Plans to erect a quite cartoonish rendering of fifteen-century navigator Christopher Columbus on the banks of the Hudson River not only stripped the Genoese credited with “discovering” America of historical context: it deployed the royal emissary who discovered the continent beside a development constructed by Donald Trump, as if to present a monument that announced Trump’s intension to expand his properties from Manhattan onto a global stage. The double entendre of the massive statue’s name, Birth of the New World, was inherited, but appealed, no doubt to Trump, who readily accepted the idea of promoting the monument on properties where he planned to build in 1997, as an extension of his developments scheme for the old rail yards he had bought at low cost, but as dignifying the site in the most opulent manner possible with assistance of Russian oligarchs who sponsored the “gift” of a statue that would be taller–by just this much!–than New York’s Statue of Liberty, and forever set his legacy as builder on Manhattan’s skyline.
The arrival of this bronze Columbus was not backed by Spanish sovereigns whose emblem was on the bronze sails behind his back, but Russian funding of a faux national icon. The planned arrival Trump expected never occurred, but contextualizes Trump’s presidency and the conflicts of interest arising as his first political ambitions emerged. The statue he described only as a “gift” from the Russian people to the United States that he had in 1997 boasted he had orchestrate in pursuit of real estate abroad, arrived from the very financiers of the post-soviet real estate market, and Moscow-based firm, who lured him to visit the city to attract funds to Moscow’s redevelopment.
Was the figure of the fifteenth century navigator more of a token or a pawn in a global Ponzi scheme of money laundering, cancelled debt, and promotion–even as Trump accepted it eagerly as a basis for his buoyant reemergence on a global stage, having cleverly disburdened himself of abundant financial debt?
Although Trump asserts never to have had or sought or even want assistance from Russia in his Presidential campaign in increasingly strident tones, the attempt to persuade New York City to relocate a monumental bronze glorifying the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus suggests more than otherwise. For it ties the image of an authoritarian nationalism to a spectacle of cartoonish if openly authoritarian terms in 1997 raises questions of his aspirations to situate himself from a local real estate promoter to a global stage.
Columbus was 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, including New York,–
–the adoption of a maker of mega-sculptures that rehabilitated a man who was an icon of white supremacy that whitewashed colonialism would resurface, 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” had recast the navigator acknowledging the charge of conquest Pope Alexander VI conferred to the monarchs “to bring under your sway [in remote] mainlands and islands with their residents and inhabitants and to bring them to the Catholic faith,” the statue of the navigator 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 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..
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 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.
At the same time that tens of billions of laundered rubles passed through Deutsche Bank’s New York office by mirror trading, amounts of up to $80 billion flowing to Trump Properties, the grandiose statue taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor–and appear to dwarf Lady Liberty as it would be located on the Hudson, would not only inflate Trump’s prospects as a real estate promoter, but serve as a magnification of Trump’s public stature that the help of Russian oligarchs might allow.
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.
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.
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 boasted it contained $40 million of raw bronze. 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.
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?
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.
Even as he had turned to gambling casinos and Ponzi schemes of refinancing property, Trump desired a sense of public validation that he believed tha the kitsch figure of Columbus might well offer, if only as a symbol of the status his new development would have as a site of global renown. After having created Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, the faux Columbus, resembling more than anything the ancient statue of Helios known as the Colossus of Rhodes, itself the model for Lady Liberty, if against the flags of the most Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.
The replication of an image with origins in the ancient world wonder of the Colossus of Rhodes–a statement of the optimism of global unity and republicanism that was constructed at the same time as French geographers adopted Albert Penck’s proposal of a system of post-national global indexing in 1891–that might befit a Casino, as the majestic marble statuary of the replica of Caesar Augustus installed at Caesar’s Palace–
What source of legitimacy would it offer? A language of Spectacle that would seem the apex of personal validation for a realtor whose magnification of identity had been rooted in architectural promotions.
After a decade of bidding on properties to develop in the New York area, even as he filed for bankruptcies, Trump was looking for foreign monies to keep him afloat, he described his foray into politics in early October, 1999 as not due to political circumstances or the Reform Party’s founder, Reality TV star Jesse Ventura, but rather that because “the polls came out, and they said if I ran I’d do very well,” noting that while he had not even volunteered to run, “they put people’s names–they put various celebrities’ names in, and I did very well in the polls and, all of a sudden, people started calling . . .” Trump quite gleefully returned at the end of the interview to the same fact–“The polls have come out so incredibly well. And again, that’s why — that’s why it happened . . .”–giving predictive power to the result as evidence of great consensus of his political destiny–as he openly evoked Manifest Destiny in his 2020 State of the Union speech, as if inviting us to claim a national destiny, outside global context, looking more and more like Mussolini in his manner of public address.
