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Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

President Donald Trump’s hopes for a “Garden of Heroes” as a site for reflecting on and embodying national memory attempts to transcend the current debates about the public memorialization by foregrounding “historically significant Americans,” to diminish the significance of all who are absent from it. The decision announced on Independence Day, as if a gift to the nation, would follow executive orders that criminalized those who vandalize public statutes, as if to seek sort of peaceful resolution in the masquerading of memories of figures who fought for rights to exclude many from the franchise, or from the nation. There seemed special sense of bitterness in a man who defended statues of confederate soldiers who sought to perpetuate enslavement consider a Garden of Heroes where they might join abolitionist Frederick Douglass–who in an earlier July 4 speech, long before the fourteenth amendment, asked the meaning of Independence for one enslaved, questioning the diminished national honor of finding any basis for the logic that enslavement restricted suffrage in U.S. Constitution.  But the oddness of the monument, and its aptness to Donald Trump, seemed to be about issues beyond 2020, even as they responded to what he attacked as a “deface[ment] of our most sacred memorials”–including statues of secessionists, of the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus, and of founding fathers who had owned slaves.

Before seeking the office of United States President, the feisty real estate developer Donald Trump entertained obtaining a monumental icon of Columbus, a piece of statuary of bronze that would tower over three hundred meters in height, a statue that an unknown American patron commissioned requested from the Soviet sculptor of Zurab Tsereteli to commemorate the quincentenary of the Genoese navigator’s voyage. Trump would have entertained the idea shortly after he had purchased the iconic modernist Gulf + Western Building on the southwest corner of Central Park, emptying the modernist icon of coporate America of offices, to remake a skyscraper beside the statuary at the center of Columbus Circle as a luxury development, taller than New York zoning laws allowed in 1994. The building that dwarfed the nearby statue of Christopher Columbus met the realtor’s needs to construct a successor to Trump Tower a “premier residential site–one of the best in the world,” named “1 Central Park West,” as a monument to himself. Did the plans for expanding Trump’s brand to Moscow by 1997 turn to the heroic statuary designed by an old friend of Moscow’s notoriously corrupt mayor, to erecting a far larger monument of the navigator, standing aboard a sailing ship, that might be accepted by the realtor on a development beside the Hudson, a possible site for the massive colossus that would overshadow the Statue of Liberty, in New York’s port?

If the shadows that the monumental statue of the navigator who had convinced the Spanish monarchs of a westerly route to the Indies pilot would fall over Manhattan, had this structure been built, the hopes that Trump had entertained since the Gorbachev Era of “restructuring,” to explore deals to expand his brand, on a belief “some people have an ability to negotiate” that is innate: and in 1984, soon after a Soviet Ambassador arrived in Trump Tower,  to plan “building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin, in partnership with the Soviet government” soon before he enrolled in the 1988 Republican primary, where the positive polling prognosis led him to launch a shot in the Reform Party’s candidacy, headlining a ticket under the auspices of Jesse Ventura. If Trump’s hopes for an initial joint venture with the Soviet government had led to a claim in a right-wing publicationSoviets are reportedly looking a lot more kindly on a possible presidential bid by Donald Trump, the New York builder” tied to “the notorious, organized-crime linked Resorts International,” Trump’s travel to the post-Soviet city in hopes for a Trump World Tower in Moscow led to the offer of the “gift” of a Columbus monument,–perhaps fit to this builder who was widely known to building monuments to himself, and unable to separate his own personal gain from the promotion of his brand.

For Trump was, long before a President, more of a monument builder and brand promoter rather than a realtor, or an investor, able to monumentalize buildings by bestowing on them his name, and had promised similarly promised to supersize America. Making monuments was Trump’s trade since the Trump Tower, from The Plaza to Trump Palaces in Atlantic City, as monument-making was an investment from which he spun a sort of career: for this reason, Mark Singer aptly and importantly characterized Trump as specializing in building monuments to himself, first Trump Tower, in 1984, and he relished that its sawtoothed silhouette fit into the skyline of New York to become an instant tourist attraction, likening his monument-making to a performance art of deeply compulsive dimensions, including the salmon-hued monumental marble atrium of Trump-like fantasies that, in the increasing simulacrum of America, were the same fantasies that he could most effectively pedal as a Presidential candidate, even if he had an odious platform of strong policing, disenfranchisement and hate. The appeal of the monumental statue, that he began talks with Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor, to approve for this landfill development,–to whom Luzhkov was advised to forward the request “to make a gift of this great work by Zurab” in “the City of New York!”–would adopt an icon of the nation, of Russian fabrication, whose patriotic value would have been instrumental in his brand. Trump oddly returned to promote this brand, before promoting “our collective national memory” as a fragile good, if his defense of Columbus as “truly inspirational” for “our great Nation” as a “skilled navigator and man of faith” who was “transformative . . . for our great Nation.”

