Notes on the ruining of and dispute over monuments
How do we dispute the determinant nature of the monuments, make their pedestals unstable and create other grammars that restore meanings and agencies to the collective memory? This essay presents some reflections on the dispute over the representations of power, especially from the perspective of the emancipation of politics, identities and struggles for human rights that have been dismantled and cynically shelved by the criminal governments on the rise in the Global South in the last decade.
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game,
but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.11. Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (London: Penguin Classics, 2017): 19.
“It is an attack against civilization,” said Victor Brecheret Filho in an interview22. Adriana Farias, "Brecheret’s son sees a connection between graffiti and the last electoral debate." Veja, September 30, 2016, accessed December 31, 2022, https://vejasp.abril.com.br/cidades/filho-de-brecheret-ve-ligacao-entre-pichacao-e-debate-eleitoral/. given on September 30, 2016, on the occasion of the intervention that took place the previous morning on the “Monumento às Bandeiras” (Monument to the Flags), a statue designed by his father, Victor Brecheret, in 1920, and erected for the celebrations of the IV Centenary of the Foundation of the City of São Paulo in 1953. Of unidentified authorship, the action involved covering the granite monument with pink, yellow and turquoise latex paint and was published in the media during the debate between the candidates for mayor of the city of São Paulo, televised the night before the municipal elections. On the occasion, actions were also taken against the “Borba Gato” statue, by Júlio Guerra, erected in 1963, and the building of the State Department of Education, inaugurated in 1894 as the headquarters of the Escola Normal Caetano de Campos.
From mess to barbarism, the intervention was received with outrage by the population and by the bodies responsible for maintaining the public heritage. The cleaning of the “Monumento às Bandeiras”, after the intervention that took place on the eve of the 2016 elections, took about 10 days and was carried out with a specific chemical for granite and then pressure washers.
In a statement to the press,33. Juliana Diógenes, “Two monuments and the Department of Education building are sprayed by the morning." Estadão, June 20, 2020, accessed December 31, 2022, https://sao-paulo.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,monumento-as-bandeiras-e-estatua-do-borba-gato-amanhecem-pichados,10000079134. the then director of the Office of Historical Heritage, an agency of the Municipal Department of Culture of São Paulo, highlighted the damage that such actions cause to the sculpture, considering that the cleaning process also poses a risk to the work, whose layers are damaged with each cleaning: “I’m outraged and upset. It’s sad to see our public heritage being damaged. We keep cleaning and the monument gets more and more damaged. Soon there won’t be any more stones.”
In the world-system concept described by Aníbal Quijano and Immanuel Wallerstein44. Aníbal Quijano, "Colonialidad del poder, eurocentrismo y América Latina", in La colonialidad del saber: eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales. Perspectivas Latinoamericanas, comp. Edgardo Lander (Buenos Aires: CLACSO - Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, 2000). as the configuration of a historical pattern of power that understands social and political relations as the result of the interrelation of fragmented and conflicting networks of dominance, we can understand the fundamental structuring of history in the Latin-American context from the dialectic complementarity of the dynamics between colonizers and the colonized.55. Aníbal Quijano and Immanuel Wallerstein, "Americanism as a Concept or the Americas in the Modern World-System," International Social Science Journal 134 (November, 1992). From this modern/colonial notion comes the constitution of a series of relationships and institutions of domination and exploitation that extend from the European Middle Ages to the present day.
The monuments, the flags, the state and its insignia are fundamental records of the ideas of the project for the future and progress of the modern/colonial process. We can associate the consolidation of these images with the sedimentation of landmarks of subjectivity and collective memory, oriented towards a perception of a total, linear, and hegemonic world. And here it is important to emphasize that the coloniality of power, a term coined by Aníbal Quijano66. Luciana Ballestrin, "Latin America and the Decolonial Turn" Revista Brasileira Ciência Política no. 11 (2013): 99, accessed September 14, 2021, https://www.scielo.br/j/rbcpol/a/DxkN3kQ3XdYYPbwwXH55jhv/?lang=pt., includes processes of reproduction of logic of oppression, domination, and exploitation that go beyond the sphere of political-economic power, leading to the colonization of the imaginary. Thus, memory and monuments, especially in the Latin American context, were constituted by processes of continuous and permanent epistemological violence.
