to replace these monuments, and empty spaces created in a city without markers of a clear past, Zurab Tsereteli emerged as a new fabricator of the monumental that Donald Trump the developer promoted to be imported to America, presenting an idea of the state sponsorship of art in the service of power that casts an illuminating eye on how a developer like Trump would later shift attention to fetishize the border wall as a monumental marker of national identity, and indeed for awarding contracts as “fixed, fast-frozen relations . . . are swept away.”

The famous poetic phrase is a post-Soviet appropriation of Karl Marx’s description of the massive effects of the transactional nature of capitalism. But as Bruce Grant, an anthropologist of the post-Soviet era, has rather acutely observed, as a sculptor of monuments in Moscow, Tsereteli filled monumental commissions that had fully redefined the city of Moscow by public statuary by 1995, with large bronze sculptures, obelisks, and a theme park–statues that dot the cityscape, in ways strikingly similar to the ubiquity of Trump’s name in New York. The ubiquity of Tsereteli statues is less known than their unwanted nature. But at the same time as Donald Trump would, seeing his work in situ, praise him as “major and legit” as if to bestow authority on his monumentalism–from the statues of Putin that he wanted to gift the President, or Moscow, or the smaller Columbus gifted to Seville–a statue that was notoriously discovery to be a vehicle for smuggling tax-free soft copper in its hollow core–and the statue of Peter the Great in Moscow, in addition to an animal-themed amusement part.

The complicated if kitsch aesthetics of Tsereteli, if kitsch, reflects a thirst for a new form of monumentality, and symbolic capital, that Trump was eager to exploit, before he ever considered entering politics, recognizing the huge symbolic power of monumental creations as public fetishes of power, the creation of which has continued to inform his patterns of governance. Tsereteli’s oligarch backers seem to have tapped Trump when he fist visited Moscow to expand his luxury brand, as the vehicle and factor who could help transport this symbolics of public statuary across The Atlantic, and as an imposition of power across the land–an idiom of state that informs the monument of the Border Wall, whose aesthetics derive from a new idea of political power, not linked only to corruption, or the masking of brazen illegality, but a new aesthetics of monumentality offering a compelling new language of monumentality, gigantism, and political power that Trump grew particularly attached.

In 1985, Trump the developer was at that time wondering how to work his magic after building “one of the best residential addresses in the world.” He hoped to create “the master builder’s grandest plan yet,” in more superlatives, on over a hundred undeveloped acres of landfill he effectively resurrected on the old West Side freight yards–in Ayn Randian tones that suggested a new sense of destiny as much as realty, more grandiose than imagined. A masterplan boasted over 12,000 residences, if the project languished, with a central building of 150 stories, even if most architectural critics credulously questioned what was the “appeal in real life” of living at a remove of 120 or 130 stories above New York City, even as they described it as nothing less than a “bid for immortality.”

While Trump was able to rezone the undeveloped land to yeild some 8,000 apartments, the monumentalization of the sky-high luxury dwellings, using the realty the location of a massive statue of the man celebrated as “discovering” the continent–suggest the giddiness at massive scale of the man attracted to hatching schemes for a Border Wall.Trump was wondering how to work his magic in creating “one of the best residential addresses in the world” on undeveloped acres of landfill he had effectively resurrected on the old West Side freight yards.

The aspiration to a work of global prominence included global funding, and a triumphal grandiosity that the Moscow-based sculptor Zurab Tsereteli could complement in his proposed “gift” of a statue of Christopher Columbus that would itself alter the New York City skyline where Trump wanted–and seems to have believed it his destiny–to leave his mark. The appeal for Trump of creating a super luxury place from nothing–manufacturing a sense of place and an address from nothing, as it were, atop the old abandoned freight yards of an old world of commerce, and of making, as Tsereteli put it in a later statement, a monument of the sort that would not only define place–but without which, as Paris without the Eiffel Tower or New York without the Statue of Liberty or Rio without Christ, *those places would be unimaginable.”

After failing to secure tax breaks to break earth for residences in the old Penn Station yards, he wanted to conjure a dramatic expansion of exclusive luxury condos on the Hudson river’s raised bank as the latest preserve apart from the city, hoping to place six 76-story buildings, with considerable fanfare, including the world’s tallest skyscraper;

The addition of a monumental statue of the discoverer of the continent would confirm the complex’s global significance as a global destination; if Columbus was a questionable symbol of nationalism or ethnic diversity in New York or America, it may have fit the bill of global exclusivity for the markets he hoped to cultivate–and the offer from still anonymous Russian donors, backers of the new court sculptor of Moscow’s mayor, who approached him about the “gift” of a 600 ton bronze statue of striking authoritarian image seemed the right thing to announce residences in the truly “new found land” of the site he soon named Trump City, a preserve just outside Manhattan with awesome views from floors as tall as landfill might sustain. The addition of a colossal statue of Columbus, Trump was persuaded, would make the residences a destination–irrespective of whether Columbus ever set foot in the region, and he entertained the “gift” of a massive Russian statue after his request for a billion-dollar tax break was dismissed by a wise-cracking mayor who deemed Trump “greedy, greedy, greedy; piggy, piggy, piggy.” Sometime after a visit to Moscow to expand the audience for his luxury residences in the air, the monumental statue of Christopher Columbus taller than the Statue of Liberty itself seemed able to lend an outsized majesty to the properties he sought.

5. Exactly how Trump became involved in securing the invitation for a statue that migrated across the world, before recently being installed in a fishing village in Puerto Rico, may reveal the realtor’s long-term trafficking with shady figures who sought to add lustre to their own magnificence–and probably launder wealth abroad–in a move enabled by the new globalism of cash transfers, money laundering and easy credit that had attracted him to Russian investors who claimed to have made their money as “very successful businessmen.”

