Robert Musil Monuments Essay Contest

Photography and Monumentality

U.S. Soldier watches the toppling of Hussein statue, April 9, 2003, photo by Goran Tomasevic


Is it the truth or the falsehood of a society that one learns from its monuments?

—Robert Harbison

There is nothing in the world so invisible as a monument.

—Robert Musil

If you have a statue in the city centre, you could go past it every day on your way to school and never even notice it, right—but as soon as someone puts a traffic cone on its head, you’ve made your own sculpture.


It has long been the custom of humans to mine the earth for durable substances with which to erect structures that reach toward the ethereal. Much of what we can decipher of past cultures relies on these stone documents—fallen idols, pockmarked columns, pyramids that direct eyes and souls toward the heavens. What do monumental gestures express of humanity? Is it simply the individual and collective will to be remembered, big stones and chunks of metal versus the frail and perishable human body? Monuments often serve as focal points for aspirational civic attributes such as honor, duty, and sacrifice, while simultaneously reaffirming foundational narratives of the nation-state. The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century inflated the rhetorical use of the monumental to the extreme; colossal figures and massive architectural projects attempted to match the egos and ambition of dictators and revolutionary ideologies. Yet despite their promise of the eternal, monuments invite ruin, whether it is the slow-motion variety of erosion and neglect or the sudden furor of an angry populace tugging on ropes to bring their idols crashing back to earth—symbols have their vulnerabilities.

Photographs and monuments offer very different materials for marking history—paper versus stone, a sliver of silver against a lump of bronze. One wouldn’t expect much of a contest in terms of endurance, yet as Roland Barthes has observed, photography has replaced the monument as the site of collective memory. The very act of memorializing has been de-centered and dispersed through the complex and ever-growing web of images that witness the big and small events of our public and private lives, binding us to personal and collective memory in a way that few monuments could hope to match.

This shifting paradigm, from site of memory to sight of memory, was evident even in photography’s infancy. In 1849, when photography was barely a decade old, Maxime Du Camp made a literary and photographic pilgrimage to document the ancient wonders of the Middle East. Accompanied by Gustave Flaubert, Du Camp collected photographic souvenirs of Egyptian obelisks, Syrian temples, and the head of a colossus peeking out of its sandy grave. Like Piranesi’s engravings of Roman ruins, Du Camp’s photographs sought not only to encourage meditation upon past magnificence but also to remind the viewer that even the greatest of empires and most beautiful works of man were ultimately dust.


Maxime Du Camp, A colossus at the temple of Abu Simbel, Egypt, 1850


The threads of reverie that connect photography and death, monument and ruin, continue to motivate contemporary photographers as diverse as Linda Connor, Lynn Davis, and Christian Boltanski. Connor and Davis have covered some common ground in terms of the expeditionary quality of their investigations, but while Connor’s photographs of holy places and sacred objects lyrically extend a nineteenth-century sense of wonder, Davis works to expand the catalog of the monumental beyond the ruin of past glories to include contemporary architecture, icebergs, and roadside attractions. A conventional reading of her iceberg imagery might suggest the majesty of nature, in which the heft and drama of these individual chunks of glacier lead us toward the sublime, a realm of physicality and temporality beyond human bounds. But in the era of climate change, as the glacial shelf sloughs mountains of ice with alarming ease, the idea of the iceberg as merely a slow-motion danger sign for luxury ocean liners is transformed into a more urgent symbol of an global apocalypse unfolding.


Lynn Davis, Iceberg, 2004


Donald Kuspit has described Boltanski’s work as “materialized memories . . . excavated from the ruins of time.” The ruins Boltanski is scratching around in are not the shards of some distant past but the relics of the Holocaust. His monuments are fragile, seemingly improvisatory, constructed as they are out of blurry photographs, tin boxes, wire, cloth, and the faint but insistent glow of low-wattage lightbulbs. The pathos of Boltanksi’s futile attempt to remember the nameless dead can overshadow his less prominent desire to renew the idea of the monument. Boltanski wants us to remember, he wants to materialize the tragic and the heroic, yet he cannot bring himself to invest in the myth of an enduring and heroic history. The wounded ephemerality of his sculptures embodies a painful contradiction: the ideological zeal required to erect the monument can also ignite the fervor by which an ideology’s opponents are vanquished.


