The problem of how to represent an event, person, place or ideology in the name of an American public has arisen with new force since the attacks of 11 September 2001. Merely imagining such a monumental marker raises the issue, as the jury for the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition framed it, ‘that memory belongs primarily to the individual’ and foregrounds the problem of ‘how to collect the disparate memories of individuals and communities together in one space, with all their various textures and meanings, and give them material form’. The jury’s mandate – at least, as its members understood it – was to select a proposal that would best ‘honour those who died, […] recognize the endurance of those who survived, [and] the courage of the rescuers who risked their lives […] as well as the compassion of all those who supported the victims’ families in their darkest hours’. As ambitious and capacious as this task may be, was it adequately attuned to what was needed or even deserved?
The USA has been caught up in a monument-building mania for some time now, and not always critically so – or so curator Ralph Rugoff suggests throughout ‘Monuments for the USA’, an exhibition gathering together approximately 70 artists from around the world to propose monuments that the people of the United States ‘need, or deserve, at this moment in history’. Rugoff’s is an equivocating verb: ‘need’ suggests that the defining aspects of our collective history aren’t getting properly represented, and to our detriment. On the other hand, the word ‘deserve’ underscores but also tweaks this sense of ‘need’. Americans are not only worthy of better monuments – ones that allow them to change their opinions, revise their views – but also deserve (in the sense of ‘you’ve made your bed, now lie in it’) less reverential ones: monuments that memorialize mistakes made, or at least tell it like it is. And telling it like it is was what this unlikely assembly of artists – including Martin Creed, Elmgreen and Dragset, Thomas Hirschhorn, Alexandra Mir, Paul Noble, Andrea Bowers, Jason Meadows and Olav Westphalen – attempted to do on one level or another. Take Hans Haacke’s Times Square Star Gazing (2004), a project for the gargantuan 42nd Street LCD screen that intermittently projects an image of a star-spangled, hooded man reminiscent of some of the most notorious Abu Ghraib prison photographs, or Yoshua Okon’s US (2005), a four-minute animated video that imagines a towering and luminescent golden monument of the letters ‘US’ looming over Washington, D.C. Although excessively literalizing, Okon’s monument is an ironic homage to America’s mounting megalomania and self-absorption.
Our monuments, Rugoff reminds us, are exceedingly authoritative in their declarations, too self-assured in their retrospective vantages and too abstract in their symbolic languages. Take the ‘Gates of Time’ section of the Oklahoma City National Memorial (1995), which endeavours to frame, and in so doing to bracket and contain, the moment of the bombing by declaring ‘9:01’ over the memorial’s entrance and ‘9:03’ over its exit. But rarely does time march along so neatly or history comply with our wishful thinking. Such is the suggestion of Susan Hiller’s Babylon (2005), which calls for the continual looping projection of the final ‘damn-you-all-to-hell’ scene from The Planet of the Apes (1968), in which the future ruins of the Statue of Liberty rise from a deserted stretch of coastline, the nation for which it stood not even a memory.
Unfortunately, however, the vast number of proposals in the exhibition came off like think-pieces, many of them too quick to take Rugoff’s mandate as an invitation to toe a party line. Thomas Demand explains that he (like many other contributors) initially thought of proposing a monument about the current political situation at home and abroad. ‘I played around with issues of the [2000 election] recount, the promise of freedom and its paradoxical inversion.’ Ultimately, and uniquely, Demand settled on the fact that he ‘actually [...] like[s] the States very much’ and resolved to imagine his monument The Common Denominator (2005) as a giant Claes Oldenburg-style bar of soap set on a pedestal dish. The gesture is not far removed from any number of Middle American tourist attractions that perform hyperbolic celebrations of the utterly mundane (think South Dakota’s, and ‘The World’s Only’, Corn Palace). Similarly, by reconfiguring the iconography of one popular paper cup, Janine Antoni proposed Monument to Go (2005), a tongue-in-cheek hat-tipping to the best (or rather, worst) of America’s fast and disposable industries.
Critical self-reflection was the dominant theme throughout, an inclination perhaps best exemplified by Sam Durant, whose Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C. (2005) would move non-figurative monuments (columns, tablets, cairns, tombstones and the like) to Washington, D.C., from various locations across the country. Mostly they honour lives lost, both white and Indian, during the Indian wars. The result is a refashioned tourist map of the Washington Mall, showing dozens of white memorials rising around the Reflecting Pool, while just across 17th Street a mere handful of Indian ones find themselves dwarfed before the towering obelisk of the Washington Monument.