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


Commemorative Public Art
byLisa Moran

The Austrian historian Robert Musil noted, 'there is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument'. Despite their commemorative rhethoric, memorials and monuments have a relatively short life-span afterwhich their overt meaning and relevance diminishes and they become anonymous landmarks or ornamentation.

The Austrian historian Robert Musil noted, ‘there is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument’. Despite their commemorative rhethoric, memorials and monuments have a relatively short life-span after which their overt meaning and relevance diminishes and they become anonymous landmarks or ornamentation.

By its very nature a commemorative public art work implores the viewer to remember; yet, often the effect it has on the viewer is to be forgettable or, worse still, invisible. There is evidence that the failure of much commemorative public art to engage the viewer over time may be the result of multiple, competing agendas, collective decision-making and compromised artistic vision, but it is also possible that forgetting is in fact part of the purpose of commemorative public art – a form of built-in obsolescence.

Commemorative public art is intended to ensure that the public remember a key event or person through the representation of an aspect of that person or event in the form of a public art work. Yet, this imperative to remember in perpetuity goes against the normal functions of the human psyche. According to Freud, forgetting is an important part of the mourning process, where it is essential to work through the painful process of remembering and to reach a point where memories can be consciously stored away and retrieved at will and, ultimately, it becomes possible to forget. ‘Forgetting is not a malfunction or failure of memory; it is a characteristic that enables people to continue living.’ The memorial, as a concrete manifestation of the memory of the loved object, can facilitate this gradual process by offering a means to revisit the experience of the loss in a manageable and ‘contained’ manner where the memorial comes to serve as a container of the memory.

The purpose of commemorative public art can be to facilitate either mourning or celebration. For example, John Henry Foley’s O’Connell Monument (1882), on O’Connell Street, is commemorative in that it was commissioned to honour Daniel O’Connell and ensure that he remains in the public consciousness through a permanent public art work, but the work is celebratory in style and purpose, acknowledging the man’s accomplishments. Similarly, Danny Osborne’s Oscar Wilde Memorial (1997), in Merrion Square, is a celebratory commemoration of the author’s life and accomplishments. Alternatively, Rowan Gillespie’s Famine (1997), in the docklands, is an example of commemoration for the purpose of collective mourning.

Traditionally, commemorative public art tended to be figurative, triumphal and celebratory, involving combinations of architectural and sculptural features. Many of the models with which we are familiar today – heroic figures on colums, clusters of figures depicting an allegorical message, larger-than-life standing or seated figures on plinths – evolved as part of the nation-building process of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, where such works were used to mark geographic and conceptual territory and to reinforce the political and cultural values of the dominant regime. For example, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris serves as a memorial to the young French men who lost their lives at the battle of Austerlitz; however, in style and presentation – an enormous arch emblazoned with decorative elements depicting the battle and positioned in a central location - it is a triumphalist gesture celebrating the French victory over the Third Coalition. In this manner, traditional commemorative works were usually made on a large scale in long-lasting materials, such as metal or stone with the objective of permanence.

More recently, the nature and purpose of commemorative public art has become more complex and problematic. The events of the twentieth century, in particular two world wars, raised questions about the relevance of traditional commemorative public art and its politically-driven agendas. After World War I, traditional modes of commemorative and monumental practice, with their emphasis on triumphalism and heroism, seemed inadequate as a means of expressing the sense of abject loss and futility incurred by the war. New modes of commemorative public art, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Cenotaph emerged during this period and have had a significant influence on subsequent commemorative work. 

Simultaneously, developments in art, architecture and critical theory presented considerable challenges to traditional commemorative public art in terms of its relevance. Late twentieth-century commemorative public art practice has internalised and addressed many of these critical issues resulting in the emergence of new models of practice, such as the counter monument and the anti-monument. Examples include Joachim Gerz and Ester Shalev-Gerz’s Harburg Monument Against Fascism (1986), Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial (2000) in Vienna and Sol Le Witt’s Black Form Dedicated to the Missing Jews (1987) in Münster.

As with all public art, commemorative public art is informed by a range of interests and concerns – political, social, economic and aesthetic - however, the commemorative context provides an additional range of concerns. When the subject for commemoration is a tragic event it can be difficult to arrive at a solution that meets the needs of those directly affected while also engaging a wider audience over a long period of time. Often people directly affected wish to have a role in the development of the commemoration. While ensuring authenticity, the emotive and subjective nature of such contributions can inhibit more innovative or challenging outcomes. The challenge for commemorative practice is to address these tensions. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. (1982), is an example of a contemporary commemorative public art work which manages to do this, by meaningfully engaging those directly affected by the Vietnam War – veterans, family members, etc. – while also engaging a wider, transcient audience.  In this regard, the work functions successfully as both a site for commemoration and as a public art work.

In Ireland, the bronze or stone-rendered figure – usually seated, standing or occasionally on a horse – commemorating important political, military, social and culture figures is the dominant form of commemorative public art and represents the default position in both the conception and reception of such work. While most traditional commemorative public has either been destroyed or removed since the establishment of the Free State, there are examples which predate this era, such as John Henry Foley’s Edmund Burke (1868) and Oliver Goldsmith (1864) both in front of Trinity College. More recent examples of this traditional mode include Edward Delaney’s Wolfe Tone Memorial (1967), in St. Stephen’s Green, Oisin Kelly’s Jim Larkin (1979), on O’Connell Street, Jeanne Rynhart’s  Molly Malone (1988), at the bottom of Grafton Street, Eamon O’Doherty’s James Connolly Memorial Statue (1996), in Beresford Place and  Danny Osborne’s Oscar Wilde (1997) in Merrion Square.     

This traditional approach is prevalent for a number of reasons: it is familiar and accessible to a broad audience and it offers a safe means of addressing the political and emotional sensitivities particular to commemorative public art. Such work seeks to appeal and soothe rather than challenge. However the tendency towards such a literal interpretation can result in work that lacks any emotional or poetic impact. Dominance of this conventional approach can inhibit the development of more experimental, innovative approaches.  

German literary critic, Andreas Huyssen argues that the monument, through strategies of aestheticisation and direct political comment, is bound to serve as a cipher of forgetting, favouring instead work that ‘resists easy consumption’ and which does not yield its meaning through a first reading but which requires the viewer’s engagement. The need to remember and commemorate is rooted deep in the human psyche and, where memorialisation seeks to go beyond the merely commemorative, mnenomical gesture and to engage in a meaningful, poetic response, rooted in contemporary experience, the potential of such practice is to be found within contemporary arts practice.

Lisa Moran

Part of public art briefing paper for Dublin City Council, 2007

Robert Musil, "Monuments." Posthumous Papers of a Living Author. Trans. Peter Wortsman. Hygiene: Eridanos, 1987.
Tanya Barson, 'Unland'. The Place of Testimony, Tate Papers, 2004.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *