Robert Smithson wandered through the post-industrial landscape on the outskirts of his hometown in New Jersey in the autumn of 1967. He passed incomplete concrete highway shoulders, rusting pipes that rose like leviathans in the dry mud, and languishing sandboxes that exhibited their emptiness as much as their function. Within the dilapidated scenery, he reconfigured the landscape as a ‘utopia minus a bottom’, a series of modernist monuments he photographed and presented in his Artforum essay ‘The Monuments of Passaic: Has Passaic replaced Rome as the Eternal City?’.
Since minimalist sculpture itself seems to have accreted with time, and its monolithic structures—by Serra, Andre, Judd—appear as much memento mori to the period as they do monuments of art, the tone of what one might consider ‘monumental’ presently seems like an anachronistic endeavour. Many of these monumental works have undergone their own sepulchral entropy, where the original idea of the monument with its solidity, imposition, endurance—an aesthetic of industrial machismo—suddenly looks like outmoded language.
So, the endurance of the monument, given its increasing lack of visibility, sounds ironic. Such talk is foreign in an environment of disposability, where time is customised to individual use rather than collective application. The vocabulary of the monument speaks of art history, of tombstones, of ‘listed’ buildings; certainly not of contemporary motifs. Instead, the ‘monument’ begins to emerge in the 21st century as a leaky, out-of-favour word. It attempts to straddle both sculpture and installation, not quite encompassing either, while also lying in uncomfortable opposition to the equally awkward term ‘ornament’.
Despite this marked absence of the monument today, the accidental synchronicity of a number of shows this year appears to approach the slippery term in elliptical or unexpected ways. The inaugural exhibition Unmonumental (see Focus, page 49) at New York’s New Museum is the most direct of these in both title and content, choosing to group art objects that expressly omit monumentality. Works by Isa Genzken, Martin Boyce, Jim Lambie, and others, reflect the immiscibility of assemblage, the anti-heroic status of sculpture, or an unmonumental ‘sculpture of proximity’ in curator Massimiliano Gioni’s words. The exhibition is not an anti-monumental manifesto, but certainly invokes monumentality as a necessary counterpoint. It appears to take its historical cues from the likes of Marcel Duchamp’s scatological monument ‘Fountain’, 1917, and Dubuffet’s odes to dirt, trash and filth, ‘man’s companions during his whole lifetime’, which, says Dubuffet, ‘deserve to be dearer to him and shouldn’t he pay them the compliment of making a monument to their beauty?’. Extending her interest in constructivism for her exhibition of past and new works, Camilla Løw’s Straight Letters exhibition at DCA also advances the problem of monuments within the post-industrial context. Resembling some of Smithson’s sentiments—his manufactured materials playing as ambiguous monuments—Straight Letters features numerous industrially fabricated concrete blocks occupying multiple roles as plinths, props and art objects. Løw’s identically-sized cubes, both by their process and presence, underscore tensions between their status as reproducable, untitled readymades and customisable, configured art works. Meanwhile, the forthcoming Ornament and Pride show at SMAK, Ghent, moves away from the confrontation of the monument altogether. It explicitly places itself in opposition to the singularity of the monument, and devotes its interrogation to the manifestation of pattern and decoration as devices across contemporary practice. As something that encompasses shifting styles, adaptability and abstraction, the term ‘ornament’ unambiguously distances itself from endurance, uniqueness and eventfulness. What is marked in all of these shows is the noticeable ‘ghosting’ of monumentality—these, and others like them (for instance, the vastness of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall always coaxes artists into an antagonistic relationship with monumentality), cannot seem, or perhaps do not want, to shake off this term entirely. The antithetical monument is frequently visible, underlining lack as much as it searches to grasp on to the particular, the forlorn, the fugitive. Certainly, Genzken’s hostile response to the monumental is particularly provocative here, given the German artist’s ubiquity on the 2007 biennale circuit, her public art project contribution in Münster, as well as her high profile inclusion in the New Museum’s Unmonumental . Her dejected forms and cheap objects defy or exclude any overt visual manoeuvres towards the monumental. Yet Genzken’s motifs paradoxically begin to tap into the apparatus of the monumental: amplification of an idea, prominent public display and acclaim, permanence within the archive, preservation of the object for future audiences. Looking back as well as forward, art history also demonstrates a predilection for raising art objects to the status of monument, imbuing them with historical impact by a process of luck and exclusion. Løw openly discusses the influence of avant-garde notables Brancusi and Judd, two artists who pioneered the dethroned art object minus a plinth. These exhibitions go some way towards articulating the erosion and instability of monumentality in the contemporary arena, or else ask questions about the art object’s ability to enact the role of a monument, challenging its capacity to bridge two co-ordinates of time (then and now) within a single place (here). However, with these conspicuous doubts, what physical form then, if any, does the monument take in contemporary art? In ‘Monuments of Passaic’, Smithson’s detritus objects are essentially accidents of encounter, where it is the artist’s critical imagination that raises these already-ruinous but half-built objects to the status of monuments. Strangely emblematic of the swift construction and demolition of buildings in the late 20th century, Smithson’s unintentional monuments seem particularly vulnerable to the architecture’s increasingly temporary status. But more importantly, Smithson’s view is specifically that of an individual’s vision of monument: a singular projection onto an object that is usually constructed and conceived as a collective commemorative device. Is it this process of individual customisation of monumentality, like that of time, of material, and of everyday life now, that bears the marks of the contemporary monument, or is this very act rather the source of its demise?
