One of the ways society expresses admiration is public memorialization. Busts, plaques, obelisks, and statues all have a prominent place in our culture. They can be something you pass every day, or an iconic piece of a city skyline. It can be something you pay no mind to, or something to which you attach deep personal meaning. But those revered by generations past might not have the same reputation today. Nowadays, many don’t feel entirely comfortable with the existence of certain glorious public monuments, some built decades or centuries ago, that represent the values of that era. Perceptions change over time, with yesterday’s heroes becoming today’s villains. While determining who remains memorialized is important, a trickier question remains: what do we do with those public artworks that we have decided cannot remain in public anymore?
While many agree that figures such as Confederate generals and prominent imperialists should not be publicly valorized, the question of what happens to their monuments remains a precarious subject. Some call for complete removal or even destruction, while others reject these proposals at face value. Some see that a compromise might be better. Just last weekend, Oxford’s Oriel College made just such a compromise, choosing not to take down a statue of the British imperialist and De Beers founder Cecil Rhodes. Instead, they installed a plaque nearby providing historical context. The plaque describes Rhodes not as a paragon of British virtue and industry, but as a “committed British colonialist” who frequently exploited indigenous Africans. While several solutions have been put forth, one compelling path was forged at a recent exhibition in Argentina.
The Biennial of Contemporary Art of the South, or Bienalsur, is an international art show based in Buenos Aires but held at multiple venues simultaneously across the globe. Its third edition this year is being held at 120 different venues in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Morocco, Spain, France, Saudi Arabia, and Japan, while the Brazilian, Italian, and German embassies in Buenos Aires are also offering spaces for exhibition. As part of Bienalsur, the Argentine sculptor Alexis Minkiewicz is currently showing his most recent work at the Manzana de las Luces, a historic cultural center in Buenos Aires. It is his own take on how to approach problematic memorials: a reimagining of the city’s controversial Christopher Columbus monument.
In 1921, a monument commemorating Christopher Columbus was unveiled in Buenos Aires. Antonio Devoto, representing the city’s Italian community, commissioned the work in 1910 for Argentina’s centenary celebrations. Over the course of those eleven years, the Italian sculptor Arnoldo Zocchi completed the Carrara marble pieces, which were then transported across the Atlantic and assembled in Argentina’s capital. The monument stands 85-feet-high, with Columbus atop a plinth looking out across the Río de la Plata. Reminiscent of the Roman public monuments designed by Bernini, the base of the plinth is surrounded by a whirlwind of figures fitting together like a Baroque pile-on. At the front, facing the river, a helmed female figure holding a torch is meant to represent civilization. To her left, a boyish angel points out across the water, like a lookout on the prow of a stone ship.
While monuments such as this have received their share of criticism over the years, in a way Zocchi’s Columbus monument has already received a downgrade. It now stands in the Costanera Norte riverside park, near Jorge Newbery Airfield on the northern edge of the city. However, until 2013 the Columbus monument used to stand in the square directly behind the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace. It became controversial for similar reasons as the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson behind the White House. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had the Columbus monument moved to its less-prominent, current location, replacing it with a statue commemorating Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a mixed-race female military commander from the wars of independence.
According to Bienalsur’s website, “Dismantling the legacy of colonialism may require a more complicated solution than removing its symbols and replacing them with new ones.” Creating this new path between destruction and preservation, Alexis Minkiewicz has created his sculpture group La piedad de las estatuas (The Piety of Statues), using recreated parts of the original Zocchi monument as a way to reimagine the original work. The only part of the sculpture group that is radically different from the original monument is Columbus himself. He is shown completely nude other than his shoes and hat, with two octopi covering his genitals and parts of his face. Many have described the figures’ placement as almost orgy-like, reminiscent of the 1814 Katsushika Hokusai print The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. Looking on from the side are a duo of nude sailors, while the angel originally next to the torch-bearing woman now stands on the roof overlooking the courtyard. Rather than looking ahead, Minkiewicz’s angel seems like he’s stumbled across Columbus and his octopi, adding a touch of voyeurism. His wings have also been removed and are hanging on hooks that, according to Daniel Gigena, make them look “as if they are sides of beef.” In numerous articles, Minkiewicz has said that he is not concerned with Columbus himself. Instead, he has tried to focus specifically on the “carnality” and “erotic potential” of Zocchi’s monument. In creating a new work, there is “a sensation from sculptor to sculptor,” establishing “a dialogue with [the monument’s] creator across time.”
Reactions to Minkiwiez’s sculpture range from a silent chuckle to a baffled eye roll, showing a mixture of contempt and disbelief. Such reactions are unwarranted, and this Argentine artist has contributed a serious, new way to approach the ongoing monuments debate. Minkiewicz has not destroyed or defaced the monument, nor has he preserved it entirely. In the same way that we should neither sanitize nor completely erase our dark and disgraceful historical episodes, Minkiewicz neither keeps nor removes Zocchi’s monument. Like he sought to do, he has reimagined the work, thereby engaging with all those who contributed to the monument’s creation across time and space. Free discourse, even with those who are long gone, is possible, and may be one of the most effective yet underutilized ways to approach these subjects. Hopefully we can follow the example of Alexis Minkiewicz in doing just that.