Jen Reid Monumental change statue in Bristol

Monumental change – The art of replacing statues

What should we put in place of shameful statues? The art world demonstrates that the answer lies within us

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We tend to notice statues more readily when we visit places foreign to us, either because our eyes are more open to our surroundings, or simply because the statues are pointed out to us by a local tour guide. These monuments often depict stately figures immortalised in metal or stone, built to last, and in so doing preserve the importance of those represented, giving us the opportunity to learn something about the country’s past. But not all statues last forever. Some decay. Others are removed. Sometimes forcibly. A common motivation behind such an uprooting is that the figure depicted brings shame rather than glory to the history of a city or nation, and today’s society no longer wants to venerate them. 

Statue Replacement: The big question.

The big question is, once they’re gone, what should they be replaced with, if at all? There’s been some ingenious and often radical reclamations of spaces left vacant, sometimes involving humour, but always involving humanity. Here are some examples: 

A Surge of Power (Jen Reid), Bristol, England

During the Black Lives Matter protests on 7th June 2020, the statue of 17th Century slave trader Edward Colston was ceremoniously torn down and deposited in the waters of the Bristol harbour. Not long after the statue’s removal, protester Jen Reid stood on the empty plinth, fist punching the air with her black power salute. Artist Marc Quinn invited Jen to strike the same pose in his studio as he used 210 cameras to recreate her in black resin. Then, on July 15th at dawn, a guerrilla statue-erection team placed the Jen Reid monument on the plinth, only for it to be taken down 24 hours later owing to lack of planning permission. 

Guaicaipuro, Caracas, Venezuela

In his discovery of the New World, Christopher Columbus arguably kickstarted the Atlantic slave trade by bringing Arawak natives back to Spanish shores in an attempt to impress the Castilian royalty. He was certainly not the favourite person in the eyes of the indigenous tribes back in the Americas who were more often than not enslaved on their own land or simply wiped out by conquistadors. The Caribe tribe of Venezuela were led by the legendary Guaicaipuro who became a resistance hero against the Spanish in the 16th Century, uniting tribes together and killing many of the invaders. On Columbus Day, 12th October 2004, a statue of Columbus was torn down in Plaza Venezuela in Caracas and replaced exactly 11 years later – on an occasion now reinterpreted as Indigenous Resistance Day – by the mallet and spear wielding statue of Guaicaipuro, immortalised in an attack-pose as if he’s still fighting overassertive foreign powers, a symbolism not lost on the country’s most recent presidents.     

Alfredo Stroessner, Asunción, Paraguay

When a leader rises to the rank of authoritarian dictator it’s usually accompanied by the creation of statues depicting them, which are then placed across the land to remind the people of who’s in charge. Paraguayan Alfredo Stroessner was one such figure; his massive steel statue stood tall on a hill at the highest point in the capital Asunción, that was until he was finally ousted in a coup after 35 years in power, during which time he had subdued any opposition to his reign. When the statue was removed in 1991 it shattered in the process but was not completely destroyed. The remains were recontextualised by artist Carlos Colombino who used parts of it in his ‘tribute’ to the fallen leader; the dictator’s head seemingly crushed between two slabs of concrete, hands protruding through the gap as if trying, and failing, to lever himself out of a state of permanent suppression. The tables allegorically turned ad infinitum.   

Darth Vader, Odessa, Ukraine

Other statues of past dictators have been ironically replaced by monuments representing likeminded tyrants. He may well have been one of the world’s most iconic villains, leading a vast empire and rarely losing touch with his darkside, but over time Lenin fell out of favour with the Ukrainians. As part of the country’s de-communising legislation, the Odessans, with the help of sculptor artist Oleksander Milov, replaced Lenin with a Darth Vader effigy. At the opening ceremony in 2015 Vader made a personal appearance and claimed he was happy to be immortalised while still alive. 

The Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square, London, England

King George IV and generals Sir Charles James Napier and Sir Henry Havelock occupy three of the plinths in Trafalgar Square. The fourth was reserved for Wilhelm IV but remained empty due to insufficient funds. The space was given over to the Royal Society of Arts in 1994 who commissioned artists to provide works for the plinth as temporary installations. Some of the artworks displayed have been pastiches of traditional statues: a boy on a rocking horse in lieu of a general on a steed (Elmgreen and Dragset 2012), Nelson’s ship in a bottle with its sails made from patterned textiles typical of African dress in reference to British colonialism (Yinka Shonibare, 2010). But an ongoing theme is one that celebrates the public and not prominent historical figures. Marc Quinn (the artist behind Jen Reid’s statue) displayed ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’ (2005), exhibiting a statue of the armless and legless Alison who was born with phocomelia, showing that beauty exists in all of us, regardless of how we look or how famous we are. 

Antony Gormley took the theme to a literal level. For 24 hours a day over a period of 100 days, real-life people were invited to reflect, demonstrate or perform in their allotted hour from on top of the plinth (One and Other, 2009). These ‘plinthers’ carried out a variety of acts, from pantomime to personal revelations, pole dancing to proposals of marriage.

The installation represented us, celebrated us, and showed what matters to us in our society, in all our shapes and sizes, colours and cultures, personalities and fallibilities: the people on the ground raised to an elevated status; people who are no less (and sometimes more) deserving than those traditionally encapsulated in stone or steel. 

In these examples, art proves it has the power to democratise spaces left by absent statues, often representing the views of the public and sometimes even immortalising the people themselves. When visiting a new city or country, learning about the lives of its people teaches us more about a place than its famous and on occasion dishonourable past icons ever could. 

So the answer to the question on what to replace such monuments with? Make statues out of us. 

Cover Photo: “Jen Reid Statue, Bristol, UK” by KSAG Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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