The Vicissitudes of Monumentality
Miklos Erhardt
In the West, the traditional concept of monumentality, the fiction that certain power constructions, systems or personalities are of eternal value which once defined art placed in the public space, seems to have fatally worn out, first with the dismantling of the idea of historic greatness by the Frankfurt School and later the anti-authoritarian movements of the 1960s, and second, with the fragmentation of social representation primarily due to the internet. From sanctioned hierarchical demonstrations of power it had moved into representations of historic and social traumas or, as a farce, into gimmick art in the districts built by financial capitalism. But the recent attacks on public statues of historic figures related to slavery and racial oppression (or antisemitism in countries without a colonial past to speak of), as well as the strengthening of right wing nationalist ideologies brought it back to the public discourse, which seems to lend it a certain "zombie-existence".
In Budapest, the idea of monumentality is linked to the birth of the modern nation state in the 19th century. Following the reconciliation with the Habsburgs (1867), the city saw the biggest economic boom of its history around the fin de siècle, when it was massively reorganised into a metropolis on the model of imperial Vienna. Its renewed urban texture was landmarked and punctuated by monuments that also expressed the schizophrenic state of mind of the period: on the one hand, the Habsburg court was represented as the continuation of the "millenarian Kingdom" of Hungary, on the other, the national heroes of the glorious (and failed) Hungarian revolution and fight for freedom of 1848, the very ones who had fought against the same Habsburgs, were commemorated in a host of public statues.
This urbanistic reorganisation and memory politics turned out to be so successful that the Soviet regime that came after 1948 did not manage to eliminate or even fully appropriate it, leaving in situ many of its symbolic landmarks. For example, the square that is most representative of Budapest, Heroes Square, with its huge monument representing the Hungarian Kingdom (in which, nevertheless, the statues of the Habsburg rulers were exchanged for more presentable figures after the war), remained intact, and the new regime decided to settle for another site for its representation adjacent to it, in a much less prominent location, where a bulky Stalin monument was erected in 1951. It seems no accident that one of the first acts of the 1956 revolution was the demolition of this towering figure; the iconic image of Stalin’s lonely bronze boots on the plinth is a memento.(r.1)
What socialist realism, after repudiating its avant-garde beginnings, could produce in its own right, was a heavy-handed perpetuation of the representative patterns and concepts of classicism, trying to impose a fake idealistic image of a new world by populating the old one with political symbols and stereotypical figures. The monuments that survived the war and the partial ideological purging of the public space, having lost their representative function, lived to a certain philosophical elderliness in the consolidation of the Kádár-era: they became empty forms in an urban landscape providing a rest for birds, and intricate contours for eyes tired of the rectangular monotony of modernisation, meeting points for city dwellers and vessels for their intimate memories, as well as reminders of the relativity of eternal truth full of the absurd poetry that comes with that. By the time the regime grew old, weak and senile, this essentially bourgeoise melancholy had also gradually embraced its own monumental representations.
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, one of the major symbolic gestures to mark the change of regime in Budapest was the 1991 decision that public statues representing the old system would be musealised; that is, exiled to a specific ‘game reserve’ established just outside the town, the so-called “Memento Park” that opened in 1993. While this solution of symbolic violence was certainly more inventive than destruction would have been, it also created a ‘Madame Tussaud’s wax museum’ for the idea of history, preparing the ground for the approach, at once banalising and demonising the communist past, on which the dominant historical narrative of self-absolution rests today.(r.2) The consequences of an undiscussed past are felt today in every domain of social life. What’s more, the large-scale cleansing of the public space, on the one hand, produced a vacuum of ideological representation, while on the other, it (negatively)reinforced the pathos of public monuments and fictional narratives of power.