‘A monument’, Alois Riegl writes in 1903, ‘in its oldest and most original sense is a human creation, erected for the specific purpose of keeping single human deeds or events alive in the minds of future generations’. Indeed, the monument’s integrity lies in the faith of its role as a means of contact. It acts as a vessel or medium that séances with the past. It relies on a belief that engages a certain degree of sympathetic magic, which promises to call up direct links between what-has-been with what-is-now. And while the shape, tradition and fabric of the monument has been subject to changing taste and times, its primary function has been to resolve collective memory in solid form.
But in so doing, as historian Mark Wigley notes, the monument’s chanelling of memory also permits our own forgetfulness. ‘Lest we forget’ is the epitaph for allowing the monument to stand-in as a surrogate of our memory. So the monument is caught in a double bind with the intention of its commemorative properties (its role as a remembrance object) and its need to appear new (as if the memory was not memory but rather embodiment or presence). Monuments thus find themselves caught between a precipice of memory and absence—they serve as a sculptural principle that divides the two. But it is important to stress that this ‘forgetfulness’ is a device of the monument, not a threat to its existence.
Instead, the most immediate danger to the singularity of the monument initially seemed to be its notoriety or its attractiveness. The photographs of the building of the Eiffel Tower, the manufacture of a monument-in-progress, distributed the notion of monumentality across to the photographic image before the structure was even completed. And, like Michelangelo’s ‘David’, or the Taj Mahal, the object has been and still is borne across mugs, snow shakers, aprons. It is cast in bronze, plaster and plastic. It is redrawn, animated and represented on leaflets, tickets, adverts. It symbolises the turn of the century, France, Paris, industry, modernity and more. But while monuments, in their ease of reproducibility across a heterogeneous field of media, lost their singularity with the advent of industrial revolution and the ensuing rise of advertising, their memorialising function was only strengthened by their proliferation across the image. Even this early transfer from object to image did not seem to present a menace to the monument’s ongoing existence. Pop Art’s attempt to pull apart the decadent face of the classical iconographic monument inevitably built up a motley set of its own. These monuments emerged not as physical structures that weathered elements and ages, but as a profusion of instantly recognisable images that still prevail in the collective imagination: Jackie O, Elvis, Mickey Mouse, and Campbell’s Soup tins. Treading further out of the artistic domain and into the functional everyday, monumentality and reproducibility continue to find themselves merging in unlikely places; Alyonka chocolate factory in Moscow finds itself at the crossroads of being a historic, unintentional monument and production site of its popular chocolate bars. Founded in 1851, the so-called ‘Red October’ chocolate factory (coveted for its architecture and soon to be converted into luxury flats) has withstood the Bolshevik Revolution, two world wars and the end of the USSR. Alyonka’s nostalgic socialist realist image of a young Russian girl is daily emblazoned on its chocolate bars and distributed across the country. The 130 year old factory and its products continues to operate and live within the mind of its consumers, while successfully disseminating a collective memory of various periods of nationalisms. Within these modes of replication and amplification, the well-documented transferal of the monument from physical object to disseminated image did not quite anticipate the impact of the digital image: the greatest risk to the monument. It is interesting to see that the language of monument-as-image quickly disappeared in the ‘image-war’ that ensued the early iconography of 9/11 and invasion of Iraq. It is the images of the grainy video shot in hidden bunkers, or collapsing buildings that have become memorable icons, not monuments. The usual historical tropes of the monument—soldiers, terrorists, prisoners, citizens—have been cast in the endlessly reproducible image (even Steve McQueen’s ‘For Queen and Country’, 2007, memorial postage stamps of war dead soldiers, are in essence ephemeral). The monument, in terms of its shape, is no longer such a visible form because it exists across a network of margins and landscapes of a more personal consciousness, in the absence of a recognisable mass consciousness. It finds itself manifesting within single techniques of its own rhetoric, within the insistent repetition of an idea (like Genzken’s recurring figures or Løw’s concrete blocks), its image history (the Eiffel tower), or its ghostly, inescapable presence as a counterpoint to the anti-heroic and anti-monumental. And without physical shape, these new monuments are freely scattered across concepts open to personal modification.
It is with little surprise, then, that one finds under the heading ‘Imaginary Space’ the words of El Lissitzky: ‘We do not consider a work monumental in the sense that it may last for a year, a century, ora millennium, but rather on the basis of continual expansion of human performance’.
Isla Leaver-Yap is MAP’s editor-at-large Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century, The New Museum, New York, 1 December 2007-30 March 2008Camilla Low, Straight Letters, DCA, Dundee, 2 February-30 March
Ornament and Pride, SMAK, Ghent, 12 April 2008-15 February 2009