The issue of statues monuments and who owns public space has come alive as the US implodes over the issue of whether to take down monuments to the supporters of slavery and appears not to have found closure to its own Civil War (which was supposed to have ended in 1865).
Anyone watching Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, or witnessing the daily feeds from the Black Lives Matter movement will know why. This is the age of the image. Politics is visual. Daesh knew this when they descended on Hatra, a 2,000-year-old city and UNESCO World Heritage site in Iraq in 2015 to destroy priceless statues and shrines, wiping away artefacts that have survived two millennia. The US army knew this when they brought down the statue of Saddam Hussein in front of the worlds media in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in 2003. The Victorians knew this when they built the Scott Monument in 1840. It’s of more than passing interest that it was an Estonian, Kalle Lasn, reared in the art of Soviet propaganda, who identified capitalisms weak-spot and created Abusters and initiated Occupy Wall Street. Post-soviet activists are alive to this as they debate their inherited past and explore their independence. The Moscow Times this month reports that Bulgarian hacktivists are repainting Soviet-era monuments so that the Soviet military heroes depicted are recast as American Superheroes.
History matters. It tells us something of who we are and who we want to be. The infrastructure and symbolism of our public life – our streets and public space – our commissioned public art and our monuments and relics matter. The statues we preserve and protect aren’t just historical artefacts, casual remnants of the past hanging about, they are immutable power rendered in stone.
If the American issue has hit the headlines, we are not without the same issues in Scotland and wider Britain. The writer Afua Hirch made a compelling case against Nelson’s Column, arguing:
“One of the obstacles all these abolitionists had to overcome was the influence of Nelson, who was what you would now call, without hesitation, a white supremacist. While many around him were denouncing slavery, Nelson was vigorously defending it. Britain’s best known naval hero – so idealised that after his death in 1805 he was compared to no less than “the God who made him” – used his seat in the House of Lords and his position of huge influence to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends.”
No doubt such observations will trigger a crisis for many who would rather avoid the gaze of the past and the issues it presents us with. But changing the physical world signifies an ability to ‘take back control’ to act and reclaim history for the future. Of course Scotland has its own stone monuments scattered around the highlands, homes evicted, peoples lives displaced and abandoned. These are memorials to state violence.
Some ‘monuments’ need resurrected whilst others need torn down.
Statues – not cheap – are almost always symbols of wealth and power.
Rather than look at changing the character of civic space as some kind of existential threat to history, a some kind of Caledonian Year Zero, we could imagine it as a creative and collective endeavour of re-awakening.
The argument against taking public action often complain of an urge to ‘re-write history’ as if the status quo is a given, a natural order, a state of being that has occurred in a social vacuum. But this inherited unquestioned history has been written to render women invisible. History has been written to celebrate slavery and slavemasters and profiteers. History has been written to venerate the military, the aristocracy and feudal lordship.
Why should this history be sacrosanct against any other? Why should a history that has been paid for and commissioned by an elite be witnessed in perpetuity? It’s a form of acquiescence to stare bleakly at a historical record that’s being imposed from the past.
The questions are real:
Why is it acceptable for Scottish towns to be named after garrisons in 2017? Why does the statue of George Granville Leveson-Gower, the first Duke of Sutherland, still stand on the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh? Why do we celebrate Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville in St Andrew Square in the countrys capital? Why do we celebrate Earl Haig on Edinburgh Castle esplanade?
What is telling in Scotland is how little of this debate takes place and how passive we are about our own public space and our own history.
Like the fight for women on bank notes, such arguments evoke visceral howls from those who want to preserve their status, but such questioning and re-imagining could be about a wider debate about public art, history and which figures from our past deserve credit and celebration. There are situations when statues should simply be pulled down, and others where more information is required about their past.
We can have that debate.
The argument against change aren’t just defending an indefensible status quo, they are defending a position that nothing must change because change itself is a threat.
Oddly, its an ahistorical position to take. For some the act of overcoming symbols will never have the same urgency as ‘real work’ legislation or action. But you only have to watch the response to this debate to see the importance of symbolism for power. Nostalgia for the past is paralysing. Questioning and critically engaging with our past will be liberating.
Since 1989 Ukraine has removed all of its 1,320 statues of Lenin statues, symbols of Soviet domination, bloody dictatorship, terror and famine. Since independence in 1991 it has immersed itself in a national debate about its past as a way of discussing its future.
The removal of the statue of Duke of Sutherland, from the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh should be commissioned as part of a nation-wide, community-wide debate about public space, who owns it, who controls it and what it’s for. We should commission new works of public art beyond the couthy, one-dimensional works that dominate (Andy Scott’s proposals for a giant bear at Dunbar to remember John Muir is a travesty) and have an honest debate about our past – with all its wonder and failings.
If we cant do this we will continue in a state of a country ill at ease with itself, ignorant of its own history, unable to take charge and where participation is considered a dangerous act in itself and visual culture is controlled by the rich and the powerful.
The democracy movement should embrace culture jamming history and take down the symbols of empire. You cant be citizens in a land littered with celebration of feudal glory.
The act of détournement means taking symbols, logos and in this case statues and monuments that are the vehicles upon which the “dominant discourse” of history is communicated and changing them, to subvert what Debord called the “monologue of the ruling order”.
In a digital world of pixels and html, the lasting nature of carving in stone and casting in bronze has an importance that is worth talking about.
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