Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

The image of an authoritarian nationalism evokes a spectacle of cartoonish if openly authoritarian terms in 1997 that raises questions of the developer’s aspirations to situate himself from a local real estate promoter to a global stage. Jumping up from the beach in patent leather shoes, in apparent abandon, to show that he could jump higher, taller, and more elegantly during a photoshoot at the recently opened Mar-a-Lago–now reborn and rebranded as the Winter White House–whose exclusivity Trump had hoped to popularize, Trump seemed to have decided nothing less than to have rebranded Columbus as a figure of his future realty firm, even if the Columbus from mythistory was intended to displace the Statue of Liberty in its iconic place in New York harbor, and to displace values of citizenship and the law.

2. Columbus provided an increasing icon of white supremacy since the first Columbus statues were promoted across the east coast of the United States by the Catholic fraternal order, founded as a society of mutual aid in 1882, in New Haven, selecting the navigator as an emblem of upright citizenship and piety in a free world, in ways that aid societies promoted statues of Columbus to reveal their emergence in the public sphere across the East Coast, as this pastoral image of Columbus in New Haven–if, far from the sage figure of Columbus as a scholar, the image of Columbus, right hand elevated as if in an oath of fealty, suggested “I am Here” in a triumphal manner, declaring his conquest in unabashedly open terms, unlike the tradition of Columbus statuary across the eastern coast.

–the mega-sculpture rehabilitated a man who was an icon of white supremacy that whitewashed colonialism. If designed to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the Genoese navigator’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere, the massive statue of bronze and steel pieces forged in three foundries would be erected and assembled atop 1,500 cubic yards of poured concrete in 2015. It had resurfaced, in the very terms by which President Trump affirmed the second Monday of October be celebrated as “Columbus Day,” as it had been since 1934, recognize the royal navigator’s “unparalleled feat” with the nation’s exceptionalism.

Much as the statue “Rebirth of the New World” recast the navigator as a triumphal savior, it echoed the acknowledgement that Pope Alexander VI conferred on the Spanish monarchs “to bring under your sway [in remote] mainlands and islands with their residents and inhabitants and to bring them to the Catholic faith,” hardly a message of mass democracy. The massively imposing statue of the navigator erected in the very same remote mainland suggested a new language of spectacle, drained of history: the navigator stands monumentally and impassively before royal flags imitated the crosses on the sails of the Nino, Pinto and Santa Maria that Columbus sailed, in a kitsch statue rejected by two U.S. Presidents, renegotiated by a realtor staking his place on a global stage. The glorification of Columbus as a statuesque power approaching Manhattan island from on high would have appealed to Trump’s sense of demanding adulation of his observers, and indeed awing them by the very size of the structures that he built–with which Trump had increasingly associated himself in a bombastic language of grandeur.

The anachronistic nature of the salutation of truly Augustan form that is adopted by this figure of the fifteenth century navigator indeed seems dedicated to bask in the admiration of observers, and indeed the sense of assent to his imperious presence–a sense that cannot be viewed as a sign of reassurance or an image of welcoming the tempest-torn huddled masses from overseas, as the elegant “Liberty Enlightening the World” in New York Harbor–rather than demanding attention to be seen from the best part of the island, this bronze monument of Columbus would confront it frontally, authoritative conftonting the island and a shadow that the taller statue that would be cast across Manhattan’s West Side.

110 Meter Statue of Columbus, “Birth of the New World” (1995)

The colossal statue of cartoon-like proportions was cast as just larger than the Statue of Liberty. It appears designed for a man obsessed with size to flank a tower he had planned to build taller than any buildings on New York’s skyline: the building would affirm his escaping from personal debt as a realtor on a global stage, inflated in no small part by Russian oligarchs’ laundered funds, as Deutsche Bank had since 1998 lent lent billions to Trump or affiliated companies, and served from 2010 through 2015 to convert Russian rubles of over $10 billion through the New York Stock Exchange through mirror trades, in that year expanding to Jacksonville. In the decade after promoting his comeback in a 1992 gala in Atlantic City held to announce his deal to release himself of billions of personal debt, he quickly searched to reposition himself on a global platform. His remaking began from a celebration using the theme of “Rocky” to illustrate his return, which had coincided in eery ways with the quadricentennary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. Newly presenting himself to his guests as the theme song boomed, declaring resurgence after he had burned through his father’s fortune with pugilistic undertones, Trump had begun looking overseas for financial help, to wealth flowing from Russia and the former Soviet satellites via Deutsche Bank, to build Trump World by 1999.

