Home Magazine Monument Malaise

Monuments and memorials across Britain have rightly come under intense scrutiny in recent months. In June, Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square found itself at the centre of a bizarre stand-off between BLM protestors, the police and the far-right ‘Football Lads Alliance’. The latter were seen enacting Nazi salutes despite their claims of being protectors of the statue. People are recognising these plinthed masses as active makers of meaning. 

Related articles: Art and Politics - Controversial Art - Contemporary Art at the heart of historical monuments

Thinking beyond our present and contested moment, what ambitions can we harbour for the future of these hybrid forms that are at once monument, memorial and artwork? 

There have been various recent and corrective additions to the landscape of Britain’s public monuments with the common aim of moving on from Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle ‘great man’ theory of history to a shared, people’s history. In the last two years, statues of Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst have been installed proudly in London’s Parliament Square and Manchester’s St Peter’s Square respectively. Before Millicent Fawcett arrived, there were no statues of women in Parliament Square. 


The unveiling of the Emmaline Pankhurst memorial in Manchester, U.K., 2018.


Isn’t the figurative monument, however, a hackneyed form? Monuments have historically embodied manifestations of power in a simple combination of oversized man plus plinth. It is often difficult to disentangle the form’s indoctrinating overtones from its content. These monuments are educational, but do people really pay much attention to them once the fanfare surrounding their unveiling is over? 

There’s a sense that when Fawcett slipped into the old boys’ club that is Parliament Square, her struggle was historicised, seemingly resolved and fixed in the past, and in turn she becomes a passive figure. This isn’t a complaint against Fawcett’s memorial: we should applaud any attempts to celebrate these figures. It’s a deeper problem with monuments and memorials in general: they encourage a fixed version of history. Historically, monuments neatly resolved complex and contentious historical issues (such as wars or controversial leaders) into heroic, single narratives. We have been aware of this as a society for some time, and monuments therefore naturally arouse some level of suspicion within us. Visually they are also formulaic and homogenise everyone they depict into a bronze mass. 

End of the bronze age? 

Ever since Maya Lin made her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982 in Washington D.C., the memorial paradigm has shifted. Lin showed that a memorial could be durational, engaging and unobtrusive. It was more of an absence than a presence, as its panels of reflective rock sunk into the ground in opposition to the phallic presence of the Washington monument a stone’s throw away. 


Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., U.S.A.


There is a difference between commemorating individuals and events. It is undoubtedly a greater challenge to remember singular people in an engaging way that manages to break free from the strictures of the monument tradition. Y.B.A. sculptor Marc Quinn’s sculptural intervention in Bristol on the plinth of the Edward Colston memorial was evidently self-serving and he had little right speaking on behalf of the Bristol and wider BLM community. It was removed the next day and is set to end up in a museum. The meaning of the work changes with its removal: it becomes a durational, public intervention more akin to performance art than a solid and enduring ‘memorial’. 


Jeremy Deller’s we’re here because we’re here, 2016.


Maybe this is where the future of the monument lies: in a more fluid and performative approach. Two works by the British artist Jeremy Deller I believe offer a possibility beyond the current idea of a ‘monument’. They are the 2001 workTheBattle of Orgreave and 2016’s We’re Here Because We’re Here. The first was a faithful re-enactment of the work’s namesake and the second was an event-based memorial to commemorate the Somme, where 1,600 volunteers up and down the country dressed in replica WW1 uniform appeared in groups at stations and shopping centres. This was social history re-lived and not re-enacted: more of a flashback than a performance. Can we learn from these remarkable art works and move on from our monument malaise? 


Cover image: Jeremy Deller’s we’re here because we’re here, 2016.

Written by Max Lunn

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

Kooness Recommends