Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

The planned statuary of the iconic explorer long cast as a national hero panders to such tropes of heroism and imperial grandeur they are rarely examined as a precedent for Trump’s extension of promoting hotels and buildings to an international currency of indebtedness, codependence, and obligation–and linking of his hotel chain into an international web of realty development. Raising questions of the relation between the national and international in a global market, the promised statue stakes problems of reconciling personal interests with public interests, moreover, that would be rehearsed throughout the Trump Presidency. The planned statue reached back to an almost mythical vocabulary of spectacular architecture, expansive profligate building, and physical testaments to wealth, as if to create a new age of global monumentalism, rooted less in memory or place than by substituting a figure of triumphant majesty removed from any specific context or site of memory.

Eighteenth Century Engraving of Colossus of Rhodes

The erasure of place in this sort of monumentality seems to have migrated from the post-Soviet era, and growth of a new statuary in Moscow, that replaced the formerly dense statuary of Marx, eighty statues of Lenin, and Soviet leaders were removed from squares, pillars, and plazas–and over 5,500 from the Ukraine–as sixty-six foot tall bronze authoritarian statues eagerly moved to halls for monuments like Moscow’s Fallen Monument Park–or provided a vast reserve of bronze. The dismantling of what were large statues to the heroes of the revolution in 1991–statues of Lenin, of Stalin, and, famously, of Iron Felix, or Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Russian revolutionary who would found the Ceka, or Soviet state police, whose monumental presence filled square outside KGB headquarters on Lubyanka Square, before being moved to the open-air Muzeon, a resting place for unwanted Soviet statuary.

The removal of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a surreal de-installation of the figures of authority of the old regime–many, like Dzerzhinksy, sites of pro-democracy protests, difficult to exorcize, but that created an odd void.

The massive removal of suct statuary constituted a massive erasure of public memory left striking urban lacunae; the removal of statues for memory parks–if they were not melted down and repurposed or re-smelted as metal free to forge in other monuments–led to a search for new types of statuary but a suspiciousness of monumentalism of living figures, but akin to the monumental statue of unprecedented height– Motherland Calls!–the massive statue that was the tallest in the world when it was unveiled in 1967–at eighty-five meters–that presides over Volgograd to commemorate the memory of heroism at Stalingrad, where Nazi forces were repelled from their eastward advance by the dedicated re-engagement of invaders by Soviet air and ground fire. The monumentalism that is as close to the transcendent figure of the nation–rather than of a member of the revolution–is the closest analogy to Zurab Tseretelli’s monumental figural works of Columbus and Peter the Great. The resurgent image of Mother Russia of 1967 was so much part of national statuary–

Mother Russia (Volgograd, former Stalingrad, USSR); tallest statue in the world, 1967

–to be a powerful figure of liberation, courage and reconquest of the steppes near Stalingrad, after a two-pronged ground and aerial offensive that left millions dead and concluded a brutal and bloody battle, that seemed coordinated from afar by an almost mystic agency. The destruction of the city demanded a sense of transcendence as the city was reduced to mostly rubble by bombers in Operation Uranus, until all artillery of the Nazi invaders was exhausted and victory declared.

The sense of agency is absent was all but absent in the statuary of Columbus, but imbued with a sense of global advance and destiny on a clearly global scale–of an advance of Christianity and Europe into the New World, his palm open as if carrying a new globe. In this context of an exist of monuments, the Columbus statue exported a post-Soviet idiom of public authoritarian statuary to the shores of the United States Trump seemed eager to sponsor. The bronze navigator, of greater size than the sixty-foot statues of Lenin, is less a marker not of international waters, but of conquest in the form of ineluctable progress, almost without a map. Its placement would have glorified Trump’s conversion of the landfill area of the old rail yards that once served ships arriving on the city piers to a boondoggle of capital. As multiple cities refused its donation as a gift, the never daunted Tsereteli only mused that grumbling had met the construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Liberty statue itself at the time of their construction.