To reflect on the dispute over a monument, first, a brief digression is necessary to recognize, in the emergence of the practice of building such works, how they are configured as devices of the coloniality of power in their territories of insertion. In this regard, we must assimilate them as images that perform memorial and educational aspects in cities. It is understood that every monument has intrinsic and mutual elements of civilization and barbarism.77. Walter Benjamin, Pathways (São Paulo/Belo Horizonte: Imprensa Oficial/Ed. UFMG, 2006). Monuments are, therefore, elements of transmission, allegories of a triumphant notion of continuity and historical evolution, “spoils whose function is to confirm, illustrate, and validate the superiority of the powerful.”88. Michael Löwy, “A contrapelo – Against the grain” - The dialectical conception of culture in the theses of Walter Benjamin (1940)", Lutas Sociais no. 25/26 (2nd sem. of 2010 and 1st sem. of 2011): p. 22 Once we understand the documents-monuments as images of this modern/colonial culture-barbarism diptych, we can move on to the question of the purposes of their constitution.
We can apprehend in the European origins of the monuments as we know them today,99. Other meanings and practices similar to the monuments discussed here were and are developed by various peoples, in different times and territories. according to Georges Didi-Huberman,1010. Georges Didi-Huberman, "Return an Image," in Reflect on the image, org. Emmanuel Alloa (São Paulo: Autêntica, 2015). a perception of images as a kind of common good: the use of the term imago and its approximation to the ideas of possession and restitution evoke a “genealogical and honorific transmission function” of the images produced by death masks.1111. Ibid., 205. This was when monuments (from the Latin word monumentum: memorial, building or even tomb) appeared; they were initially attributed to individuals and private funeral memorials and closely linked to this notion of image. Also in ancient Europe, another category of monuments emerged as an announcement of power, a symbolic device of domination, as a result of the interests of groups or associations, usually of a commemorative and testimonial nature, evoking pasts and perpetuating memories (voluntarily or involuntarily). The two classes of monuments, however, share an orientation towards the strategic survival of memories of modernity and, above all, images of civilization – and barbarism.
In general, monuments, museums, galleries, and cultural spaces, their collections, their exhibitions and their constituent and associated documents, as well as universities and their buildings, and the discipline of the history of images (of art, by extension), can be understood as a fundamental part of a set of institutions that deal with the structuring and maintenance of stable and homogeneous memories and social representations. Mastering the narratives and images of a given territory, culture and society, especially in the Global South, was (and still is) fundamental to the organization of modern states.1212. Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and expansion of nationalism (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2008): 30. Such institutions and disciplines occupy contradictory and complex positions and thus, it becomes essential to understand how they are related and operate, considering that “they are important because they still maintain a symbolic position apparently supported by democratic culture, at the heart of which lies the very notion of citizenship.”1313. Maria Angélica Melendi, Art Strategies in an Age of Catastrophes (Belo Horizonte: Cobogó, 2017): 20.
How, then, do we restore emancipatory meaning to the monuments? It is, above all, an exercise to find, in the instability of its determinant nature, the possibility of manipulating and creating another grammar and other meanings and agencies – ones that are not based on the idea of completeness or even the return of some privilege and private right to someone or to certain social group. This devolution of meaning does not involve an appropriation or possession, reproducing the structure of dominance, but a necessary questioning of its order. We are referring precisely to reaffirming the instability of the strategies of dominance and hegemony in power, desecrating the power of its representations, and returning the possibility of use and collective agency to whomever is entitled to it. Reconfiguring memory and renouncing the narrative rigidity, while snatching “[…] from devices – of all devices – the possibility of use that they themselves captured. Desecrating what cannot be desecrated is the political task of generations to come.”1414. Giorgio Agamben, Profanações (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2007): 79, quoted in Didi-Huberman, "Return an Image," 2015.
Officially opened in March 1970, Paço das Artes1515. In December 2018, the location of new headquarters was announced, inaugurated in 2020. The concession of the Casarão Nhonhô Magalhães mansion, in the Higienópolis neighbourhood, was the result of an agreement between the State of São Paulo Department of Culture and Shopping Higienópolis, the private entity that owns the mansion. "In 2019 the Paço das Artes will have a new headquarters," Department of Culture of the State of São Paulo, December 12, 2018, accessed December 31, 2022, http://www.cultura.sp.gov.br/em-2019-paco-das-artes-tera-nova-sede/. had, for many years, its headquarters located in the vicinity of the University of São Paulo. The building, owned by the Butantan Institute, was requisitioned at the end of 2015 to make way for laboratories and a factory that produces vaccines against dengue fever, an epidemic that had reached alarming levels that year.
