Monuments as Monsters: Michael Rakowitz and Erin L. Thompson in Conversation

A photograph of a detail of a sculpture composed of repurposed objects. The photograph shows one of these objects, a marble bust of a young girl, on whose face and chest the artist has written “‘Portrait of a Young Girl’ by Thomas Ball, who also sculpted the Emancipation Memorial. Known as the Freedman’s Memorial, it was paid for by formerly enslaved people and depicts Lincoln ‘freeing’ a kneeling, enslaved African American person while holding the Emancipation Proclamation. Ball initially hired a Black model but fired him because of ‘the unpleasantness of being obliged to conduct him through our apartment.’ Ball then used himself as a model but was eventually persuaded by the commission to work from a photograph of a formerly enslaved Black man named Archer Alexander. In a dedication speech for the memorial, Frederick Douglass said: ‘Truth compels me to admit… Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.’ Douglass noted that Lincoln was motivated more to save the Union than to free slaves and that he ‘strangely told us that we were the cause of the war.’ In December 2020 the Boston Art Commission voted unanimously to remove the city’s copy of the statue after a public debate determined it reinforced a racist and paternalistic view of Black people.”

I’ve followed the work of Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz since I saw pieces from his ongoing project The invisible enemy should not exist mixed with antiquities in an exhibition in the gallery of New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. While I had been working on understanding the legal regulations governing the repatriation of cultural heritage, Rakowitz had been using Arabic-language newspapers and food packaging to replicate artifacts stolen from the National Museum of Iraq.

The resulting sculptures were colorful, charming, and powerful. They prompted me to think about what was important about the original antiquities. How did the conflict between Iraqis and foreign collectors over ownership reflect both larger historical violence and more intimate uncertainties about identity?

Rakowitz’s subsequent works have ranged from a re-creation of an ancient lamassu destroyed by ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] at the site of Nineveh for a Fourth Plinth commission to exporting the famously delicious dates of Iraq to Brooklyn to explore the effects both of punitive international sanctions and the expulsion of Rakowitz’s grandfather, alongside many other Iraqi Jews, from the country in 1947.

Rakowitz’s latest project, The Monument, the Monster, and the Maquette, is now on display at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago. The work analyzes the role public monuments have played in the formation of American society, while also asking questions about how they—and America—might change. Once again, Rakowitz and I are navigating similar ground—in different yet complimentary ways: I have just published a book on these topics, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments. When I heard Rakowitz had read it while preparing his project, I asked him to speak with me. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

—Erin L. Thompson

Not Controversial but Cruel

Erin Thompson: How did you come to be interested in monuments?

Michael Rakowitz: I always tell this story about going to the British Museum at age ten, after my grandmother died. She was the last person in our household who could recall life in Baghdad. My mother took us to the Assyrian galleries and showed us the reliefs of King Ashurbanipal hunting lions. She explained to us that it was the first comic book in human history and that it came from the same place where my grandmother was from—where we were from. There’s nothing cooler for a ten-year-old than hearing that his people were responsible for the first comic book.

These monuments were initially propaganda for the king. They praised the brutality of his conquests. Yet 2,500 years later, as we watched the destruction of places like Nineveh and Nimrud, these reliefs were vessels for our grief. Initially, they belonged to a king, but eventually, they became work that belonged to the people. They become something else.

I have always been interested in this magic of art history, where artworks change their position over the years. But I began to think that we shouldn’t have to wait 2,500 years.

In my graduate program in public art at MIT, I studied with Krzysztof Wodiczko. He projects things onto monuments so that they can reappear for us. The novelist Robert Musil wrote that “there is nothing more invisible than a monument,” but Wodiczko did things like use projections to turn the equestrian statue of George Washington in New York’s Union Square Park, which most people just walk past and ignore, into a portrait of a disabled Vietnam War veteran, with Windex and a squeegee (1986’s Homeless Projection: A Proposal for Union Square, revised in 2012 as the War Veteran Project).

ET: Have recent events changed your thinking about monuments?

MR: Monuments were suddenly not so invisible after 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Commentators were always talking about the meaning of the images: depictions of Robert E. Lee, depictions of Stonewall Jackson, depictions of Columbus. But as a sculptor, I wanted to know more about the role of the artist.

The Lee monument at the center of the deadly conflict in Charlottesville was made by Henry Shrady. I researched his life and found out that the commission he had gotten in 1902, before the Lee statue, was for the Grant Memorial outside the US Capitol Building. This probably got him the Lee commission in 1917. It seemed like the two commissions were America in miniature: a country that fights on both sides of itself. It raised the question for me of what keeps one statue standing when another is taken down. Is there a shadow of the sculpture that’s been removed in the sculpture that remains?

These questions got me to look more closely at etymology of “monument.” It’s derived from the Latin monere, which means both “to remind” and “to warn.” From the same root, you get words like demonstrate and remonstrate, which means “to make a forceful reproach”—to protest. And you also get the word “monster.”

And so, I started to think about monuments as monsters. Throughout history, humans have believed that monsters were sent from above to warn us about something. So, you could think of the removal of a monument as a completion of the sculpture: as a way of defeating the monster by creating the opportunity for us to understand it as a warning. At least, as a warning to certain people.

ET: I wrote an article about how the Charlottesville Lee statue was erected as part of a eugenicist campaign to criminalize interracial marriage.

MR: Yes, I read that. It’s an incredible piece of information.

ET: Do you think the removal of that statue, which finally happened in 2021, was a removal of its warning to people—its claim that we should not cross various boundary lines?

