The Absence of Monuments

Removal of statue of Saddam Hussein in al-Firdos Square on 9 April 2003. Photo by Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Removal of statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square on 9 April 2003. Photo by Mirrorpix/Getty Images
“Historically, the monument–as distinguished from all other things that are present–was supposed to endure for all time.”¹

The monument, here used in relation to public sculpture, is a particular kind of thing. By virtue of its placement in an open, accessible location, it reaches a wide audience and because of this reach is often understood as an object of collective import, whether speaking to supposed universal truths or serving as a receptacle for memorialization. This understanding of the ‘monument’ and sculpture’s connection to the notion of monumentality has undergone considerable revision in recent years, but the history of public things has always been tenuous and problematic. And yet, in the face of such instability, monuments continue to endure; entrenched both in physical space and the collective consciousness. Beyond the subject matter they were created to convey, public sculptures become receptors for much larger issues, and nodes for exchange: meeting points, sites of grief and triumph, landmarks, and social gathering places. These functions insulate the work in a way, making any proposed extrication or destruction difficult (see as one example among many, a recent case involving a community hit hard by the economic downturn and one such entrenched thing, a sculpture by Henry Moore).  

Kadom al-Jabouri swings a hammer at the base of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in April 2003. Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP
Kadom al-Jabouri swings a hammer at the base of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in April 2003. Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP

I have so far discussed public sculpture in a cursory and admittedly generalized fashion, but it was a very particular case that prompted me to think about both the presence of monuments and what their absence might mean. Sculpture is not often the stuff of front page news, and yet, greeting me on The Guardian homepage last weekend was a statue, ‘Saddam’s Statue‘ to be specific, in an article profiling the Iraqi man who claims (is claimed) to have been the catalyst for its eventual removal in Firdos Square on 9 April 2003. Over the last week, however, in the lead up to the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, the large bronze sculpture of the former dictator of Iraq, dressed in a business suit with one arm raised, or more specifically the toppling of said sculpture, has become a bit of a spectre. It appeared this week in countless online and print publications, was discussed on radios and televisions, and circulated through a variety of photographic images depicting the most significant moment of its life, which was its death. The statue of Saddam, even in it is afterlife, has achieved iconic status, standing (or falling as it were) as the symbolic image for the invasion in total.

I am neither a specialist in Iraqi politics or the Iraq War nor on figural monuments of totalitarian regimes or even monuments and memory studies more generally. The political and historical circumstance of the statue of Saddam and its controversial removal in 2003 have been extensively and brilliantly covered over the past ten years by journalists and academics alike (see for example, Peter Maas’ 2011 essay in The New Yorker).  And while my personal politics are perhaps unavoidably betrayed by the fact that I am evidently a regular reader of The Guardian, my reason for discussing such a specific monument within the context of this blog is because I think it provides an another way to think about and question the seemingly universal need for, and power of, public things.

I find it fascinating that the presence of an inert thing, a hunk of bronze and granite formed into a banal example of figural monumental statuary – and of course all the socio-political baggage it carried – prompted a man to walk from his motorcycle shop, sledgehammer in hand and start wailing on its base, but I am equally fascinated by what happened after the soldiers, press, and crowds left the square that day; when a damaged plinth still stood, but stood empty.

Sculpture in Firdos Square by Bassem Hamad al-Dawiri and the Survivor’s Group. Taken on 3 September 2010. Courtesy of PBS NewsHour

Within two months, the Iraqi interim government commissioned and installed a new sculpture on the top of the old plinth. The new monument was done in a more ‘modern’ style and depicts a family group holding a sun and crescent moon, but was so hastily constructed in painted cement that within a few years began to decay and show signs of serious damage. In late 2012 the Iraqi Ministry of Art announced that a new monument would be soon take its place in Firdos Square, one of 19 new public sculptures to be erected in celebration of Baghdad’s role as the Arab Capital of Culture in 2013.²

I am not suggesting that any of these subsequent decisions are unique to the case of Firdos Square, but the speed and impermanence of its various place markers I think speaks to more than just the tragedies and instability of war. These monuments, past and present, are reminders both to the very real and serious issues surrounding public art and commemoration, but more universally to the need to overcome absence and loss. I cannot help but wonder what it would have meant to keep that plinth barren or that place empty, and in that question I think lies the answer to why public sculpture remains important and continues to endure.

1 Dan Graham, "Models and Monuments: The Plague of Architecture," in Arts Magazine 41, no. 5 (March 1967): 32.

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