What Should a Contemporary Monument Look Like?

A new multi-city art exhibition called “New Monuments for New Cities” tackles this question head on

Eric J. Garcia's "Monument to Lucy Gonzalez Parsons" depicts the Mexican, African American and Native American anarchist with multiple arms to represent the many ways she fought for labor rights. Eric J. Garcia
Quentin VerCetty's "Library of Unlearning" monument reimagines the statue "Alma Mater" at Columbia University's Low Library as a Ugandan woman. The pictured monument bears the inscriptions “new school” (ādīsi timihiriti bēti) and “unlearning” (timihiriti yelemi) written in Ethiopian Amharic G’eez. The words replace the Latin phrase “alma mater” from the original monument as a commentary on the unlearning of ancient languages and knowledge. Quentin VerCetty
Zissou Tasseff-Elenkoff's "Power to the People" is dedicated to civil rights for every human regardless of race, color or religion. Zissou Tasseff-Elenkoff
Chris Pappan's "Land Acknowledgment Memorial" is a proposed land acknowledgment and monument to the indigenous peoples of North America. The individual depicted in this poster represents the Three Fires Confederacy (the Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Odawa nations); the color represents the Confederacy and rebirth through the Great Chicago Fire; and the ledger paper links to the Plains art tradition (known as Ledger Art) and is a metaphor for the reparations due for the injustices perpetrated against these peoples. An embedded QR code leading to a Wikipedia page encourages viewers to learn more about the Three Fires Confederacy, inspiring further education about the land upon which we reside. Chris Pappan
An Te Liu's "Memoria" is a collage based on a painting by Hubert Robert (1733 – 1808), known for his fictional renderings of architectural ruins and landscapes. By inserting the fragment of an elevated highway into Robert’s landscape, An Te Liu imagines a future where key elements of urban infrastructure are preserved and memorialized. An Te Liu
In the absence of a statue, "Spaces" is an open platform to reflect. It invites viewers to think about sharing common space with one another rather than placing individuals on pedestals. Teruko Nemura and Rachel Alex Crist
For his proposed monument, Phillip Pyle, II updated Barnett Newman’s "Broken Obelisk," installed on the grounds of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, and dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. For "Broken Obelisk Elbows," Pyle adds golden “elbows,” also known as “swangas” 83s or 84s, to the famous sculpture. The spoke wire rims common to the wheels of a Cadillac El Dorado or Cadillac Caprice are an essential part of Houston car culture. Combining the artist’s two worlds of art and Southern African American culture, he presents a sculpture that embodies his vision of Houston. Phillip Pyle, II
Nick Vaughn’s and Jake Margolin’s "Mary’s Naturally, 1976" poster is a tribute to Houston’s iconic gay bar, Mary’s Naturally—a hub for the city’s queer community for 40 years. Though impermanent, this proposed monument acts in place of the absent plaques, busts or obelisks that should commemorate the Houstonians killed by AIDS. Nick Vaughn and Jake Margolin
Jamal Cyrus poster "It’s All in Me" was inspired, in part, by the textbooks of his youth that presented the white male as the crowning jewel of creation, leaving a subtle yet indelible stain on the artist’s evolving consciousness and sense of self. Jamal Cyrus
[A]part by Sin Huellas Artists: Delilah Montoya, Jimmy Castillo. The poster is an art/activist action by the Sin Huellas collective. Sin Huellas is composed of Mexican, Chicana/o, and North American participants formed to reveal issues of borders, migration, detention and deportation in the United States. Sin Huellas: Delilah Montoya and Jimmy Castillo
Nicole Awai’s "Reclaimed Water–CC'd" questions Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America while addressing the hot-button issue of whether or not a statue in his honor should be removed in New York City. Nicole Awai
Susan Blight, an Anishinaabe interdisciplinary artist from Ontario's Couchiching First Nation, created "Untitled (Land and Life)," a work employing a traditional Anishinaabe pictograph technique to honor her people’s connection to the land. Susan Blight

What makes someone or something worthy of having a monument in their honor? That question has been the subject of much debate in recent years, and has resulted in the razing of dozens of Confederate monuments scattered across the United States in response to a public outcry for their removal. Now, looking ahead, communities are faced with a new question: What monuments, if any, should replace them?

Inspired by this ongoing dialogue, the nonprofit organization Friends of the High Line launched a collaborative public art exhibition this week at Buffalo Bayou, a waterway flowing through Houston. Called “New Monuments for New Cities,” the yearlong initiative will travel to five different urban reuse projects throughout North America, with stops at Waller Creek in Austin, The 606 in Chicago and The Bentway in Toronto before ending at the High Line in New York City. The initiative’s purpose is to challenge local artists to “transform underutilized infrastructure into new urban landscapes” while also advancing the discussion of what a monument should be in the 21st century.

“We want to keep the conversation going about monuments and about what we want to see celebrated in our squares and parks,” says Cecilia Alemani, director and chief curator of High Line Art. “Sometimes conversations can die, but I think it’s important to keep [this one] up. We’re also thinking about what is the importance of monuments in today’s contemporary art field. Can a monument take on a completely different shape or form? Can it be more text based? I think, especially now, sometimes when you walk into public spaces these monuments don't make sense to younger generations because they don’t know who these people are. So can [these monuments] be swapped with something that is more [recognizable] with today’s digital culture and pop culture?”

These questions are exactly what the Friends of the High Line posed to 25 artists—five artists in each of the five cities—who were chosen by a curatorial committee. The artists were challenged to create original pieces of artwork that could fill the void of empty pedestals and plinths dotting these cities’ public spaces.

“We asked the artists who they wanted to see commemorated, which gave them the opportunity to answer this question in very different ways,” Alemani says. “Some of the artists created new monuments, while others reimagined existing ones.”

Artists didn’t have to look far for inspiration, with many of them taking a page from their own experiences or that of their communities. Susan Blight, an Anishinaabe interdisciplinary artist from Ontario's Couchiching First Nation, created a work employing a traditional Anishinaabe pictograph technique to honor her people’s connection to the land. Nicole Awai’s piece questions Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America while addressing the hot-button issue of whether or not a statue in his honor should be removed in New York City. (Earlier this year Mayor Bill de Blasio ultimately decided the monument would stay put).

Other important topics addressed by artists include immigration, the LBGTQ community, capitalism, sexism and race.

“The entire exhibition taps into issues and concerns that validate figures who haven’t been highlighted in the past,” says Ana Traverso-Krejcarek, manager of the High Line Network, a group of infrastructure reuse projects across North America. “It’s a very diverse exhibition as a whole.”

The techniques employed by artists are also diverse, and include billboards, projections, flags, banners, hand-painted murals and vinyl wraps. Because it’s a traveling exhibit, each piece must easily be translated onto large-scale, wheat-pasted posters, which will go from site to site throughout the remainder of the year. In addition to the artworks on display, each site will host a variety of events, including artist talks, discussions with curators and more.

“We wanted to create something that is fun and engaging for communities,” Traverso-Krejcarek says. “But the exhibition is also important to monumentality and how different cities are grappling with the idea of who is immortalized and monumentalized and who isn’t.”

“New Monuments for New Cities” will be on display through October 2019.

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