The configuration of capital that the Columbus statue embodied mirrored the magic trick by which Trump had reclassified landfill of the West Side Yards as residential for a planned magnet for international investment–greeting America or hailing Manhattan, a robed eminence of curiously reduced head, body made more monumental than the skiff he is on could accommodate, hardly a Vitruvian man, of 6,500 tons of possibly recycled bronze, removed from the map, and from the violence of the narratives of enslavement, military conquest, confrontation, and commercial settlement, that were consequences of the Columbian project?

Zurab Tseresteli, “Birth of the New World” (1991)

Heralding the birth of a New World, the statue reveals an odd erasure of temporalities in its evocation of a mythistokry that had been shaped in Russia to replace the monumetnalism of a socialist past, but is even an emptier icon of grandeur. How to explain the transatlantic transfer of so many tons of bronze, originally hoped to be a gift to Washington D.C. in 1992, marking the celebration of the quincentenary of Columbus Day–or the appeal of the statuary to the developer Donald Trump? The question is perhaps poorly posed, but the nexus of interests in assuming a new global authority that was shared by Trump, post-Soviet oligarchs, and real estate barons is oddly compelling and demands resolution. The arrival of the oddly anodyne monumental statue, head oddly slightly smaller than its body, seemed both overshadowed by the sails behind his visage, and a Renaissance man, hardly worn from the travails of transatlantic travel, arriving in statuesque manner at a port with a confidence of divine faith.

The plans for the arrival of a Moscow-forged monument to Columbus would also mark Trump’s entry in a shady international network in the late 1990s resulted in the curious migration of the heroic statuary pastiche of the fifteenth-century navigator staking royal claims to transatlantic property–renaming Caribbean islands after his nation and Christian pantheon of saints. In mapping the islands as San Salvador, formerly Guanahani, Hispaniola–currently Haiti and Dominican Republic–Juan de la Cosa, a cartographer-navigator who owned the Santa Maria, participated in the current rage of renaming, drawing boundaries around, and mapping ties of power over expanse–

paid tJuan de la Cosa, 1510 (Naval Museum of Madrid)

–enumerated the individual islands where flags set by Columbus during his first voyage, of which de la Cosa could provide personal testimony as the owner of one of the three caravels that made landfall in the New World.

The cartographer was taking part in a broad collective effort of renaming, bounding, and explaining empire across a terrestrial expanse that could barely be conceived even if it could be measured, staking claims to those magnified Carribbean islands where Columbus did in fact make landfall. The map so laboriously made by de la Cosa foregrounded the islands that were multicolored to resemble the genre of isolari of the Aegean, but planted the Spanish flag on a renamed Hispaniola, confirming the voyage had successfully renamed the islands, placing them below Spanish flags.

The arrival of the navigator echoed modern statues, as well as the poesis of early modern geography of naming, bounding, and declaring sovereignty over untold expanses rendered open to subjugation and control: the images of the region in the Letters of Columbus, an early best-seller, promoted the possessions of the monarch in the New World as a direct appropriation in the name of the Spanish monarchs, promising an abundance of spices, metals, and indeed the inhabitants themselves–and their souls as potential sites of conversion. But this was also the very Columbus, of course, who had instituted the conscription of native American labor as a result of this travels to the Indies, desperate to hit upon a schem to make the voyage more profitable, and sent five ships filled with enslaved indians back to Europe in 1495, defraying costs of travels to the New World that had not brought the expected profit of Asiatic or Indian riches, tied to spices, as well as gold, to the Mediterranean slave market, often arguing that the temperament and climactic origin of indigenous made them suited for hard labor.

5. Did placement of the statue of Columbus off of Manhattan a gesture to Columbus’ renaming New World properties for Spain’s sovereign as if to channel a motif of the promotion of real estate development? Or was it only assimilated to his own fascination with a language of monumentality?