Was the involvement with Russia a means of gilding the vision of the urban skyline that Trump was ready to identify, with Parker Bros.’ assistance, as having a Midas touch? The game promoted with Erecting a cartoonish rendering of Columbus as the royal emissary who discovered the continent beside a development Donald Trump was constructing on the Hudson River was not only a development scheme: it was an instance of relying on Russian funds to create a faux national icon that may contextualize Trump’s presidency and the deep conflicts of interest from which his political ambitions began. For the statue that he announced as a “gift” from the Russian people to the nation that he had orchestrated and enabled in his pursuit of private property abroad, from the very financiers of the post-soviet era who had redesigned Moscow’s real estate market, seems a pawn in a global Ponzi scheme of money laundering, cancelled debt, and promotion: the soundtrack of “Rocky” that seems to mark his unburdening of himself from debt accumulated after he had exhausted his father’s fortune.

After failed hopes to team up with Milton Bradley in 1989 multiplayer board game akin to Monopoly that invited three to four players to craft business deals on a gold plastic board, and “trump” one another–modeled after variants of Monopoly, but without a map or ground plan–it spectacularly failed–if the game was revived after the success of “The Apprentice” fifteen years later without success, the deep attraction of this image of the towering gold buildings of the New York skyline provided grounds for Trump to gamble on deals with Russia to attract an improbably piece of statuary from Moscow to the Hudson River shore.

It continues to startle how now-President Trump bristles with anger at the very suggestion that he benefited from Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee emails in 2016, as if it would question his electoral victory, claiming any Russian involvement to be but a “total fabrication” denies the geography of ties of financial support Russian oligarchs long gave Donald Trump the real estate promoter, and indeed the very icon of national patriotism that was associate with the Trump brand–and he saw himself as the most likely person to promote the very spectacularization of sculpture that post-Soviet Moscow had been distinguished.

3. The extravagant overseas flows of laundered funds that had flowed from Russia in the mid-1990s provide necessary context to interpret what Trump had boasted he had received as a “gift from the Russian people” that he had decided to accept on behalf of the nation, before he had ever entered a Presidential election in 1999 for the Reform Party, headed at that point by the muscleman and Reality TV star Jesse Ventura, twenty years before he would be the third U.S. President to be impeached for placing national security at risk for personal interests. The problem of impeachment cut to the heart of the confusion that Trump’s narcissism seems to have long made between personal interests and global politics–they don’t exist in overlap like a Venn diagram, but one imposed atop the other, often obliterating it in the process.

For the blurring of personal and state interests were, indeed, at the heart of the project to build a monument to Columbus on the banks of the Hudson, as if the oversized spectacular public monument could be under-written and accepted by the realtor,–a sign of Trump’s willingness to accept any gift from Moscow, perhaps, from the very Russian oligarchs poised to save him amidst a string of bankruptcies, and feed his hopes to build hotels of expansive design, including one beside Red Square in the mid 1990s, swelling his ambitions to a global scale. And if Representative Barbara Jordan concisely derfined impeachment as a process calling into account the Executive who “engages in excesses,” Jordan defined impeachment before the Jouse Judiciary as best suited to one “swollen with power and grown tyrannical” without sacrificing the Executive branch’s independence, intended for bridling an “Executive if he engages in excesses” as best “designed as a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men” in ways Trump rarely considered himself exposed as a promoter as he accepted the gift from Moscow.

At a time when tens of billions of laundered rubles passed through Deutsche Bank’s New York office by mirror trading, with up to $80 billion flowing to Trump Properties, the grandiose statue transcending the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor–as if designed to dwarf Lady Liberty–was poised to arrive on the Hudson shores. The incarnation of individual excess, it would inflate Trump’s prospects as a real estate promoter, serving to magnify Trump’s public stature by help Russian oligarchs might allow. (Trump’s ties to Russian money launderers in North America like Felix Sater’s father, Michael Sheferovsky, Tefvik Arif, an ex-Soveit official, David Bogatin, and Semyon Mogilevich, Sheferovsky’s boss–who, with Tamir Sapir, bought multiple apartments in Trump Tower, David Bogatin buying five. Funds flowing from former Russian Republics also grew).

John Alex Maguire/REX/Shutterstock (5736251i) ‘Birth of a New World’ by Zurab Tsereteli

The statue monumentalizes a mythic narrative of Columbian exceptionalism, as a spectacular statement of American exceptionaiism, preserved in the gargantuan bronze statue on the Hudson River’s banks, promoting a narrative of the state by a single false data point. The immensity of the staute that mirrored Trump’s sense of personal grandiosity, and was a figure of authoritarianism forged and designed in Moscow. The figure of Columbus sailing up the Hudson–as he had of course never done–cast navigator as a victorious emissary from an overseas monarch, authoritatively claiming dominion over space. The image of the heroic navigator could not only promote the image of the “assured worthiness” by which Columbus showed himself able “to bring under Your sway the inhabitants of said unknown islands and mainlands and to bring them to the Christian faith,” as Pope Alexander VI wrote the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, in its image of the proud power of conversion of the man identified as ‘discoverer,’ ‘conqueror,’ and ‘converter’ of the New World, whose logic the Renaissance pontiff argued equated European sovereignty over the New World with the will of God. Combining Renaissance aesthetics of sovereign rights with images of global domination, the statue was prized by Trump and his architect, who was later content with installing the massive sculpture of copper and bronze, whose base featured an unscrolled early modern nautical map.

