On a November afternoon in 2012, Dan Motrescu climbed up onto a statue of Prince George, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, in Whitehall and took off all his clothes. For close to three hours, the surrounding area was cordoned off by police, who alongside hordes of onlookers waited for the 29 year old man to eventually descend from a perch on the top of the duke’s head.
Motrescu succeeded in snapping off the Field Marshall’s baton, and caused an alleged £10,000 of damage to the statue. But beyond material violation, the most notable outcome was publicity. Not for the perpetrator (he was left unnamed in much of the press), but for the monument itself.
Longer living symbols
The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association has over 9,300 entries for public sculptures across the UK. There are more than 400 public artworks in the City of Westminster alone. Some are world-famous, but most are better known by the ‘press-worthy’ events surrounding them. A naked man always helps.
London-based mixed media artist Liane Lang has spent many years preoccupied by monuments. Her ongoing project Monumental Misconceptions blends photography and sculpture, and spans subjects across the UK and Europe. Central to the series is the notion of iconoclasm (destroying culturally important beliefs or religious images): “here, the statue becomes the object of bodily punishment, being treated as a symbolic site for physical humiliation, injury and execution in lieu of the real body.”
Monuments tend to portray the subject as heroic, all-powerful and permanent. Lang plays with scale in her works to highlight the absurdity of this effect. In her interpretation of the Prince George monument (pictured below), for example, she reduces the duke to a sculptural miniature, casting a naked figure on the top of his head. Thanks to Don Motrescu’s antics, Prince George is no longer the protagonist of his own tribute.
Monumental Misconceptions includes photographs taken by Lang during her residency at the Memento Sculpture Park in Budapest, the resting place of ripped down monuments following the fall of Communism. Also featured in Lang’s project is a series of sculptures modelled on historical acts of symbolic violence, such as The Tzar’s statue being torn down by horse-power as depicted in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 Soviet propaganda film October. These monumental statues of feudalism – the Prussian emperor on horseback, the mighty tsar on his throne, the eminent statue of Bismarck – were all deposed and melted down by Socialists. Their bronze may well have gone into the production of Lenin, Stalin and Dherzhinsky in the following years.
The latest toppling of a Lenin statue occurred just weeks ago in Ukraine – in Kramatorsk, not far from the front lines – and is now seen an assertion of “de-communization.” Who can say as what, or who, Lenin might now be recast?
However, only a a small number of statues survive this form of ideological recycling. While we might think of monuments as permanent – as offering their subjects a form of immortality – in actuality the life of a bronze statue is somewhat precarious. Cultural and historical context also continuously reshape the way we perceive the figure in the sculpture.
Prussians and other Villains, Lang’s new series (pictured above), comprises a host of bronze moustaches: miniature versions of those from previously destroyed monuments of infamous historic leaders. A recreation of the Stalin statue moustache in its original size, about 50cm long, is rumoured (alongside the ear) to have been the only part to survive the destruction of the monument after the dictator’s death. “The majority of political portraits are eventually lost, melted down, recycled or otherwise destroyed”, Lang says. “Imagine all that was kept of each of them was that little ferrety piece of facial hair, as a symbol of truncated power and inadequately remembered lives.”
Lang started with Prussian moustaches but soon branched across countries and industries to people connected or divided by politics, wars, blood relation or philosophical ideas, reduced to the object nature of their facial hair. She names Friedrich Engels’ and Friedrich Nietzsche’s moustaches as particularly enjoyable to make.
It’s a fascinating look at our perception of history, accessed only in the present, and often through edited remains. But then, what’s left may always be written again – censored, burned, melted down and remade.