While the story of his plans to include a huge six-ton freestanding statue of Christopher Columbus cast in Russia from what he boasted would be $40 million of bronze is little known, the ostentatious sculpture of the King of Kitsch, Zurab Tsereteli, court artist of Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, offered a powerful image of this literally “new found land” off the west side banks of Manhattan that would rise from the old piers where tons of dry bulk cargo was once unloaded from barges, at a rate of eight hundred tons/hour, than an authoritarian statue of Christopher Columbus, long celebrated and fetishized as “discovering” the continent of America, which Moscow oligarchs long wanted to gift the United States? Tsereteli loves the spotlight, and as a member of the Tiblisi aristocracy may have ideated the work. Trump had reasons to know him.

Luzhkov was a power-broker in post-soviet society. Tsereteli from 1989 became Luzhkov’s “number one sculptor,” and the commission may reveal an ambitious restructuring of post-Soviet international ties: the possibility that Trump accepted and encouraged the grotesque statue may have much to do with how Yeltsin gave Luzhkov exclusive control over Moscow’s private real estate and regularly took bribes for new construction projects “throughout Moscow,” according to leaked cables of the U.S. State Dept., suggest ; statues of Columbus were a means by which Tseretelli increased his wealth by shipping copper ingots abroad, thousands of which were found in a “gift” of a smaller Columbus shipped to Seville,–a secret that was hardly hidden in his successful holding company, “Kolomb“!

Donald Trump with Zurab Tsereteli in Moscow, 1996

The overseas migration of the monumental statue over twenty years from its ideation intersect with the relation of art and power, and re-evaluation of monumentalizing Columbus–it seems the last gasp–and traces a shadowy record of geopolitics demanding to be excavated and map. The triumphalism of Columbus that the Moscow-based sculptor Zurab Tsereteli planned from 1991, imagined as a gift for the cinquecentennial celebrations, unfolded over the last two decades in curious ways that demand to remapped, not only in terms of the transatlantic migration of the statue later proposed to rebuilt in several American cities, but an idea of nationalism. How the voyage of discovery came to be commemorated as a moment of triumph in 2016 was either wildly anachronistic, or, on the eve of the Trump Presidency, a hint of the new image of global authoritarianism to come, and an emissary of royal Catholic majesty.

ZurabTsereteli, “The Birth of the New World,” Bloomberg/Getty

If it is tempting to examine as the first instance of Donald Trump’s encouragement of a form of public statuary, the decision to tap or approach the realtor in the mid-1990s as a means to install the 600-ton towering sculpture on American shores may assume even more weight as Trump’s finances unfold. The artifact meant to echo the French gift of the monumental Liberty Enlightening the World in 1886, now standing in New York Harbor, as one monument to transatlantic friendship, which its size echoes, had been intended as a gift of state–from anonymous donors.

But the realtor Donald Trump became an intermediary agent of its delivery or factor at a difficult period in his personal finances, who presented the towering statue to his friend Rudolph Giuliani, then a popular mayor, perhaps in an attempt to get a better deal for city involvement in the installation of the monument and housing complex than he had been able to get from Mayor Ed Koch in years past, and the image of Columbus could benefit from the approval of a prominent celebrant of Columbus Day, which he had promoted as a celebration of Americans of Italian-American descent and a stage for his political career. But the Russian proposal to install a monumental Columbus of the size of the Statue of Liberty made of export-level bronze had little to do with Rudy Giuliani, although his role in approving the arrival of the monument is striking.

The monumental bronze cast in Russia, “Birth of a New World,” whose base shows a map tracking the the Niña, Pinto, and Santa Maria across a global map. Its massive 120 m height–350 ft–led several cities to reject its installation, including Baltimore, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Boston, Miami Beach, and San Juan, where it was officially rejected lest it obstruct flight paths. If a close Trump associate helped Tsereteli raise funds to situate the sculpture in the ocean off Miami Beach, the curious artifact was first promoted to adorn Trump’s properties in Manhattan. Trump described Tseretli, with whom he was impressed, as “closest to me in spirit,” and followed his career. The taste for gigantism, colossal statuary, and a towering structure of outdated nationalism, seemed to have allied Trump with the billionaire sculptor he had met in a visit to Moscow where he had hoped to build a Trump Tower Moscow, luxury housing for a post-Soviet elite, modeled after that in New York.

An offshore Columbus, ahistorically relocated to the Hudson River, first mapped in print in 1612 as a maritime route of entry to the American interior–recently discovered by Henry Hudson–over a century after Columbus’ death–

Library and Archives Canda, MNC 19228

–but the relocation of a monument in New York seemed designed to outshine the nearby monument to Columbus in Columbus Center, since dwarfed by Trump International in the old Gulf + Western building, where zoning laws prohibited its conversion to condominiums. Colbums was probably promoted by the realtor not for patriotic ends, but perhaps purely personal gain–a bit unclear, but the tax write-off possibility would be huge, and media buzz quite considerable–the triumphant statuary of the navigator eventually constructed in the territory of Puerto Rico in 2016, without much evident trace of ties to Luzhkov, Trump or Moscow.

Zurab Tsereteli, Birth of the new World in Arecibo, PR

The triumphal heroism of the navigator echoes a dated tradition of statuary, decidedly anachronistic in placing the navigator behind a rotary wheel–a later invention–hailing the newfound land from a miniature ship, dwarfed by outsized crosses of his nation, as if piloting a ship to port, above a map charting a transatlantic voyage. In Arecibo, a tiny fishing village saddled with debt and almost without inhabitants, it was something of a refugee; its arrival might as well herald the globalism of the new millennium.

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Filed under Columbus, commemoration, Donald J. Trump, national monuments, Zurab Tsereteli

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