BURNAWAY kicks off its UnmonumentATL series with a two-part essay by intern architect Nick Kahler. Part one is an examination of the city’s monuments and the trouble with commemorative works; part two will explore the notion of the un-monument and its significance in the urban environment. 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.
Historically, human beings have wrestled with an unceasing desire to physicalize the heroic or traumatic past of their own creation. In order to navigate this palimpsest of ideas related to memory, space, and monumentality, this pair of essays serves as a theoretical prelude to a project called unmonumentATL. For this project, BURNAWAY has asked 13 artists to document their personal un-monuments in Atlanta so as to generate a new methodology for mapping, navigating, and deciphering the contemporary city.
In the most general terms, an un-monument 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.
The word monument has two conflicting meanings that problematize its use today. The first meaning is the proscriptive and official one: tangible, built commemorations that function to keep the memory of past events alive for future generations. They make manifest a history that serves ostensibly as “reminders” or “warnings,” from the Latin monere, for avoiding mistakes similar to those made in the past. The second is a commonplace concept often perpetuated by contemporary media: “an outstanding, enduring, and memorable example of something” or an object of significance, particularly of a grand scale. The latter definition from the Oxford English Dictionary is so generic that monumentality becomes ubiquitous.
Fin-de-siècle art theorist Alois Riegl echoes this duality in “The Modern Cult of Monuments,” distinguishing between deliberate, commemorative monuments and unintentional, historical monuments in order to elucidate a societal set of values relative to memory and history. The values promoted by society change over time, but the fundamental connection of the monumental work to the contemporary zeitgeist determines its relevance, and thus its propensity to remain extant.
Like residents of many other cities, Atlantans have corporealized their monuments most frequently as sculpture and architecture. However, one quickly begins to differentiate between these categories of Atlanta monuments, separating representational from personified statuary, individual from group abstract sculpture, orphaned columns from obelisks, fountains from triumphal arches, and historic from contemporary architecture. Additionally, monuments are subject typically to the contingencies of scale, cost, function, and the whims of funders and designers, all of which often combine negatively to empty these works of their semiotics of memory, further detracting from their ability to express ideas in an unadulterated manner.
Rodney Mims Cook Jr., the heir to Atlanta’s historic Mims family, has started to bring coherence to the sprawled landscape of monuments across the city. His book, Atlanta’s Parks and Monuments, while void of critical interpretation of the city and its monuments, helps reconstruct important landmarks that have moved or disappeared over the centuries. When a monument no longer exists or the terrain where a significant event occurred has been altered, sometimes supporters of the past place a historical marker to commemorate that site as noteworthy. However, these markers are often fragmented Civil War anecdotes and resist combination into a cohesive whole. Alternatively, the Atlanta Public Arts Legacy Fund and the State of Georgia have mapped official, albeit non-comprehensive, geographies of monuments in Atlanta, but their criteria for inclusion or exclusion seems unclear.
What is clear is that Atlanta contains three nodes or repositories for monuments, with each offering a dramatically different version of commemorative tactics. The downtown nucleus of governmental buildings forms the first location, and functions as the monumental cemetery for the official history of the state, county, and city. Using even the slightest critical lens, the majority of the monuments selected by the government to represent itself are statues dedicated to the white men who helped build their respective jurisdictions. Occasionally, an unremarkable bust of Margaret Mitchell or a crooked portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. appears, but never in a prominent location. To the perennial elementary students dragged here en masse or to the suburban commuter, most of these statues uphold Robert Musil’s dictum that “[t]here is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.” However, the move of the infamous (racist) Tom Watson from his prominent spot at the northwest entry of the Capitol to a sunken pit in the palisaded (racist) Eugene Talmadge Plaza contains the richest recent development in the monument debate.
A few awkward blocks north, the second monumental domain emerges around Woodruff Park. Containing an incoherent urban assemblage of sculptures, this tourist and Georgia State University zone is a boosterist playground. The most famous work here is Gamba Quirino’s 1969 statue of Atlanta personified as a woman lifted up by the proverbial phoenix out of the ashes of Sherman’s conquest. The rhetoric here is obvious, which opposes that of its neighbor across Peachtree Street: the blandly and anachronistically titled Five Points Monument by George Beasley from 1996. This sculpture incorporates a narrative of forgotten trolley ties and the city’s first communal wells, but one can surmise that few understand that message communicated in abstraction. While Quirino’s traditional, heroic statue may be symbolically hackneyed, it functions more successfully than a contextual, industrial work that vanishes amid the rest of the chaotic steel at that dangerous intersection. This node’s final lesson lies in what is not represented with any form of significance: the fact that Five Points was the epicenter of the 1906 Race Riot. In typical Atlanta fashion, it would seem that not all of the ashes were resurrected, and that the darker side of history is whitewashed for consumptive and more pleasant purposes.
The third destination for monuments lies at the National Monuments Foundation in Atlantic Station, on the site of the former Atlantic Steel mill. This unofficial museum of Atlanta history not pertaining to the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement is housed in the epitome of the traditional monument: the Millennium Gate. Conceptually imported from Rome and installed as the “venue” for the “avenue” of 17th Street, this triumphal arch is a recontextualized Arch of Titus, but a local sobriquet classifies it as the “Arc d’IKEA,” referring to the nearby superstore. Additionally, instead of celebrating the massacre of Jews at the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, it purports hubristically and in monumental Latin “[t]o commemorate in the year of our Lord MM all peaceful accomplishment since the birth of Jesus Christ.”
The aforementioned Rodney Cook shepherded Millennium Gate’s design and construction against the outcry of Atlanta architects who derided it as Disneyfied kitsch. It serves most strongly as a foil to contemporary art and architecture that would seek to classify itself as monumental, since its main raison d’etre lies in its form and the curious ideological constructs behind it. Coincidentally, a monument strikingly more befitting to the history of Atlantic Station as a reconstructed brownfield site is a gigantic metal exhaust pipe that was retained as the principal physical testament to the Atlantic Steel company. However, it has been sequestered away in an ancillary plot of land adjacent to the Millennium Gate and hidden behind trees, suggesting that a monument directly historical to that site would be undesirable.
Atlanta’s relationship with monuments today remains clouded by three problems: the inaccuracy of terminology due to a lack of discourse between artists themselves and a lack of theoretical investigation in general; the overuse of commodified, boosterist tropes; and the void of most anything commemorating the darker side of Atlanta’s history. Moreover, when future memorialization occurs, the extant collection of Atlanta monuments may provide more hindrance than assistance due to these conditions. A conclusion can be drawn: in a contemporary context saturated by commemoration, the city could benefit from a series of new, coherent methods of expression, which can be provided by the un-monument.
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.