Christian Boltanski, Altar to Chases High School, 1988


The seduction of monumentality attracted both the revolutionary and the authoritarian tendencies of the Soviet avant-garde. Structural practicalities aside, the visionary architecture of Vladimir Tatlin’s plans for TheMonument to the Third International (1917) embodied the promise of a progressive industrial future. Alas, the photographs of the models of Tatlin’s tower reach us today like postcards from a proletarian utopia never reached. By contrast, Aleksandr Rodchenko’s 1930 Young Pioneer series portrayed the children of the Revolution as if carved not in stone but by the light of some marvelous future—a future already dawning. Liberated by Constructivism and the small-format camera, Rodchenko photographed the early days of the Soviet experiment with a joyous freedom of movement. Like Dziga Vertov’s 1929 experimental film, TheMan with the Movie Camera, which imagines the eye of God replaced by the eye of the camera, ubiquitous and benevolent, Rodchenko’s oblique angles of individuals, collectives, and the machinery of industry created a visual syntax for documenting not only political revolution but also a revolution of perception. The immediacy of these iconic images, in which the people themselves become monumental, suggested that in this radically new, egalitarian society, photographic portraiture might supplant the need for more conventional stone and bronze embodiments of its heroes. Not surprisingly, the Stalinist freeze of the 1930s snuffed Rodchenko’s liberatory spirit; the towering figures of his Young Pioneer series were censured for their extreme subjectivity and individuality, which posed an explicit threat to the despotic future awaiting them.


Vladamir Tatlin, Monument to the Third International, 1917

Alexandr Rodchenko, Young Pioneer, 1930


Colombian artist Carlos Motta’s broad embrace of photography, video, reportage, and installation serves to investigate the ideological hangover of the Cold War, whether manifest in the monuments of Leningrad or the faces of kidnap victims in Latin America’s ongoing guerrilla conflicts. Along the way, Motta’s work poses the question “What is public memory?” Photographic diptychs from his Leningrad Trilogy (2006) pair elegant historical postcard imagery with photographs that Motta himself made from the exact same vantage points, underscoring the sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic changes that have befallen the heroes of the Russian Revolution. Has the massive and growing electronic web of artifacts subdued our collective will to memorialize on a grand scale? To compare the articulate stonework of Soviet monuments with the digitally degraded faces of Motta’s Pesca Milagrosa (2002–4) is to confront what history signifies through the very means of its representation. The title of the work (“Miracle fishing”) is the term used by Colombian guerrillas for quickly erected roadblocks at which cars are stopped in order to determine who will be kidnapped and held for ransom. This immersive grid of shimmering faces of victims amounts to a fragmented collective portrait of the disappeared, a twenty-first-century low-resolution response to the mute solidity of the monument: the electronic ephemeral versus slabs of stone.


Carlos Motta, Monument to V.I. Lenin, Finland Station, St. Petersburg Russia, 2006

Carlos Motta, Pesca Milagrosa, 2002-04


The Italian photographer Olivo Barbieri diminishes the scale of the monumental in his aerial imagery through a kind of miniaturization achieved through extreme height and selective focus. Reducing the monument-encrusted cityscape of Rome to a vaguely realistic historical diorama, Barbieri seems to conjure  the perspective of some languid god lounging in the clouds arranging his make-believe world below. In his more recent photographs of the urbanization of China, Barbieri brings his camera to ground level only to find an equally illusory world where massive structures rise above the Chinese landscape like spectacular hallucinations, leaving us to wonder about the stability of our current illusions of grandeur.