The inclusion of the crosses on Columbus’ sails in Tsereteli’s monument echoed the early woodcut. And the arrival of Columbus in Manhattan seemed to announce the inauguration of a new era of transatlantic exchange between Russia and the United States; forgetting the lesson of Ozymandias, perhaps, recuperating a shared icon of imperial authority seemed in this context to promote the legendary status of self-made man as an icon that the self-centered realtor would over-eagerly identify.

Trump would identify his towers and his self as a colossus that he no doubt narcissistically felt would embody his own grandeur as much as the grandeur of his buildings. For the figure of Columbus, as much as a discoverer of new lands and America, or an agent of the king, would serve to promote the developmen to international investment sufficiently exclusive for foreign royalty–Trump recently redecorated of his private triplex penthouse in Trump Tower, were he lived since 1983, in faux Louis XIV decor, replacing famed designer Alberto Donghia’s original understated decoration with help from a casino designer who jazzed the slightly austere modernism up with gilded boiserie, a bronze Eros and Psyche, rococo ceiling frescoes of Apollo, crystal chandeliers and a diamond and gold encrusted front-door and gold-leaf furniture–to join Donghia’s original concession of a gold leaf ceiling in an opulent decor.

When Donghia tragically died from AIDS in 1985, the designer thankfully never saw the obliteration of his concept with faux rococo renovations. But they captured the standard a Trump building aimed to offer. By 1996, when Trump had taken to promote casinos in Atlantic City, Trump quite grandiosely described the impending arrival of the monument as a “gift from the Russian people” whose delivery he had arranged at no expense, in quasi-regal terms, and in an interview with the New Yorker, promoted the arrival of the massive cultic statue forged in Moscow as something New York’s mayor would sign off on, and we should wait for. The “great work” of the prominent artist Zurab–the “man is major and legit”–that would soon arrive to grace–or dominate–the New York City skyline, rhapsodizing about the monument’s arrival without describing how it would be erected, signed off on, or even came to be proposed. Trump acted as if his interviewer expected nothing thirteen years after Trump Tower than a more massive next big Trump thing.

Was the sense that if the city had tolerated Trump Tower, it would be ready to accept a towering image of the navigator, medals draped around his neck, and royal crosses prominently blazoned on the sails of his ship?

Brokering the gargantuan bronze statue–what seemed a booby prize of international negotiation–as the fruit of newly acquired expertise in gaining capital from foreign markets. The regal sails that billowed behind the gargantuan–and historically grotesque–fifteenth century navigator who seemed to greet Manhattan island impassively from afar, foregrounded a cross on the medal around his neck that Donald probably thought was a “T” for Trump, but echoed the very sails of the caravels in Columbus’ Letters,–

–to judge by the statue as it was assembled in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, over twenty years later.

Trump then rather gleefully promoted the statue’s arrival from Moscow to journalists as a trophy of his own rebounding international currency, as if it was a confirmation of his new arrival in the class of a global real estate promoter. He energetically did so only after returning from his second trip to Moscow, and first visit to post-Soviet Russia, which was first being integrated into the free markets that Trump then seemed to believe he emblematized. And in Russia, Trump had inserted himself within a local kleptocracy of real estate grabs in hopes to find financing for his overseas projects in projects he had surveyed. Is the monument a celebration of Trump’s own image of his own grandiosity, or is the attempt to broker a “gift” from the “Russian people” a precedent for the false populism of the current President? In 1997, it was another case of Trump being Trump, his aspirations to grandiosity reaching new heights.

For although monuments are usually created by states, as ways to come to terms with memories or preserve them, Trump boasted he accepted the nearly three hundred foot statue from the Russian people, praising it as “six feet taller than the Statue of Liberty,” as if that was sufficient grounds to accept the already built bronze monument. He must have done so for personal gain, but the offer of a monument of national symbolism was not described in terms of American nationalism, but as something that would appeal to the Italian-Ameircan mayor Rudy Giuliani who had offered Trump multiple concessions for rezoning; it was undoubtedly part of a transaction that mutually beneficial, either a massive tax write-off, a sign of his own grandiosity, and affirming his own personal gain. The national associations that the Russians assumed were implicit when they had approached U.S. Presidents–George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton–with the statue, were all but absent.

Is it even possible that the massive bronze statue was even redesigned for Trump, to meet his desires? Perhaps the diminished size head hinted Tseretelli had cast a still larger body to make a monument meeting a demand the statue be taller than “Liberty Enlightening the World”–a “new colossus” itself, ut one that was famously associated with openly political values, when it was given by the French Republic to the American state as a token of political solidarity, admiration, and a defense of openly republican ideals that the French believed would soon be dominant in the world. If “Liberty Enlightening the World” was to cast republicanism across the globe, in ways that emulate the contemporary International Map of the World whose optimistic internationalism was promoted by French geographers, did hopes to erect the massive statue of Columbus celebrate underground circulation of global capital, offshore investment, and untaxed wealth that defined the post-Soviet era?

The Columbus statue makes a tacit reference to the Statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World” unveiled on October 28, 1886, which at the time towered far above the business buildings of New York, almost 306 feet over sea-level, casting a shadow and a symbolic tower over the aspiring tower of Manhattan island. Presented on July 4, 1884, the woman bearing the torch that has become an icon of New York affirmed the transnational project of the American Revolution as “a foundation for erecting temples of liberty in every part of the earth;” sculptor Auguste Bartholdi wanted to be as “grand as the idea which it embodied,” as a triumphal statement of republicanism. Supported by champions of grandiosity of the day such as Theodore Roosevelt, it affirmed transnational republicanism, mapping a universality that the statue of Columbus, Birth of the New World, undercuts not only in its height, but by affirming the centrality and absolutism of a vision of currents of international capital and finance that underlay the arrival of that statue, which Trump proudly announced would be transported to lands he had developed for residences, not on an island in the harbor, but on landfill. If Liberty watched approaching ships from Beddoes Island as a sentinel of the guarding of laws and freedom within the new lands, into the waters that would be welcoming of immigrants, as Emma Lazarus later affirmed, the monitory statue of royalist values that simultaneously transfixed and repelled anonymous observers it did not deign to address seemed an announcement of Manifest Destiny than affirming any values at all–the statue was not holding a tablet of laws, or raising a torch of enlightenment, but a white man surrounded by royal symbolism, not part of the geography, but perched on a small skiff but rooted in underground, invisible currents of finance that had raised the once underwater lands on which it stood.

If Liberty stands atop a broken chain, evoking the defense of liberty in the recent national trauma of the U.S. Civil War, and embodying justice, the figure of an anachronistic Columbus embodied not an icon of national identity of values to be honored across the globe–progress; determination; victory over oppression–affirming the nation as still providing an “asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty,” in Thomas Paine’s words–that U.S. President Grover Cleveland heralded as an unprecedented symbol of the “open gates” of the nation.

Whereas President Cleveland recognized the statue as embodying a yearning for Liberty after the defeat of the “monstrous injustice” of enslavement, he celebrated the statue as framing desire for liberty in international terms. For all the heady emotion of the opening of a post-Soviet world, the monumental statue rather marked the circulation of unregulated goods and shady international finance. The arrival of the monumental statuary of Columbus was an act of political amnesia, celebrated something like a foundational claim to power destined for private property, cleansing the remembrance of colonization as a victory in a flattening of historical perspective that borders on the classic definition of kitsch–what Milan Kundera described as the “absolute denial of shit” and blanketing of the experience of colonization or the grotesque nature of nationalist claims, in a “mass art” that seems to degrade the meaning of the nation, debasing abilities of remembrance.

