In the second part of his essay, Nick Kahler explores the notion of the un-monument and its significance in the urban environment. Part one is an examination of the city’s monuments and the trouble with commemorative works. Thirteen artists were asked to document their personal un-monuments and provide a brief statement. Beginning January 13, we’ll present one artist’s submission per day. Participating artists include Anita Arliss, Ed Akins, Edith Braggiotti, Elizabeth Lide, Joey Orr, Mark Leibert, Nathan Sharratt, Ruth Desseault, Shara Hughes, Sheila Pree Bright, Steven L. Anderson, Tristan Al-Haddad and Tom Zarrilli. UnmonumentATL was conceived by former BURNAWAY editor Rachel Reese, who is now communications manager at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.
Given the problems posed by monuments generally and those in Atlanta particularly, consider the un-monument as a prime contemporary lens for processing the city and its components and for generating meaning. As a significant but evolving body of current work, the un-monument derives its existence from the broader tradition of Memory Art. However, as opposed to other types of Memory Art to be discussed here—including the monument, the memorial, and the counter-monument—the un-monument remains the least explored, intellectually and physically, in the built environment, and thus its significance persists untapped.
The principal causes of the confusion of meaning from the previous essay of a monument as a physicalized reminder of the past or gigantic significant object principally lie in the centuries since the Renaissance. Starting with the excavations of ancient Rome by Filippo Brunelleschi and Donatello at the turn of the 15th century, the Humanists began to philosophize the juxtaposition of the past and the present and develop a system of classifications therein. Subsequently, the appropriation of the monument by various types of governments—whether republics such as the United States or dictatorships such as Nazi Germany, or other forms—to represent physically and eternally their grandeur led to its tainting as a loaded, architecturalized ideology. As a result, theorists such as James E. Young and Andreas Huyssen render traditional monuments as oversized and kitschy expressions of totalitarian socio-political regimes. Thus, as Lewis Mumford has argued, any new manifestation of these forms is inherently problematic, since “[t]he notion of a modern monument is veritably a contradiction in terms.”
This semantic divergence necessitated the substitution of the term “monument” for synonyms devoid of the aforementioned connotative baggage: the icon and the memorial. The former term mutates a term invented for Eastern Orthodox representations of Jesus and fills it with linguistic (Roland Barthes’s sign relating to the thing signified) and branded (i.e., the Bilbao Effect) qualities. Capitalist principles consume much of the popular art and architecture produced today, and artists and architects create representations, objects, or buildings that fall prey to public relations schemes as iconic commodities that can be miniaturized and sold in gift shops for further monetary gain. Memorials, on the other hand, signify structures or environments that elicit the recalling of memories from the spectator as participant. Including notable examples such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., they seek to prioritize calls to memory through material permanence. They exchange the focus on a singular, passive object for an active space or an amalgamation of objects in a space. However, the past century’s proliferation of monuments, memorials, and memory-infused icons may have replaced the memory of the past with built representations of it, and subsequently generated the desire for other solutions to commemoration or signification.
The idea of the counter-monument emerged in the last quarter of the 20th century as a solution to commemorating the victims of atrocities perpetuated by those same governments that commissioned heroic monuments. James E. Young, the theoretician who first interpreted such memorial-critiquing works, argues that the counter-monument achieves viable commemoration for the marginalized through objects exhibiting transient and ephemeral but provocative and desanctified qualities. Thus, neither a monument nor a memorial, the counter-monument challenges participants to engage with the history of the event, generating what might be called Memory Value. Expanding upon the lexicon developed by Alois Riegl, this term denotes a work of art that instills dramatic, self-reflective feelings in the mind of those experiencing it. However, while they succeed in grappling with such complex issues as the Holocaust, counter-monuments rarely have the ability to engage with everyday life.
The un-monument is a multilayered and transcontextual art form charged by inclusion within the larger framework of Memory Art. As part of the New Museum exhibition “Unmonumental,” co-curator Laura Hoptman writes in the catalogue that “[i]f the term ‘monumental’ connotes massiveness, timelessness and public significance, the neologism ‘un-monumental’ is meant to describe a kind of sculpture that is not against these values (as in ‘anti-monumental’) but intentionally lacks them.” Extending the Marxist critique of capitalism into this century, the New Museum’s interpretation of the un-monument explores sculptural works predicated on a similar set of values to the counter-monument, such as impermanence and participation, but it also directly shuns commodification and resists easy market valuation. However, this notion of the un-monumental maintains a rather ironic exclusivity and has been confined to a select series of exhibitions, and its potential to describe the contemporary city has gone unnoticed.
Another interpretation of the un-monument, one more inclusive and universal but probing into the urban subconscious, is a passive object or collection of objects that have been found, observed, and categorized as generally unremarkable but through activation by an individual or group can appropriate meaning. Thoroughly ubiquitous, the un-monument returns Marcel Duchamp’s readymade to the built environment. Duchamp’s Fountain (1913) began life as an un-monument, but through his intervention it became monumentalized. Contrarily, today found objects no longer need to be decontextualized and mounted on a pedestal in a gallery or museum; they can exist just as well as part of the urban fabric, recalling their companionship with traditional monuments.
However, the ability to perceive these un-monuments as such requires the participant to be in the “open mode,” a reflective and questioning mindset inherent to artistic creation. Coincidentally, this mindset is not limited to artists, although their curious mentality enables them most easily to select un-monuments and load them with cultural relevance. Thus, when artist Steven L. Anderson transforms a quaint, contemplative pocket park into a location of voyeurism by the addition of a security camera, the situation arrogates connections to the TSA and Edward Snowden and becomes culturally charged. Alternatively, an inquisitive pedestrian walking along Peachtree Street might see a broken streetlamp, but upon investigating its geometry might liken the cracks of glass to permanent icicles and extend to it an ironic commentary on global warming.
Ultimately, the contemporary city contains all of the components necessary to identify un-monuments, and an enhanced dialogue about them can facilitate further participation by the general public in the arts. In “city too busy to hate” and one prioritizing automobile travel over all other modes, time might be better spent in Atlanta smelling the proverbial roses and walking the streets a la flâneur, thinking about how we have decided to live in our society and what that says about our collective sense of values.
Nick Kahler is an intern architect at Lord Aeck Sargent, an independent artist recently commissioned for Art on the Beltline, and a writer based in Atlanta.
UnmonumentATL is supported by funds from the Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs and Power2Give. Individual donors to this project are Anita Axelrod, Anne Dennington, Callahan Pope McDonough, Chris and Celine McClure, Doug Shipman, Emilee Heath, Erica Jamison, Guido Maus, Julie Sims, Katherine Taylor, Kristin Juarez, Kwajelyn Jackson, Leslie Gordon, Liz Wheeler, Mark and Ann Rowles, Micah McClain, Nancy Hooff, Nikita Gale, Preston Snyder, Rachel Reese, Stephanie Dowda, and Weike and Lloyd Benjamin.