'Disgraced Monuments' and the timeless lessons of temporary statues

Joel Oliphint
A still from the film "Disgraced Monuments"

“It’s the fate of monuments to be in a state of potential disgrace,” artist and filmmaker Mark Lewis said.

The act of erecting monuments to honor important figures goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but the phenomenon picked up steam in the 19th century. “In Europe and in North America, it's like a plague, where almost every public square in Western Europe and in the United States suddenly gets awful monuments,” said Lewis, speaking by phone from Italy. “Figuratively speaking, they're not very interesting. Usually they're aesthetically pretty banal.”

The practice was even more pronounced in the Soviet Union under the rule of Joseph Stalin. “He went around and built monuments all over the country to Lenin and to himself,” said Lewis, who saw many of the statues in person between 1991 and 1992 while working on his first film, “Disgraced Monuments,” a collaboration with filmmaker Laura Mulvey. “When we first went over, [Mikhail] Gorbachev was still in power and the red flag was still flying over the Kremlin. When we went back for the second round of shooting, [Boris] Yeltsin was in power.”

Lewis and Mulvey edited the film at the Wexner Center in the fall of 1993, and, in light of the current heated debate over the removal of Confederate and other monuments (including Christopher Columbus) in the U.S., the Wex is offering a free online screening of “Disgraced Monuments.”

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Through interviews with historians, sculpture artists and art critics, the film explores the symbolic and revisionist implications of monuments and their removal. “The premise of the film is that this tearing down of monuments is highly rhetorical and quotational, even if the people who do it don't know they're quoting history,” Lewis said. “People focus on these symbolic things, and they attack the thing as if it doesn't simply represent all that is wrong, but actually is the thing that is wrong.”

“The great irony of monuments,” Lewis continued, “is that their tearing down is a paradoxical moment. In a way, it reaffirms their power, because they become a stand-in for the actual person and a symbol of their political powers. The tearing down of the monument gives them great power and authority. But, at the same time, the total erasure of the monument doesn't mean that evil or that terrible tyranny is gone. ... That’s too easy. You can take down [Robert E. Lee]'s statue, but that doesn't end the poisonous legacy of the Confederacy.”

Lewis was particularly struck recently by an aerial photo of Lee’s statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, surrounded by thousands of colorful signs and messages from protesters made in the days following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“That picture might tell a better story, or perhaps a more interesting story, than [the statue's] removal, because it's a dialectical engagement with history. That statue is monumental and huge, and now it's diminished by this extraordinary work on the ground,” Lewis said. “You could argue that's what the Soviet and ex-Soviet people were saying in our movie — that maybe those kinds of gestures are more important than removal because they maintain the sense of history as a changing, conflicted arena that has real effects on people's lives, whereas the removal suggests that it's over. I don't know. I'm agnostic. But I think there's a lot to be said for keeping them in that tension.”

It’s a complex issue, and to Lewis, the arguments that erupt over monuments provide a fascinating look at how history is framed. Columbus, for one, is having its own moment with monuments this summer. While the city does have some history with Confederate statues and iconography, particularly Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery, the more recent and prominent debates center around statues of Christopher Columbus, two of which have already been removed.

The explorer’s legacy is complicated not only by his history as an enslaver of native peoples, but also by the way his biography was rewritten in American culture. “The modern-day Columbus — this sense of being a founding, important person — was invented in the 19th century. Before the late 19th century, Columbus was nothing in American folklore,” Lewis said, explaining that the Italian immigrant community in the United States, who were looked down upon in those days, produced Christopher Columbus as a shining example of their heritage and a way to prove their “whiteness.” “I think it's pretty fair to say, ‘Who the heck is Columbus? Why are we celebrating Columbus?’ And if you want to take him down, it's only 100 years of history they’re taking down, rather than 400 or 500 years."

Once a monument is removed, the conversations and debates continue. Should another monument replace the statue? And if so, what? And what should be done with the old monument? Russia, for instance, has replaced some of its monuments to Lenin with statues of Peter the Great, a ruler known to have tortured and killed dissidents, including his own son. In a different approach, which Lewis and Mulvey document in “Disgraced Monuments,” a statue was replaced with a stone from a gulag as a memorial to the victims of Stalin’s oppressive regime.

“This idea of remembering an event rather than a person seems to be an interesting avenue to explore. So, if Columbus is named after Christopher Columbus, which we know it is, then maybe a monument that tries to deal with that history in some way rather than commemorating it. I think it would probably be a little foolish to just put up a monument to a famous Native Indian tribe leader from the region, but maybe something about the extermination of [the tribes] through disease and the killing of the people that lived there,” Lewis said. “It will be interesting to see if [Black Lives Matter activists] are connecting with native activists, as well, to see if that is a common agenda they can have, because Columbus is a perfect place for that to happen.”

All these discussions and debates also tend to bring out “repulsive characters,” Lewis said, remarking on President Trump’s recent speech at Mount Rushmore in which he denounced the recent defacing and destruction of monuments and also proposed a statuary park of “American heroes” — not unlike some of the Soviet-era gardens of dismantled statues depicted in “Disgraced Monuments.” Last year, the president also spoke in defense of Robert E. Lee.

“When people want to take Lee down, it forces Trump to say, ‘These are great Americans, and we need to have them up.’ At least it's clear. It's not obfuscation,” Lewis said. “It seems very old-fashioned to [erect new monuments], but then suddenly you realize that, actually, there's a lot of life in it yet, because it draws out this reprehensible discourse.”

A still from the film "Disgraced Monuments"