Public monuments are traditionally conceived as planned by a state, city, or community,–sanctioning a common remembrance or celebration. The oddly hybrid resurgence of the navigator as a national symbol in this monument, a figure not of the nation, but of a global market for monuments that was erased from any attachment to place, seems emptied of any language of remembrance, displacing “kitsch” from what the Nazi government had once defined as a demeaning of the national symbol from the purity of how it created an “inner relationship” of the symbol and art object, but rather by giving it new currency by loosening the figure of the navigator it cast as a totalitarian figure of immense weight–six thousand tons!–and size from any symbolic associations of nationhood, but suggesting a muscular dominion by a commanding prominence that might migrate around the globe by pathways of global capital.

In contrast to the creation of monuments that might symbolize a nation, Trump’s position as receiver of a statue post-soviet governments ld him to entertain a gift of state that seemed to him a great deal for his brand and his property,–as a massive promotional device and visiting card, a sign of Trump making an even greater name for himself and his family on the New York City skyline. If in 1997 he had fulsomely promoted properties he had developed in New York’s Columbus Circle as being “One of the great buildings anywhere in New York, anywhere in the world,” one can almost imagine the interchange with Russian oligarchs where Trump noted the magnificence of the old Gulf+Western building he had promoted, by adding his name to it, leading to Luzhkov’s ears to prick up at the mention of Columbus, ready to suggest he had the perfect statue to adorn it, and Trump upping the ante by offering to place it at his newest, and even more majestic, property on the Hudson River, where the navigator could be situated off Manhattan Island–a place where he had never sailed. Tsereteli, Luzhkov, and Trump all found a common coinage: they all trafficked in mythistory, more than historical accuracy, wedded closely to the promotion of awing grandiosity.

Rather than offer a statue affirming shared values and common memories of classical ideals of freedom, liberties and laws, a republican heritage that the French viewed as their own, begun in their revolution, but affirmed in the American Revolution, despite their Napoleonic interludes of retrograde royalty, there were no real collective memories affirmed in the figure of Columbus, or no forward-facing future of optimism that this man with an upraised hand, as if more of an outfielder in a toga than an affirmation of Roman republican values. Far more than present an affirmation of freedom, the Columbus was a god-like Augustus or Helios, declaring the absolute domain across political divides, a token of the friendship of folks who were engaged in a sustained trade of importing statues that were Beryozka dolls of a future totalitarianism that looked quite grim, rather than an appeal to the rebirth of ancient values. The image of the male mariner who was taller than the Statue of Liberty oddly diminished the ideals of the Statue of Liberty by recasting its universalism and universal values in an uplift that seems to demand consent removed from politics, but impressing viewers by its size: would the monument with such a surprisingly small head be in fact raising the name of the Trump brand, redounding to the glory of the buildings that Trump had so carefully wrangled from the city by buying lands that he had recast as residential, at huge personal gain? The odd itinerary of Columbus retraversing the seas, not from Spain to the New World, but from Moscow, seemed only to signify the opening of the Russian market.

The peculiar re-use of aesthetics of post-political Augustan neo-imperial statue suggest a promotion of a unique type of historical amnesia around the figure of Columbus, removed from any sense of encounter with native peoples, and indeed from commerce with a New World, as a civilizing figure triumphant over the land, as if to preserve his salvific identity as a robed emissary of the most Christian King, greeting the New World as emissary of the monarch, removed form any colonial context. The almost cultic nature of this statue demanding deference seems an alienation of the observer but a proclamation of an age of spectacle–

–akin to authoritarian images in North Korea,

Kim il-Song, Pyonyang
Kim il-Jong Statue

or, indeed, the monumental statues of Saddam Hussein that had been toppled in Iran’s longstanding mortal enemy, Iraq.

Is not its kitsch was almost an intentional debasement of the nation it seemed to celebrate, promoting values inherently foreign to democracy?

