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Statue Wars 2020

The statues are falling so fast. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement statues to racists, slavers and corrupt cops have been removed around the world. It reminds me of the end of the Soviet Union. Statues are being painted, vandalised, removed or pulled down around the world. In the USA it is Christopher Columbus and Confederate generals, in Belgium Leopold II, in England Edward Colston… the list goes on.

Sir John Tweed, Captain Cook, 1914

However, in Australia, no statue has been removed. Not that there aren’t plenty of memorials to racist colonials around. In October 1991 Gary Foley and Robbie Thorpe put the statue of John Batman in Melbourne on trial (developers have since removed that statue so the area could be redeveloped). In 2017 I wrote about the Statue Wars, in 2019 I wrote about the campaign to remove the statue of William Wentworth from Sydney University. Still, I never expected that there would be so much interest in public sculpture.

Public art has always been part of a culture war. So it is not surprising that public art continues to be a cultural battlefield. Before the twentieth century, the purpose of public art was to support the authorities. Defacement was an official practice in the Roman Empire before it came into common, popular use, faces were officially removed from monuments when they fell out of Imperial favour.

I’m reminded of the destruction of the Vendôme column, a monument to Napoleon, that was pulled down in 1871 during the Paris Commune. And that the French Realist artist, Gustave Courbet maintained, in his defence, that he had only called for it to be dismantled and displayed for educational value.

The statue wars have been going on in Australia for a long time, a symbolic battlefield for displaying Australia’s cultural divides. And conservatives are not above vandalising and removing statues and other public sculptures. In the 1980s, people saw the internationalism abstract public art as a cultural battlefield. Consider the year-long controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault which was known at the time by the racist phrase: “the Yellow Peril”. And there are also Australia’s most vandalised sculptures: Yagan and Liz and Phil by the Lake

Now the cultural battle has switched to the removal of figurative public art representing and glorifying colonialism and other racism. A change in attitude towards public monuments is sweeping the world. A change of symbols of the collective consciousness is an indication of a shift in consciousness. The fall of statues is both a symbolic and real change in the way that public space is seen.

It raises many questions for me. Why should the public space be some triumphal version of colonial history excused with the dubious claim that it is educational? Why do past generations get to dictate what the future will look like by erecting statues? And when will Australia start to change? Is conservative Australia is too powerful, and too deeply in denial, to allow even a symbolic gesture?


Dishonouring the memory

Public statues are about honouring the person portrayed, especially when they are larger than life-sized. There are no public portrait statues created of people who it was not intended to honour. This is because the tradition of portrait sculpture started with the depiction of Ancient Greek gods, demigods and heroes.

The campaign, “Wentworth Must Fall”, at Sydney University to remove the statue of William Charles Wentworth from the Great Hall and rename the Wentworth building is based on the Oxford University “Rhodes Must Fall”
campaign and other campaigns for statue removal that are known collectively as the Statue Wars (see my post Statue Wars 2017).

Removing a sculpture or burning of an effigy is not revising history — it is a symbol of regime change. It is about moving from colonial to post-colonial. The changes in public statues, place names and other symbols is part of post-colonialism. And the question that Sydney University students are asking their university in this campaign is what are they doing to decolonize. Leaving a public portrait statue of a person who is no longer honoured distorts the historical record by implying that the person is still honoured.

It is traditional to burn the effigies of hated figures and remove statues of them. Often when a statue is removed it is destroyed because the people removing it hate the person it represents. This doesn’t have to the case and the statue can be stored, archived, and exhibited in contexts that do not honour the person portrayed (for example in an exhibition of the work of the sculptor who made it).

The statue of Wentworth was made by Pietro Tenerani, a sculptor based in Rome and a student of the Danish neo-classical sculptor Thorvaldsen. During his career Tenerani produced work to order for the Catholic church and nationalists around the world — from a statue of Simon Bolivar for Bogota to a statue of Ferdinand II of Naples for Messina. His portrayal of Wentworth as an orator is more creative than accurate. When the statue was made Wentworth was in his sixties but is portrayed as a younger man. Wentworth himself was not a supporter of the statue. He believed that the funds could have been better spent.

Regardless of the details of Wentworth’s life his statue was and always will be a colonial symbol. The inauguration of the Wentworth statue was an imperial event (as reported in Empire p.5 24 June 1862). Before its unveiling the statue was covered with a flag and the band playing God Save the King several times. Australian nationalists are keen to cement their claims with statues of colonial heroes and post-colonialism is heavily resisted. The current government worships Captain Cook as a demigod of imperial colonisation, worthy of a multi-million dollar memorial.

It is the plinth or pedestal that is the crucial element in the hero worship of these statues. Lying on its side without its plinth statues of Stalin or Felix Dzerzhinsky are inoffensive. If the statue of Wentworth was placed in a pit (maybe with a glass roof so that people could walk over it) it would have a very different meaning.


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