In the interim period, before we saw dominant politics invading the streets again after 2006, half-hearted and forgettable attempts were made to reinterpret the symbolic public space,(r.3) but what actually happened under the surface was that spectacular capitalism became unchained, and made the town in its own image. Shopping malls built in the middle of the city destroyed the traditional shops that used to define the character of the streets, and billboards(r.4) spread on every possible surface filled the ideological vacuum. With the privatisation of the economy and the collapse of social institutions triggered by austerity measures, came general impoverishment and disappointment, pop up flea markets appeared all over the town where increasing numbers of homeless people tried to sell recycled goods. The complicity of the weak and inconsequential politics of neoliberal coalitions was undeniable. While the anti- or alternative globalisation movement was shaking the West around the millennium, here, due to the post-communist state of mind, no meaningful left opposition could be formed and so grassroots contestation in the form of guerrilla street art also remained marginal.
The opening act of the new era was the 2006 siege of the national television building, a symbolic event supported by right wing opposition parties, which was followed by a series of massive demonstrations reclaiming the streets, and giving momentum to a new right wing populist movement. This, together with the spectacular collapse of the neoliberal-left coalition in front of the global financial crisis, led to the overwhelming victory of the conservative right wing Fidesz party at the 2010 elections. The very strong centralisation of power that followed entailed the concentration of the media (first broadcast and print media, then increasingly the internet) creating an adapted version of what Guy Debord used to call the concentrated spectacle once characteristic of socialist countries, and the public space naturally constituted an important field of operation for the new regime. One of the first government decrees dissolved the institution that sanctioned the erection of public sculptures in the city on the basis of aesthetic criteria, paving the way for aggressive dilettantism, then hectic activity on the front of public monuments started. The central idea here was to make up for lost time in national self-representation by re-imposing the rhetoric of national independence. Within a year or two, the country was filled with hastily fabricated monuments and memorials to “Trianon”- the common denomination comes from the name of the Paris palace where the peace treaty decreeing the dis-annexation of about two thirds of the country after WWI. ‘Strong’ monuments were to be erected as opposed to the trend for ‘weak’ or ‘counter-monuments’ that characterised the post-68 developments in the West.(r.5) This culminated in the symbolic reconstruction of the 1940 state of the Parliament square that entailed the removal of the remaining statues of historic figures who for some reason did not fit the new ‘old’ canon (among them Imre Nagy, the martyr prime minister of 1956), and the making of copies from scratch of the large-scale public monuments that had been destroyed or relocated during communist times.
The situation is equally controversial in the case of new monuments, as the Memorial for Victims of the German Invasion erected in 2014 shows. The memorial recycles allegorical bronze figures from the 19th century coupled with post-modern architectural references (and captioned with the most common Times New Roman typeface), creating a particularly tasteless eclectic mass of fragments and supporting the central narrative of a ‘double invasion’ (German and then Soviet) that implies Hungary’s innocence in the most tragic outcomes of the 20th century. Nevertheless, it was this memorial that triggered one of the most interesting and important reactions in the form of a grassroots project called “The Living Memorial”. The project was initiated by prominent artists and art historians, mobilising the generally apolitical, and therefore fatally isolated, Hungarian art scene, and, joined by Jewish communities indignant due to the fake historic narrative, it quickly gained wide public support. The Living Memorial included a large scale self-made installation composed of memorabilia of the Holocaust, letters and symbolic objects donated by private citizens (it stands there to this date), public actions, performances and self-organised discussion groups that for one and a half years were meeting on the spot every single day, listening to witnesses and lecturers who discussed history from quite another angle. The movement has since transformed into a civil association organising a variety of programmes and discussions.