The bronze colossus is akin to the still larger monument in bronze that Narenda Modi built at a cost of $400 million larger bronze as Governor of Gujarat, as if to project his leadership of all India, in 2013, where he would oversee a 1992 pogrom that killed thousands of Muslims and rendered homeless countless more, and destroyed the Babri Masjid Mosque, in an openly violent attempts to erase Muslim presence in Gujurat in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom in which Hindu vigilante mobs of Hindus murdered thousands of Muslims in nominal “revenge” for the death of 50 Hindu pilgrims. As if to erase the permissive violence committed by men who felt licensed by Modi having been appointed the the previous year as Chief Minister of Gujurat, the construction of the monumental and utterly unprecedented “Statue of Unity”–twice times as tall as New York’s Statue of Liberty, at 182 meters, in Gujurat rather than Unity, used the image of Homeland Secretary and one-time freedom fighter Vallabhabhai “Sardar” Patel, who had led India during the India-Pakistani war, but was the public face of the violent process of Partition, as an icon for Hindu nationalists. Patel, the first Homeland Secretary, stood tall tall astride the Narmada River in traditional dhoti, echoed his role in Ghandi’s non-cooperation Satyagraha movement in Gujurat–who Ghandi taught Sanskrit, but who was responsible for forgoing India without the Muslim state of Pakistan. The largest statue in the world Modi unveiled as Prime Minister in 2018 above the Sardar Sarovar Dam seemed to conceal the 1992 pogrom, but also quit eerily to assimilate it into a vision of modernity and statehood in its monumentalism.

Amit Dave/Reuters

Pankaj Mishra jested in a 2020 opinion piece, “Donald Trump Is Going to India to Find Himself,” caling India Trump’s true spiritual home of fraternal spirit of a nation on a course of “cravenly surrendering its traditions of law and decency before a perpetually inflamed and ham-handed autocrat.” Was the pandering to the public by creating such an alleged “unifying” statue that doubled as a Hindu shrine not only a means to assert his authority as Prime Minister, and legitimize or give license to future claims of Hindu Supremacy? The white-robed Modi publicly identified with the modernism of the dam and Hindu domination to affirm autocratic claims to power, echoing the White Supremacy that has animated the Trump political brand, incarnated in a supremacist architecture of excess without bounds.

The scale of submerging ancient monuments at one fell swoop were, for Narenda Modi, then promoting a dam and reservoir as a symbol of modernity in western Gujurat state, erected with great fanfare as the damn was inaugurated in 2018, catapulting Modi into public life by a triumphal statuary perched atop the dam of Sardar Partel, a revolutionary and the first deputy Prime Minister of the nation: the image of a figure and practice of “progress” embodied the achievements of the state and a triumphal statement of the taming of nature, attracting visitors to view the dam from the chest of the monument, as if to link celebration of a vision of Indian modernity–it is equipped with high speed internal elevators that zoom tourists to Serdar’s chest that draw power from the dam–with which Modi was at pains to align himself–by politicizing the historical figure of a “founding father” as a cult of personality.

Narendra Modi at the inauguration of the Statue of Unity, the world’s tallest statue, in India’s western Gujarat state in 2018.

This autocratic “club” of Trump allies were all known for their experiments in authoritarian statuary–Putin; Modi; Kim–as surrogates of a cult of personality and infallibility. It is in their common celebration of a vision of triumph that one can best see a symbolic silencing of the opposition, and even the imagination of mounting opposition. T

he deeply undemocratic and openly autocratic nature of such statuary of public spectacle, and indeed the circular nature of the spectacle in affirming its own sense of grandiosity, was in a weird way a practice of silencing: far from learning lessons from Ozymandias, they proclaim sovereign rule by their immensity, asserting majesty by openly offering exclusionary more than inclusionary models of national identity and nationhood to do so.

This was a false memory of nationhood, indeed, and an art of democratic forgetting, an exorcism of Republicanism, perhaps, a statement of grandiosity that did far more in alienating the country from observers, and in daunting them with an image of non-state powers, the accumulation of massive wealth, accumulated not for the public good but by evading taxes, federal oversight, and appealing to a man that worked and affirmed his own centrality in the world far outside of the state.

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

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