On the closure of activities in the Paço das Artes building, one last event was promoted on-site, which included a presentation by the group Ilú Obá De Min,1616. Ilú Obá De Min is an Afoxé group, composed only of women, founded in the city of São Paulo in 2004. and an intervention by an artist from Minas Gerais, Néle Azevedo.
Initially developed by Néle Azevedo for the thesis of her Master in Visual Arts degree in 2001 from the Institute of Arts of Universidade Estadual Paulista, the series of interventions entitled “Minimum Monument”1717. Images of the intervention can be seen in Sur Journal’s gallery of art pieces. are characterized by an ephemeral action that subverts the very foundational notions of monuments: it is a record of memory; a small, temporary, itinerant document made up of anonymous bodies – as opposed to the grandiose solidity of the stone and the heroes of history found in the great public monuments. According to the artist herself,1818. "Minimal Monument," Néle Azevedo, (n.d.), accessed December 31, 2022, https://www.neleazevedo.com.br/monumento-minimo. until 2004, the interventions consisted of one or two ice sculptures placed in different locations of the cities that would melt and disappear over time. From 2005 onwards, Azevedo began concentrating small anonymous bodies of ice in the same place, deliberately chosen in the urban space, which also melt over time. She relied on the collaboration of volunteers to make ice sculptures from ready-made moulds.
The document of culture generated by Néle Azevedo’s intervention focuses on the experience of participants and spectators and, therefore, on audio-visual recordings of the action. The proposed act does not allude to the great heroes of Western modern/colonial history, as indicated by the call for volunteers to carry out the intervention in March 2016:
In an act of a few minutes, the official canons of the monument are inverted: in the place of the hero, the anonymous; in place of the solidity of the stone, the ephemeral process of the ice; instead of the grandiose scale of the monument, the minimal scale of perishable bodies. […] It loses its static condition to gain fluidity in urban displacement and the change of state of the water. They focus on small sculptures of small men, ordinary men.1919. Ibid.
These minimal documents-monuments, created through an inversion of perspective, not only understand the mutuality of culture-barbarism, but also apprehend this place and make it a permanent message between the lines. On the verge of becoming a sentence of damnatio memoriae,2020. Azevedo’s intervention returns the remains to the public sphere, performing a gesture similar to the montages of the German filmmaker Harun Farocki, interpreted by Didi-Huberman as “[t]ake from the institutions what they do not want to show – the rubbish, refuse, forgotten or censored images – to return them to those to whom they belong – that is, the ’public’, the community, the citizens.”2121. Didi-Huberman, "Return an Image," 2015.
At the closing event at the Paço das Artes, the “Minimum Monument” (and the presentation of the group Ilú Obá De Min) creates a monument to erasure, an erasure of the life cycle of public space. Azevedo’s action used the building’s staircase and started at 2 pm on March 16, 2016. The action performed with 1,000 ice sculptures, which lasted only a few minutes due to the blazing sun, was followed by the public as a ritual, a gesture that the artist herself described as political/aesthetic.
Founder and leader of the “Cambio 90” party, the Japanese-Peruvian engineer and mathematician Alberto Kenya Fujimori won his first presidential election in Peru in 1990 with the motto “Honradez, Tecnología, Trabajo” (Honour, Technology and Work). The candidate, until then little known, would also win the following election, after a broad constitutional crisis in the country and a self-coup with the support of the Armed Forces, which involved a new Constituent Assembly, the dissolution of Congress, the seizure of the media, the persecution of people and opposing groups, and systematic violations of human rights.
With high approval ratings until the middle of his second term, it would only be at the end of the decade that the silence, fear and even widely disseminated discourses of apathy towards politics would be broken. Several of the social mobilizations, from 1996 on, were guided precisely by the exercise of imagination of other forms of the public sphere. It would not be just one or a few protests, actions or uprisings that would elaborate a shared notion of a democratic society: it is in the continuity and permanent vigilance that other collective and public consciousness are forged.
The public imaginary was established as a crucial battleground for Peruvian social movements, especially in the last year of Fujimori’s decade-long dictatorship. Disputing national symbols contributed to an individual and collective liberating process for Peruvian citizens that went beyond the established notions of nation and state. The critical trigger for the intensification of the manifestations would be, in addition to the successive corruption scandals and political persecution, the fraud used by Fujimori to get re-elected for the third time in April 2000.