The symbolic occupation of the public space was completed by the global trend of cheesy genre sculptures appearing everywhere, primarily to create photo opportunities for tourists as if public space had become an extension of the virtual space of social media. This scene has been fully embraced by the state administration as a non-engaging and popular complement to the forced solemnity of memory politics, offering a chance for the consensus painfully missing everywhere else in the Hungarian political space. Stylistically, the two forms – ‘head-heavy’ political representations and Instagram-kitsch – tend to overlap. One of the regime’s darling sculptors(r.6) has recently presented absurd plans for a statue of a 5-metre-tall jumping golden stag (an animal that has a central role in Hungarian myths of origin) on top of a 6-metre-high bronze hill, to be placed in the precincts of the new ‘Museum of Money’. Another example of the fusion might be the work of a guerrilla-artist along the lines of Banksy, who makes cute, miniature bronze statuettes with pop cultural or pseudo-critical allusions and places them illegally in a variety of prominent sites in the city.(r.7)
As a result of the above developments, today the public space of the city is chaotic and crammed, both symbolically and physically, which also creates a precarious situation for all organised efforts to promote meaningful public art. In the last municipal elections the coalition of opposition parties won most of Budapest’s districts. Since their power is remarkably weakened by government retaliations, only hesitant and cautious symbolic attempts have been made to develop alternative discourses in the form of public art contests and festivals. These are basically temporary exhibitions and events echoing the concepts of new genre public art or community art, and even as such are exposed to attacks by militant right wing groups.(r.8) The most recent professional art discourse – mainly virtual as funds are almost exclusively accessible only for projects that support the central political regime – has tended to support the idea of a moratorium on public art as if a withdrawal from this field where everything is automatically put in the banal perspective of political polarisation is the only morally justified attitude. Nevertheless as sour feelings are expected to grow and spread in the present overall crisis, so are the grassroots guerrilla experimentation and contestations.
This long and yet unavoidably oversimplified summary basically serves to underpin and justify my initial idea to dedicate the Budapest pilot workshop of the PARTGO programme to the genre of monuments and memorials, as the narratives readable in the city’s idiosyncratic stage of public art might offer valuable considerations in the context of recent global processes. The plan was based on a course I have been teaching for more than ten years at MOME. In this module called “Monument Design”, the students must respond to a given theme – a specific site, an event or an abstract concept of relevance to the given moment – in the form of a monument delivered with a freely chosen technique (a 3D model, a mock-up representation, a scale model or a life-size prototype, etc.). More importantly, the work also has to include documented research of the theme and the realities around the concrete site they envision for their design, as well as an imaginary analysis of how the work’s presence would affect the public.
Since this assignment is pretty much outside of the comfort zone of my media design students primarily interested in new media technologies and boundless self-expression, the actual products they come up with are most often not ‘good’ works, according to whatever vague criteria art schools use for evaluation – the task is simply (and not unintentionally) too complex for their age and level of education (2nd grade BA students). The point of the course for me stands within ‘fringe’ activities: the research, the plenary and interpersonal discussions, and even the failures encoded in the attempts. While working on the assignment, they have to deal with phenomena that have a strong impact on everyday life but normally are hidden, histories and realities that are manipulated by mainstream media, and excluded or distorted by their filter bubbles. Within this perspective, even the most conflictual or the least successful or inspired creative processes can be instrumental in opening new horizons or giving new insights for the students. Even if some of them decide that they would never engage again in anything even vaguely reminiscent of public art in the future sounds like a good enough conclusion to me, if it contributes to defining their own path.
As the Covid pandemic interfered with the Budapest intensive week and the online work from our respective universities would have prevented getting hands-on experience of the town, we expanded the focus and asked the students to work with the very experience we were sharing: the lockdown as a theme for a memorial. Isolation was a fresh and often traumatic experience for all the participants and thus a good basis from which to explore concepts related to monuments and memorials. The theme gave them an opportunity to become familiar, on the one hand, with the history of monumentality in public art presented largely on the example of Budapest, and on the other, with the ideas and strategies of a variety of grassroots movements and civil organisations that have been fighting for a due representation of the lost lives during the pandemic all around the world, making attempts at ‘democratising grief’.(r.9)
To learn about, imagine and discuss alternative ways of expressing societal feelings, to try and deliver practices and platforms of remembrance in an increasingly antagonistic social climate seemed to us all the more important as the recent conflictual reactivation of the symbolic public space has tended to overshadow those emancipatory and participatory approaches to public art that had largely defined themselves in contrast to monumentality. The hope that art can meaningfully contribute to building a more just society is threatened by the avalanche of recent crises, both from without, represented by the Covid pandemic or the ecological collapse, and, not unrelated to these, from within, represented by aggressive, exclusivist economic and political interests and the general atrophy of the faculty of dialogue inside and between societies.
