Tag Archives: public memory

Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

“On the banks of every great river in the world, you’ll find a monument to excess,” observed a bombastic character in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide observes, on British imperial plans for a port at Calcutta. The building of the port recalled an imperial relation to sovereign territory. And the statue of Christopher Columbus that Donald J. Trump sought to have approved on the banks of his Hudson River development recalls an era of mapping when one could lay possession to space in a map–indeed, even to the extent of claiming possession of much of a continent. If the “America First” doctrine that Trump embraced openly when he began his political career is based on the exclusion of a foreign “other” perspective–or of anyone not a member of a clannish notion of “America”–the statuary of a Columbus oblivious to the other, announcing his arrival as a foundational act of government, in an immobile if heroic relation to the land–

–suggests an autocratic ideal of government, that would have invested a site destined to be erected on Trump Properties in a Hudson River lot of landfill on Manhattan with a statue celebrating thin-lipped autocratic leadership. While America has long denied its imperial identity, the statue seemed a bid to recognize it, if it was also a Russian reading celebrating the authoritarian image of the navigator as a figure of state, and a nationalist symbol.

This fantasy image of Columbus, as a navigator who arrived in a New World in peace, saluting the continent over which he was taking possession in thin-lipped solemnity, was both a kitsch of a monumental who seemed to bear regal insignia around his neck, rose an arm affirmative as an imaginary past of the founding go the nation, as if this monument in bronze would set a precedent for “Make America Great Again”—conjuring the allure of an imaginary past demanding complete the complete assent from observers, as if to allow no possibility of choice for native inhabitants, and to remove a myth of the New World and America from an idea of freedom, more akin to a westward progression of empire, driven by sails decorated by royal crosses of the most Catholic majesties Ferdinand and Isabella, than by recognizably American values.

If the Roman poet Horace had boasted his writings would outlast monuments in bronze in the Augustan era, the bronze monument whose imperial relation to space mediates a tradition of Augustan statuary in kitsch. And if Horace seems to have punctured Augustan vanity by identifying his poetry as a testament outlasting monuments of bronze or pyramids, the colossus Trump planned to have erected on his property at tax payers’ expense as a gift from the Russian people that had been rejected as a Soviet gift for the quincentennial celebrations of Columbus was a monument to his vanity, as the Taj Mahal built in Atlantic City for $1.2 billion in 1990, promoted as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

The monumental statue concealing the act of dispossession of native lands seem to have appealed to Trump, and not only because the six hundred ton statue that Donald Trump hoped would promote his latest luxury housing enclave. If the statue is ridiculously ahistorical, planned for a place the fifteenth century navigator never arrived holding navigational tools he never used, the 6,500 tons of sub-export bronze almost erected on the banks of the Hudson River, selected as the site to be “gifted” by Russian oligarchs who had long globally peddled a massive statuary two American presidents had demurred, probably both an aesthetic grounds and for its autocratic form, an imaginary of conquest almost foreign to Columbian iconography.

If all maps freeze cruel dialectics of power and inequality, the image of Columbus, arm on a rotary nautical wheel not used on his transatlantic voyage, suggested a poetics of dispossession that was broadly revisited in the United States at this very time. Although the statue would be adopted as an icon of the “anti-Christopher Columbus attacks from the political left wing in America,” as if facing threats of a desecration of models of heroism, the totem to Columbus that defined the taboo nature of expanding political discourse to critique Columbus’s historical identity, the endurance of the massive sculpture “Discovery of the New World” in Arecibo recapitulated a logic of discovery: even as the liabilities for disaster approached $50 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget, did the town ever consider melting down the 6,500 tons of bronze to recoup their monetary value?

It surely admitted the imperial nature of the United States more concretely than any defense of the nation. The appeal of the massive statue was quick to gain an almost cultish meaning in the light of open attacks on Columbus’ monumetnalization that began around the time that Trump announced the statue’s arrival in 1997, or from 1989 by pouring blood on Columbus statues. The lionization of Columbus grew to counter fears of attacks on Columbus statuary on the mainland as tantamount beheading a cultural figure in an act of wanton sacrifice–rather than a political act–and they had considerable grown by 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg

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

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

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

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

Keystone/Getty Images; Mandel Ngan/AFP 

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Filed under Columbus, Donald J. Trump, globalization, Mapping the New World, national monuments