What is a monument?
When most people are asked this question their mind goes to a bronze chap on a bronze horse on a stone plinth in a city square or some gigantic ruin in the mould of the pyramids in Egypt. Monuments are a construction – though not only in the sense that they are physically constructed. They are social constructs. They play a role, anchoring a concept of a societal norm. They give us something to attach a past or a set of morals or even foundations for a possible future. Françoise Choay positions the birth of the historic monument as we understand it very specifically in Rome around 1420 (1). This moment where the crystallisation of a vision for a founding myth of Europe, centred on the seat of the dominant religion, and the conservation of that “history” and its “morals” set the gears in motion for a debate that still rages today.
Monuments are one of the biggest bones of contention in western culture for good reason. The myth that we built on was a classic example of bad history (2). It was a miss reading of artefacts. A misreading of monuments. A fabricated historiography that has been used to justify everything from white supremacy to the ethics of colonialist expansion by European powers. We have been left underdeveloped by this crutch, relying, as with so many things, upon veneration of the wrong parts of our ancestry. Monuments in a more abstract sense have their basis in tombs - first recorded as monolithic structures in the near east and Etruria (the Italian one, not the Stoke-on-Trent one) and sowed the seeds (agricultural revolution pun intended) for notions of land ownership to take rise.
With these factors in mind, we tend to position the monument as a very solid, stationary thing, drawing bias from the formal qualities. The permanence of stone or bronze; the immobility of a grave; the eternal city. Monuments are social objects, however, and as such are flexible. Josef Beuys’ term Die Soziale Plastik - translating as the social sculpture - is useful here. As Bjørn Nørgaard explains in a recent interview A House is a Monument for Louisiana Channel (3) plastic is when a sculpture is workable; a statue is made of stone or bronze and that’s the end of it. As Nørgaard puts it, Beuys is suggesting that we turn the arrangement on its head - “we can turn that pressure around, so art is pressuring society”. Though here is the tricky part for me. Where are we making the distinction of what is and isn’t art here? Is a bronze-horse-boi any more or less art than the actions of Nørgaard’s 1960’s collective KKKK? Is the action of occupying the island of Livø in 1971 any less colonial than the erection of a statue? Of course, they are different acts and different contexts. The Livø occupation was about following Beuys’ mantra and trying to develop a different form of society through doing. Nørgaard states in the video “we were to show people by doing it ourselves” (4) which he positions in contrast to Marxism’s insistence on telling people what to do. This notion of show don’t tell is a learning resource and a good mantra in art-making in many ways but it also comes back round to the same concern where monuments are concerned.
Monuments show. They are visual metaphors for national identity or a social paradigm. They are in that sense exactly the same in modality as KKKK’s Livø occupation. Where the occupation and the monument perhaps differ is in interpretation. As alluded to earlier, monuments tend to become victims of bad history. I’ve used the term a few times now and to explain; bad history relates to the deliberate misinterpreting or replacing of something tentatively real (ie as real or factual as anything can be where history is concerned) with something that is probably less real (5). With monuments as with Livø, the showing of the thing inevitably has to be interpreted. The semiotics of the thing has to be explained. The occupation of Livø was a failure, the artists had no proficiency in farming and ultimately were ejected from the island by police which would suggest a degree of antagonism between them and local residents. What do we learn from this, and how do we make the jump to Nørgaards reminiscence in the video? If they were setting an example what was it an example of? The utopic mission to find something like a deeper truth or a more authentic way of living gave rise to so many of these structures in the 1960s and 70s. Structures that realistically were as wrapped in their mythology and bad history as the society they were critiquing. They in some ways are as intransigent as a bronze. The interpretation (the telling) is in many ways the only place that that action exists as liberation or emancipation. In the same way as the placement of a statue to a colonial settler the act in its visual form to those outside of the emancipatory group, in this case, KKKK, is violent. The emancipators or civilisers always perceive themselves to be doing a good act and have the power of an ideal compelling them. It doesn't make them right.
This case filters into structures of artist-led in curious ways, for me. Of course, there is the direct connection of the Livø occupation being an artist-led initiative at its base level and in that sense, I think it serves as an excellent example of a cautionary tale in the establishment of an institution or social structure. An artist-led initiative, particularly something like a studio or a collaboratively run gallery space, can easily run away with its own ideas. I know I for one have been guilty of this on at least two occasions. The excitement of your own ideas and those ideas being shared by a like-minded group is great and can be such a powerful driving force; in that sense, it is something that should be encouraged. It just needs a degree of perspective simultaneously. There needs to be someone around to slam on the breaks sometimes and ask the hard questions. The “is this actually ok?” questions. Otherwise, the initiatives we produce can too easily become stagnant, toxic, immobile bronze-horse-bois. I think before I have been kind of into the idea of creating an artist-led project as a monument. Something is alluring in that idea of legacy or longevity, and of course, that is also something rewarded by funders perpetuating the allure. On reflection though that takes away some of the most exciting elements of artist-led and self-organised activity. It stifles dynamism and nimbleness. One could argue that the Livø project was exactly this, experimental, dynamic, nimble, etc. but the element that is missing for me in it being something “successful” in those terms is that it forgets community.
Community as mentioned in previous texts isn’t a single, homogenous thing. The KKKK occupation considered one community, KKKK, and in that sense could and would never act as a liberation. That is not to say that one should take away all provocation and exclusively develop projects by committee but there needs to be a consideration of more angles than the drive and desires of the initiators. It’s a trap that projects fall into all the time. It’s a trap that social design falls into all the time. It’s a trap that humans fall into all the time because after 10,000 years of making monuments we will never be able to stop. It is tied to our need to identify as social animals and our need to tell stories. Monuments provide visible points which we form our world view around, however, warped that world view may be. It is something we have to accept and then work out what to do with it. How do we make monuments that are Die Soziale Plastik; constantly mouldable and changeable? Amorphous and generative? Putting pressure onto societal norms and structures rather than being spectres of idealised pasts that never actually existed.
(1) Choay, Françoise. 2001. The Invention of the Historic Monument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(2) Flood, Richard. 2007. It’s Not about Mel Gibson. Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century. London: Phaidon.
(3) Nørgaard, Bjørn. 2021. Bjørn Nørgaard Interview: A House is a Monument. Louisiana Channel. YouTube. Available at: https://youtube.com/watch?v=2tWasza8wQg
(5) Flood, Richard. 2007. It’s Not about Mel Gibson. Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century. London: Phaidon.
Joe Rowley - May 2021
The Reflecting on... series takes situations, objects, artworks, articles, texts, podcasts and anything else really as starting points for reflection on artist-led and self-organised (AL&SO) practice.
Ephemeral Care focuses on ethics, practice and strategies in artist-led and self-organised projects.