Zurab Tsereteli Pitches his Proposal in Puerto Rico, 2014

The terrifying monumentality of the kitsch monument awes the observer by its spectacularity, almost impossible to process, as one’s eyes shift from the crosses on its three unfurled sails suspended from masts to the wind rose of the distracting nautical chart that focuses interest on an unknown ocean at its base, to the problematic rotary steering wheel which of the sort that Christopher Columbus never touched, to the oddly raised hand which seems a salutation, but of a figure so removed from the observer on a boat-like pedestal that it looks more like he was palming a globe. While Columbus is more associated with the globe, however, the puzzling prominence of a faux antique nautical chart, problematically including a graticule of longitude and latitude rarely employed in charts, suggest the duress and extent of overseas travel, belied by a quite passive Columbus, elegantly robed and failing to register any wonder at the trip’s end.

The monument belonged to Spectacle as an alienation of the position of the subject or observer, daunting the observer. The improbably tone deaf magnification of the status of the heroic exceptionalism of the navigator paralleled the first renaming of Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day in an increasing number of American cities–a movement begun in California, to be sure, in Berkeley and Santa Cruz, and South Dakota, with sponsors in Los Angeles, and which historian Howard Zinn’s work had suggested back in 1980. The resurgent statue indeed declared a sense of supremacy of the figure of the navigator that Trump welcomed as an announcement of his building project in the New York skyline as well as the symbolic statue seems to have set Trump’s eyes on a career of politics that he claimed, on a global state. Within two years, he announced pursuing the nomination for Presidential office of the Reform Party, headed by Reality TV star Jesse Ventura, since as soon as “polls came out, and they said if I ran, I’d do very well,” granting himself political validation by acclamation of the polls as if his political rebirth was itself another illustration of Manifest Destiny.

Donal J. Trump on Larry King Live, October 8, 1999

The image of Trump before the television presenter’s faux digital map suggested the global stage on which Trump seems to situate himself. The image of Columbus was, after all, designed to compete with the Statue of Liberty. According to past comments, Trump believed he could get approved by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, provided an early echo of false populism. President Trump in 2018 celebrated the statue of a holiday he later professed dear to his heart and an occasion for marking the “permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas” as a transformative event for “our great Nation”–as a “skilled navigator and man of faith” who was “inspirational” in proclaiming what was only a national holiday since 1937 a transformative event “for our great Nation.”

The Manifest Destiny communicated in the bronze figure of the navigator sanctioned by royal authority of the most Catholic monarchs of Spain, judged too “horrendous” for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in late October, 1997, to the Knights of Columbus, a btronze replica in replica of the very same piece of massive statuary that never arrive in New York, with a portolan chart wrapped around its expansive base–

–after the sculptor had failed to find a destination eager for the gift in Columbus, Ohio, or Miami Beach,–all showing reluctance to sink $20 million into installation costs of the three hundred and six foot statue, preventing the arrival of the statue nominally presented as a “gift”–even if, Trump noted it had been fabricated of bronze valued at over $40 million, and did surely not come at no cost, even for one practiced at the art of the deal-making. The orphaned was fittingly housed in a Bacardi factory in Puerto Rico, the only U.S. territorial possession where the navigator had indeed made landfall, but would have placed Trump, albeit as realtor, on a global stage.

When the statue finally landed not in a mainland city, but in the Puerto Rican port city of Mayaguez, seeking to gain permits for its installation from the Federal Aviation Administration, Puerto Rican government, and U.S. Navy, but having to reject the statue’s installation due to local protests

Is it sheer coincidence that the statue, having been rejected by mainland cities, was erected on the outer reaches of United States territorial waters in the very year that Trump assumed the Presidency?

U.S. Territories–Puerto Rico (1898) (pop. 3.9 million); Guam (1898) (pop. 167k); American Samoa (c. 1900) (pop. 58k); Virgin Islands (1916) (pop. 109k); Northern Marianas (1947) (pop. 80k)

When President Trump proclaimed the fifteenth century navigator an emblem of nation identity, did he recall the massive statue negotiated with Moscow’s former mayor? He may well have, since rather than presenting anything like an accurate historical record, the monument desinged by Zurab Tseretelli provided a sense of the monumentality of the navigator, as his hopes for placing The Birth of the New World, as a massive bronze advertisement for development on the New York City skyline where he sought to put his mark in a more grandiose manner than Trump Tower, seemed an expensive expression of his preternatural skill of selling fantasy to his clients, if not staking claims to the credibility of his patriotism.

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

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