Proclamations of authority are often tied to the social media persona that slid so easily from televisions to social media. Claims Trump made the economy was rigged, claims to represent the common consensus, his gut, and the nation’s common sense, proclaimed a political victory on television as if manifest destiny. Even if Trump would later declare “I don’t have a pollster,” to introduce himself in the Republican debaters of 2015, he had claimed victory in response to topping polls for the Presidency–and was admitted into the Presidential debate because of his standing in national polls, and catapulted into contention as 46% of television observers believed he won the debate. While we were ensnared in the 2016 election by national polls, poll aggregation, and a proliferation of polling that taxed patience, but Trump’s gesturing to polls as the basis to validate his prospects as a candidate as an invoking of public opinion seem not only deeply undemocratic, but scarily akin to his disassociation of Russian backing from his election as President. “I won every single poll of the Republican debate,” as if he had deserved his standing as a victor of the new media, despite little evidence from data journalists that he was poised to win the race for the President, as if he clung to the sense of rightfulness–even if, as Jill Lepore has noted, the rates of response to polls may mismeasure or hinder enfranchisement.
Donald Trump’s 1997 aspiration to transport from Russia a monumental heroic bronze of the fifteenth-century Christopher Columbus–a plot launched just two years before he celebrated his status in the polls for U.S. President for the first time–seem to have magnified his status, if they came from an unlikely source. His agreement to accept the statue on properties once submerged aht the owned on the banks of the Hudson River is often noted as another sign of his notorious vainglory. But the statue was symbolic of his elevation as a figure of state. Its crass combination of personal self-interest, national symbolism, and the enlisting of foreign aid to procure renown, the aspiration appears an early instance of Russian-Trump cooperation rooted in symbolic synergy that bears reflection as it prefigures the merging of nationalism and internationalism that plagued the Trump Presidency. It also shows him, in surprising ways, acting like a state–monuments of national identity are not often given to a real estate promoter, but planned by a government or government actor–that followed sustained and repeated attempts in the post-Soviet era of presenting the statue of Columbus designed by Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli as a gift of state.
Was the image of Columbus, as a figure of spectacle, acknowledging the subject land he views from his ship, reduced to a ridiculous miniature, an acknowledgment of a new age of spectacle? Surely the statue reflects Trump’s grandiosity and taste for immensity; his readiness to embrace plans to import a monumental statue that cast the navigator promoted a monumental aesthetics, recasting the navigator as a herald of a new age in quite openly authoritarian terms. As universal historian Yuval Harrari casts the fifteenth-century navigator as part of a Scientific Revolution, the legendary navigator provided a durable potent image of the global extension of political authority, echoing the promotion and extension of Spanish monarchs’ authority over New World inhabitants.
Indeed, the overseas expansion of boundaries of sovereignty offered an icon for globalism, eclipsing the optimism of the Republican icon of the Statue of Liberty–“Liberty Enlightening the Globe“–with a far starker image of authoritarian power of aspirations to global power than the vertical thrust of the raised torch of the figure of Liberty, clutching a book of laws, proclaiming Republicanism to the world in 1893, rising in the harbor and meant to be seen in the harbor skyline from afar, holding not a spear but a torch, rays of reason emanating from her crown.
While diminished by office lights once emanating from the Twin Towers,
the vigilant open upraised eyes to the harbor offered welcome to immigrants, torch only transfigured by Franz Kafka to a gleaming sword.
The massive bronze statue made to be presented to the United States marked the fall of the Soviet Union was a symbolic opening a new era of global history, echoing the past arrival of Liberty Enlightening the Globe–but seeming far less celebration, or based on laws, but to command assent.
The pseudo-imperial statuary of unprecedented grandiosity aspired quite openly to be a new Wonder of the Modern World, as the Statue of Liberty had, emulating in so doing one of the classical Seven Wonders of the world in antiquity as a marker of the defense of space, the gigantic towers that were pierced on the shores of a classical port city of monumental limbs, championing the wonder of the towers Trump was building as much as being a figure of an early modern colonizing drive–a figure, to be sure, emblematic of the satanic spirit of colonization Frederick Douglas bemoaned, more than Liberty, dominating the shore in ways that seem almost to manufacture alienation from its authority.