The first performance that inaugurated the work of the Colectivo Sociedad Civil, a group formed by Peruvian artists who played an important role throughout the year 2000, took place precisely at the end of the first round of the national elections: equipped with candles, crucifixes and black fabric, a large group of artists proposed to hold a long, formal funeral ceremony for the Fujimori government in front of the Oficina Nacional de Procesos Electorales (ONPE, National Office of Electoral Processes). The images of the protest ended up circulating in major local and international press vehicles, which stimulated the continuity of actions and the development of the group’s language.
From that moment on, the members of the Colectivo, in collaboration with other groups and movements, began to develop public strategies to mobilize and transform the national imaginary. Among the highly impactful performance actions that began on the eve of the second round of the 2000 elections is “Lava la bandera” (Washing the flag),2222. Images of the intervention can be seen in Sur Journal’s gallery of art pieces. a collective and collaborative ritual for the symbolic and affective cleaning of the national flag. In the weeks that followed the first national cleansing rituals in public squares, in May 2000, several autonomous, independent and equally political reinterpretations of the gesture were recorded in other public squares in Peruvian and foreign cities.
The weekly repetition of the ritual of cleaning the national flags with water, soap and red basins throughout the year produced an image of rescuing the national identity hijacked by Fujimori’s dictatorship. Variations of these symbols of power being subjected to the daily gesture of being washed, hung up on large clotheslines stretched out in public squares and drying in the wind soon appeared, some incorporating military uniforms and robes. The repetition of the gesture and the collective and daily incorporation of the protest in a common and ordinary way by the people also indicate the importance of the need for a long restitution of the kidnapped citizen identities, in their individual and collective spheres. One of the Colectivo’s founding members sums up the country’s ritualization process as follows:
But such surprising political effectiveness is based on a previous moral authority, symbolic capital accumulated from the sacrificial energy of thousands of washing rituals. The collective identification matrix at work here is both religious and patriotic. A domestic, daily, locally made religiosity, which is almost irreverently pop in its liturgical informality, but no less sublime for it. It is through its accessibility and immediacy that Lava la bandera ritualizes the country. (God moves among the pots. And the soaps). Perhaps this is where its ability to become registered in a distinct mnemonic record, in the emotional memory of a citizenship under construction, comes from.2323. Gustavo Buntinx, "Lava la bandera: el Colectivo Sociedad Civil y el derrocamiento cultural de la dictadura en el Perú" (manuscript), 9.
At the end of that year, due to the accumulation of allegations of corruption and human rights violations, Fujimori took refuge in Japan, where he stayed until he was captured in Chile in 2005. Back in 2000, Colectivo Sociedad Civil organized an act to finalize the cycle of cleaning and cure. With the change of government, the flags would already be clean: the call was for celebration, and for the flags to be ironed and folded, handed over to the new rulers and stored so that they could be maintained and cared for, until further cleansing is necessary to uphold democracy.
The fear of the director of the Office of Historical Heritage that Brecheret’s sculpture in São Paulo will be filed down to the floor until there is no more stone left, due to its recurring restorations, reminds us, in an inverted and accidental way, the artistic/political gestures of “Minimum Monument” by Néle Azevedo and “Lava la Bandera” by the Colectivo Sociedad Civil.
The recurring polishing of the stone indicates a possible path for understanding the ritualistic and permanent exercise of reappropriating democracy. The dispute between the representations of power – and the politicization of these images – can contribute to the vindication of emancipatory policies, identities and struggles for human rights that have been dismantled and cynically shelved by the rhetoric of criminal governments that are on the rise in the Global South.
It is interesting, here, to imagine that the emergence of another society, another democratic agreement, is perhaps only possible through the incessant repetition of the ruining of the monolithic and impenetrable documents-monuments that structure cities, politics, and the memory: either through the collective reconstruction of temporary monuments, the public cleansing of national flags or, even more radically, provoking the recurrent polishing of documents-monuments.
The image of this gradual ruining of the monument by its successive cleanings performs, thus, a long-term, continuous funeral ritual that restores agency to the vanquished, structuring another social pact through permanent and gradual infinitesimal reductions of the great modern/colonial history of the great heroes. Always the same, but a little different.