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Is it Time to Start Forgetting Some Memorial Statues?

Have you ever walked past a monument, stopped to see what or whom it was for, and either still had no idea what or whom it was memorializing or had no idea why that memorial was still there? The Guardian’s Andrew Shoben asked last week, “Public art: how about some decommissions for a change?” It’s a valid question and one that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read Shoben’s piece. Shoben’s solution to decluttering the monument-strewn landscape is a process of decommissioning to counterbalance the current (and possibly out of control) commissioning process. Although, as George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is it time to start forgetting some memorial statues?

Shoben writes from a British perspective, which is probably more memorial-minded than usual thanks to the plethora of Olympics-related structures adding to what he calls “an explosion of public art” over the last three decades greater than perhaps even that of the Victorian age, the last great boom in British public art. Shoben calls for adecommissioning process” that puts an “expiry date on any work being put in to an urban area.” All other art faces eventual removal, Shoben argues, so why not public art. “Why is no thought given to the moment when it's time for a change of commissioned public art?” Shoben argues reasonably. An alternative to total removal would be a system in which works that have grown stale in situ can be shifted to somewhere else where they’d be appreciated. “But for those works that do not receive all the love,” Shoben says with calculated coldness, “why is there no process for their removal?”

Memorial glut is obviously a problem for older urban locations whose history is long enough to have too many things and people to remember. What random personal possessions are for the poor people on Hoarders, memorial statues are for old cities. I remember travelling through Rome, Paris, and London and finding myself suffering from public memorial overload—an equally distressing, but not as aesthetically fulfilling strain of Stendhal syndrome. Even my hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, creaks under the burden of over three centuries of history embodied in memorial statuary seemingly shoved into every available crevice. Even the biggest history buff will walk up to a statue full of curiosity, only to walk away befuddled with more questions than answers that even online searches sometimes don’t solve.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons for maintaining the memorial status quo. Memorials exist as embodiments of memory—insurance policies against forgetfulness. People and events that could easily slip down the memory hole cling (however precariously) to the surface of our collective consciousness thanks to that big slab of marble or stony stallion rearing up beneath a once famous rider. In addition to the positive memories, there are the negative, Ozymandian ones. When the Iraqis toppled Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in 2003, I appreciated the symbolism, but also hoped that they’d leave some fragment as a remembrance for future generations, or better yet, leave the whole thing as a reminder never to let a similar leader rise to power. The Iraqis practiced a very effective decommissioning process there, but what if the need to forget isn’t as immediate or as obvious.

Most lists of the ugliest public art in the world will include Ramchandra Pandurang Kamat’s 1945 statue (shown above) of Abbé Faria in Goa, India. Faria, an 18th century Roman Catholic monk, revolutionized the idea of hypnotism by shifting from Franz Anton Mesmer’s idea of “magnetic fluid” to the power of suggestion. I think it’s fair to debate Faria’s importance and whether it’s worth a public statue, but I’d have trouble arguing over the content of the statue itself. Kamat depicts Faria with arms extended over a prone woman, apparently exercising his hypnotic powers like some cheap Svengali. When I look at this statue, I flash back to some of the more lurid scenes in Matthew “Monk” Lewis’ 18th century Gothic novel, The Monk. I don’t know if Faria’s feats influenced Lewis’ novel, but I do know that at least by the 20th century, the idea of a prone woman held in thrall by a hypnotist monk looming over her isn’t the most positive image for a public space.

Perhaps cultural differences make Faria’s statue more palatable where it stands, but my point is that there are plenty of similarly outdated or inappropriate statuary littering the urban landscape. Like Abbe Faria’s subject, we seem to be mesmerized by the past into inertia over old public art. As much as I love Claes Oldenberg’s work, whenever I’m in the vicinity of his giant Clothespin in Center City Philadelphia, it feels like disco is back. Let’s forget some of this public art and make new memories that capture the sound of today.

[Please nominate in comments any public art or memorials that you would like to see forgotten, shelved, or shifted somewhere else.]

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