The powerful vision of the approach and arrival of a monumental Neo-Augustan vision of Columbus, right hand outstretched, raised above his head in a salutation of adlocutio, left arm bent at the elbow, as if addressing the continent to inaugurate a new age, captured by its title, “Birth of a New World.” As if sustaining a globe, or gathering the attention of his audience, the oddly nostalgic image of a Columbus with an open palm of his right hand seems less posed to speak than to hail the New TWorld as he arrives from overseas. Almost fittingly, there is no sense of a voyage of arrival in the monument, so much as the majesty of arrival at a destination that seems preannounced as destiny by the very majesty that the monument seems both to celebrate and to monumentalize.
The figure of Columbus standing tall with his right arm raised, palm open, as if bearing testimony to an oath, or trying to hold up an image of a globe, might well have inaugurated a new era of globalism–one Trump might well have seen as an image of the global aims of Trump International as the Donald set sights on expanding his properties beyond New York and Atlantic City for the first time,–eventually expanding across four continents to 19 cities across the globe, a global expansion that would bridge national and international space in ways that mirror the consolidation of finance in an age of unrelenting globalization.
The monument to the fifteenth century navigator indeed intersected with Trump’s earliest aspirations to royalty, and designs for global expansion of the Trump brand. The coat of arms first devised for Trump’s Scottish international golf course was used before being registered, but revealed his aspirations to royalty; the monument’s planned arrival would have intersected with designs for the global expansion of the Trump brand, that bridged global and national ends, by a marker of white, Eurocentric national identity. Team Trump had felt sufficiently entitled to devise a crest of an eagle clutching golf balls with his talons above the motto “Nunquam concedere” [Never Give Up], from 2006, even if a crest was only granted to Donald Trump in 2012, after receiving a warning for using an unsanctioned crest in 2008; the importance and image of tenacity that he sought to project was long planned with “Trump’s family heritage” in mind, with an eye to fashioning himself as royalty, combining a Lion Rampant to refer to his Scottish ancestry and the stars of America, omitting his German father, with three chevrons to denote sky, sand dunes and sky as components of the golf resort.
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.
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 a massive removal or erasure of memory left striking urban lacunae; –if they were not melted down and resmelted for other monuments.
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. Its placement would have glorified Trump’s coversion 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?
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 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–
–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.
Was naming of the statue of Columbus off of Manhattan may gesture to Columbus’ renaming New World properties for Spain’s sovereign as if to channel a motif of the promotion of real estate development? 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?
1. But if the Statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World” unveiled on October 28, 1886 towered over the business buildings of New York, almost 306 feet over sea-level, after being presented on July 4, 1884, echoing the transnational project of the American Revolution to “lay a foundation for erecting temples of liberty in every part of the earth” that sculptor Auguste Bartholdi wanted to be as “grand as the idea which it embodied,” was supported by champions of grandiosity as Theodore Roosevelt, the transnational currents of international capital and finance that underlay the arrival of the statue–not holding a tablet of laws, or raising a torch of enlightenment, but a white man surrounded by royal symbolism, perched on a small skiff.
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.
1. 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.
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,
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. The “Statue of Unity” over twice times as tall as New York’s Statue of Liberty in Gujurat soon become an icon for Hindu nationalists, showing Patel in traditional dhoti towering above the Narmada River–unveiled by Modi in 2018 after assuming the office of Prime Minister.
Indeed, if Pankaj Mishra seemed to jest in the title to his 2020 opinion piece, “Donald Trump Is Going to India to Find Himself,” his discussion of India as Trump’s true spiritual home of fraternal spirit in a country that was in the course of “cravenly surrendering its traditions of law and decency before a perpetually inflamed and ham-handed autocrat,” who openly used monumental statues to affirm his own claims to power by an image of the autocratic pursuit of wealth and power, enshrined in the politics of hatred of Hindu Supremacy, that is more than an eery echo of the White Supremacy that has animated the Trump political brand, incarnated in an architecture of excess that knows no bounds.
For the deeply undemocratic and openly autocratic nature of such statuary of public spectacle, far from learning the lessons of Ozymandias, seem to proclaim sovereign rule by their immensity alone, and assert their majesty by openly offering exclusionary more than inclusionary models of national identity and nationhood to do so.Continue reading