Olivo Barbieri


The Latin root of the word monument is monere—to remind or to warn—and as such, monuments have historically functioned as places of burial both real and symbolic. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial fundamentally challenged the traditional design of war memorials. Instead of a thrusting victory column or a plinth overcrowded with allegorical figures, Lin’s memorial is an angular incision in the earth that ceremoniously leads the viewer to the underworld. As we descend the path that runs parallel to the polished granite, the litany of names begins to pile up, filling our reflections with the inscribed specificity of loss. Not long after the memorial opened in 1982, Judith Joy Ross began photographing visitors to the wall with her 8-by-10 view camera, a device appropriately cumbersome, solid, and slow for this task. Ross’s subjects are the tenders of the monument, those who ritualize the site by leaving pictures, flowers, notes, touching the wall and taking away rubbings of the names. Ross’s portraits evoke a somber quietude; the soft, amber tones of the faces seem to absorb the pale anti-monumental glow emanating from the nearby wall. Her photographs show us that at least here, in this powerful wedge of earth and stone, history is not distant and heroic, but tragic and still flickering in the ambivalent expressions and tentative gestures of those left behind.


Judith Joy Ross from Portraits at the Vietnam Veterens Memorial, 1984


If, as Robert Musil suggests, invisibility is a problem for monuments, then taking Banksy’s advice to intervene might succeed to re-animate and redefine these forlorn figures. Making visible the rhetoric of power, Krzyztof Wodiczko projects highly charged imagery upon the surfaces of historic structures, government buildings, and public monuments. Wodiczko’s architectural interventions are a kind of large-scale temporary graffiti, inscribing the skin of buildings with provocative symbolism. Wodiczko’s nocturnal actions upon civilized façades are tempered by the ephemerality of his material: projected photographs. The insubstantial nature of his images is in direct opposition to the stubborn solidity of their support—the transient versus the permanent; proving, at least for a few evenings, that radical action or revenge need not come only in the expected forms of spray-paint and sledgehammers.


Krzysztof Wodiczko, Projection onto AT&T Building, 1984


Robert Harbison’s proposal for a “history of toppled monuments” could allow us to view the rhetoric of power from the cumulative rubble of its less than enduring symbols. And in a sense we already do this when we conjure images of old Irish castles wasting in romantic decay or, more pointedly, while we watch crowds pulling ropes in unison to tear down the statues of such Communist-era tyrants as Josef Stalin. The rhetorical power of this spectacular hostility toward fallen dictators informed the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, in the days following the U.S. invasion of Iraq; the event was a choreographed photo-opportunity rather than a spontaneous political action.

Wodiczko suggests that our monuments suffer in relation to reality, that they have become irrelevant and all but abandoned. Walter Benjamin observed that there was hardly a town square in Europe that hadn’t been ruined by a monument. These inscrutable and often pompous figures hover above our public spaces and reveal more of our collective amnesia than of our national patrimony. Numerous photographers have been drawn to this visual contradiction—the ineffectual giant presiding over an oblivious citizenry. In Allen Frame’s stark black-and-white photograph Icicles, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia (2003),reverence is replaced by profound loneliness. The steps leading up to the pedestal have been recently swept of snow as if to invite a respectful approach, yet as testament to contemporary alienation, the citizens seem to be more shadow than substance as they hurry past the partially blurred sentinel guarding the apparently infinite waste of gray and white. Viewing this winter street scene through a frozen streaked window, one can almost feel the ideological chill of mutual avoidance—as if history could be ignored and hopefully forgotten like an abusive father.


Allen Frame, Icicles, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, 2003


Do monuments provide a kind of ancient dignity, a reassuring foundation of eternal truths upon which we might feel secure as a nation? Or have they slipped out of time to become a surreal assortment of random signifiers disconnected from our present reality, more eclectic urban adornments than important historical markers? Is the idea of a common history an idealistic illusion? And if we no longer have faith in moral and political absolutes, might we construct monuments to relativism, or at least agree upon a kind of monumental ambivalence? Or, to cite Harbison once again, “do we summon up grandeur only for dead things?” The artists represented here are but a few of many examples whose works question the meaning and role of monumental gesture, and in the process point to the fact that monuments not only represent our hope for permanence and stability but unintentionally betray the futility and vanity of such desires.

Originally Published in Aperture No. 196 Summer 2009


Readings — From the June 1988 issue

On monuments

By Robert Musil

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