The patriotic claims of the National Garden of American Heroes strums patriotic chords that seemed designed to make it hard to be against, as well as including something for everyone from Antonin Scalia, Rev. Billy Graham, Founding Fathers, and past presenting, who are lumped with “opponents of national socialism or international socialism,” as a response to an assault on our collective national memory,” embodied a collective in stone, rather than addressing real problems of the rising infection rates of the novel coronavirus, unemployment and economic decline, and police violence and systematic racism. When Trump returned to Moscow in 1997, with plans for a Trump International project, these concerns were far from his attention. But discussions with the Moscow’s opportunistic post-Soviet mayor of the flamboyant monument-builder turned to the monumental statue, that seemed to transcend the statue of Columbus existing beside his new property. For was not the monument of bronze more of a Russian doll, concealing far more than its sleek exterior the navigator betrayed?

The Disney-esque kitsch of the immense ahistorical navigator astride a ship in a port where he had not set foot, oblivious of his surroundings, was an exercise in myth-making. Hand resting upon a rotary steering wheel of the sort Columbus never saw, and never existed in his life, the monument magnified the authority of “Columbus” stripped of historical associations, an image of “kitsch” emptied of any aesthetic experience, akin to Trump’s emptying of office buildings of their contents, as a colossus standing outside high art and without aesthetic aspirations: designed to please its audience, but having failed to attract western sponsors as a massive glorification of Columbus as a monarchal emissary to a New World he would conquer, the statue reminds one of its pretensions, and currying of an audience, as if to move the observer by its hyper-reality of an industrial-grade bronze monument of 6,500 tons of sub-export bronze, its immobility more of an effigy that is self-congratulatory than inspirational. A monument in search of an audience, it suggested a weird sense of the logic by which Trump would himself pursue a global audience from 1997, seeking to restyle himself as an expert in nuclear disarmament, public office, using his belief “some people have an ability to negotiate” whose negotiating abilities embraced strategic arms limitations, recast the bona fides of a realtor as a bona fide international operator, and indeed ambassador to Russia in the Reagan era, as an office able to ingratiate his firm to overseas audiences, to meet aspirations for “building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin, in partnership with the Soviet government” and seeking acclaim, with an uncanny tone-deaf sense of his surroundings.

Zurab Tseretli, “Birth of a New World” (1997)

As Trump was trying to turn a trick in resuscitating Trump Tower Moscow, boasting of plans he drew up with Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, and Robert A.M. Stern for luxury apartments towering near Columbus Circle, did the discussion ever turn to the statue now contested as a part of the national memory? The residential complexes he planned was, after all, more than a building, a monument, emblazoning his name/brand on above the Moscow skyline with prominence that it seemed, somehow, to him to be due–

–as if emblazoning the name “TRUMP” in Moscow’s skyline would place his name among the influx of money he promised the building would attract, even if few Russians then recognized the name of the realtor as a status-symbol that, in 1997, would have been worth covering their high price. Trump argued the complex could attract global buyers, however, as if to inflate his own brand, that would have made the statue of the navigator who was hired by Ferdinand and Isabella to discovery a new sea route to the Far East in three small ships, and was more than ready to assume credit for the “discovery” of a land first spotted by a fellow sailor, Rodrigo Bernajo, and rename the populated island San Salvador, leaving behind some of his crew in Hispaniola, before he converted the claims of discovery to a title–Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Governor of the Indies–that magnified his own global status, even as the indigenous revolted against the regime settlers sought to impose in the renamed island of Hispaniola.

Columbus had, of course, come from a family of wool carders in Genoa, the fabrication of global status as bringing Christianity to the new world that the monumental statue reified, embodied claims to having “discovered” the New World were full of a bombast that was pure Trump–whether Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Tsereteli knew it or not.

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