To be sure, none of us in the PARTGO team expected that these processes could be thoroughly analysed, properly understood and addressed by young art students within the framework of a short international workshop in largely unknown environments. Instead, what we wanted to experiment with together was the relationship of art to its involuntary public and how that can affect both parties. What we basically hoped to make them understand was that public space is not just an extension of art's visibility but an essentially different and alien environment where active interests and forces rather unknown within the domains dedicated to art and design operate. Such an endeavour always comes with a price. What all the genres, techniques and approaches to public art share is the limitation of artistic autonomy, be it in terms of the expectations inherent in a commission, the general animosity of the public towards art and artistic freedom, the consideration of the interests of a community involved in the work, the danger of punishment in the case of a guerrilla action, and so on. On the outside, we are in a territory that nobody is an expert in, and from where one can look back to ‘proper’ art and understand (or criticise) it better. In a situation where art continues to be pre-eminently individualistic (and increasingly elitist), as does the teaching of art, public art can provide a rare occasion for discursive teaching.
When the partners of PARTGO formulated the application in 2018, and even when we all first met in Dublin at the end of October 2019, we didn’t have a clue what was to come. As I'm writing this, in September 2022, we have just left behind a year and a half of the Covid pandemic that through the lockdowns indirectly produced the repression of the public space, and since February this year we have been living next door to a brutal colonial war in Ukraine that seems to have triggered the harshest economic crisis and inflation across Europe since the 1970s, that might make institutional and even private spaces precarious. Space as we know and experience it has changed more than any of us could have predicted.
  1. One might speculate if the destruction of the Stalin monument, which essentially repeated the 1871 demolition of the Vendôme column by the Communards in Paris, was used by the US forces in 2003 as a blueprint when together with Iraqi civilians they toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. The extensive media coverage represented the event as a symbolic act of legitimation for the invasion.
  2. Although not strictly public art, the “Museum of Terror” (founded in 2002) with its oversimplified, tendentious but at the same time formally inventive and interactive presentation of the socialist period operates a similar strategy in handling history, creating a strange (and dangerously popular) spectacle of oblivion.
  3. Here the hundreds of cliché statues of Holy Stephen, the first king of Hungary, invading the main squares of smaller Hungarian towns around 2000, under the short lived first Fidesz-government, are worth to be mentioned.
  4. An interesting phenomenon here is the yearly “ARC Billboard Exhibition”, an anonymous public art contest open for everyone, that has existed since 2000. The “most visited public art exhibition” in Budapest, by promoting a sort of “culture jamming” in the line of Adbusters, has successfully mobilised critical energies and at the same time improved the visual language used by advertising industry. In the beginning the exhibitions were made in the most prominent location of the city, producing, with the selected billboards crammed together in a relatively small area, an uncanny theme park of criticality. (more:
  5. An exception is the Memorial to National Togetherness made for the 100th anniversary of the Trianon treaty. With its long sloping path leading under ground level, the memorial mirrors the paradigmatic Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC by Maya Lin (1982), with the names of Hungarian villages and towns from the detached territories engraved in the walls of the path in the same way as the names of the war's victims in Lin’s memorial
  6. Gábor Miklós Szőke
  7. The statuettes quickly became popular due to the internet, the sculptor’s identity, who is nowadays working for commissions all over the country, was revealed - Ukrainian born artist Mihály (Mihail) Kolodko.
  8. Not always innocently. “Prism”, a small size, rainbow colored statue by Péter Szalay representing the kneeling figure of the American Statue of Liberty, holding her right fist up, thus mirroring the iconic gesture of the BLM movement, was presented in one of these festivals in 2020. By using all the symbols susceptible to provoke racist and homophobic sentiments, and being advertised in a well-targeted press campaign prior to the show, this essentially ad hoc work was meant to be destroyed, which was duly performed by a militant right wing group within one day after its erection. (
  1. (Both Photos) Memorial for Victims of the German Occupation Budapest (Péter Párkányi Raab, 2014). In the foreground the guerilla installation by "The Living Memorial" (2013 - on going). Photo by Miklos Erhardt