MR: Yes, of course, but the removal did a lot of other things, too. The monument also served as a more general warning for the Black people in Charlottesville, to make them feel as though they were still living under the same kind of regime that allowed for the emergence of the Confederacy—and, really, for the whole failed social experiment of America.

Something that really resonated with me in your book is its discussion of the effect on people of living with monuments. For example, if someone from an Indigenous background or a colonized country walks past a statue of Columbus here in Chicago, they get the message that they are somehow lesser than him. His commemoration comes at the expense of people whose pain isn’t as visible in the day-to-day, as we go about our business.

People often use the word “controversial” to describe monuments. I love controversial art. Monuments like those of Columbus are not controversial, but cruel.

Something you wrote about in your book is what it communicates to a young person to grow up in a city where their monsters are present. Where monuments celebrate atrocity by reinterpreting it as progress. Part of what’s gained from removing such monuments is that people who were oppressed by a belief system don’t have to see the concretized forms of this belief still regaled and cared for in the present. They no longer have to psychologically, emotionally, and physically navigate around the monuments that serve as anchors for oppressive beliefs.


ET: I often think about how monuments have the privilege of boredom. The messages they communicate, say, about white supremacy, are so much part of the social status quo that they’re nearly impossible to notice, and thus nearly impossible to question. Monuments give these messages an embodied inevitability, in the same way that you so easily lose track of your own breath or heartbeat.

MR: Yes, monuments become the lungs of the city, performing the involuntary action of breathing the oxygen of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and imperialism that gives life to these oppressive ideals. And not just in public spaces: during my project, I’ve begun to see how many pieces of the work of the monuments’ sculptors ended up in American living rooms. For example, my paternal grandmother had a little porcelain statue by Daniel Chester French and another by Antonin Mercié, who made the Lee statue in Richmond. They got me thinking about what kind of reckoning must also happen in private space.

ET: How did these offspring of monuments inspire the work in your show?

MR: I’m creating a monster. My new sculpture, American Golem, cobbles together different objects and materials that have been imbued with the power given to monuments.

These objects include a bronze ingot stamped with marks showing it came from the Royal Bavarian Foundry of Munich, Germany, which cast many American monuments, including The Spirit of the Confederacy, sculpted by Louis Amateis, which, as you wrote about, has been relocated to the Houston Museum of African American Culture. They also cast the Apotheosis of America, designed by the same sculptor, inside the Rotunda of the US Capitol Building. (They’re nicknamed “the doors to nowhere,” because they don’t open—they just installed them against the wall.) I’ve written about these connections directly on the ingot itself, to create an intimacy of knowledge: the same bronze that’s in front of you has been removed in Houston but still stands in the Rotunda.

Another object is a really spooky bust of a girl by Thomas Ball, the artist of the Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. For that one, I use the quote from Ball’s autobiography you included in your book, where he wrote that he fired the model he was using for the enslaved man in the memorial because of “the unpleasantness” of having a Black person in his studio. You have to understand things like that to understand the legacy of these artists.

The idea of writing on these objects came from things like the base of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, which became an incredible aggregation of the vision and resiliency of a community who transformed the monument by wrapping it in truth. My work often involves writing on drawings or vitrines, to do away with the institution’s ventriloquizing of objects—to have my hand tell people something different about what’s in front of them.

I’m putting together the objects I’ve written on into a golem. In Judaism, a golem is a beast made from clay, which is activated by the Hebrew word for truth, emet, and defends vulnerable communities. These stories originated in times of pogroms in cities like Prague—the golem is almost like the first superhero.

Introduce a Contrast Agent

ET: Now I’m thinking that all monuments are golems created from stone or metal and commanded to go forth and spread a message, but usually one that benefits those already in power. But when the writing on a monument is altered, as it was on the Richmond Lee monument base, to defend a more complex truth, or to call existing authority into question, then it can’t be allowed to stand.

MR: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Yes, all monuments are monsters. But it’s not the ghetto that’s being protected. It’s the state.

My dad is a physician. My first toys were anatomical models, like a transparent human body where you could take out the brain, take out the kidneys—I never put them back properly. When scientists want to know how a circulatory system works, they introduce a contrast agent. I think that art can do that, too. Our monuments tell us where we’re living. They don’t reveal history—they reveal the present. They tell us that we’re still fighting the Civil War.

As for my own work, I’m not interested in proselytizing. I don’t want to reduce complexities. I want to render our contradictions in high relief.

ET: I agree that art can point out the inequalities in a system. But I’m frustrated that putting something like a monument into the category of art can have a noxious effect when people say we shouldn’t remove a monument “because it’s art,” as if this argument trumps all others.

MR: Under some conditions, the usual saying is true: “where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings.” But you must also remember that, in other conditions, it is the writing of books that means that then people will burn. That’s why, when I read your piece about the link between eugenics and Charlottesville’s Lee monument, I thought, absolutely, we have to get that statue out of here.

Rubble We Can Dance On

ET: I recently saw a drawing reinterpreting an Ashurbanipal relief by dressing an Assyrian archer as an Iraqi soldier and showing his horse trampling an Islamic State flag, apparently made to celebrate the recapture of Mosul in 2016. In the United States, many people have both denied the propaganda use of monuments and the fact that it’s very human to reinterpret monuments, as the Assyrian example shows.

MR: Your book demonstrates that this type of reinterpretation has always happened.

ET: Which leads into the questions I want to ask you: Is reinterpretation of monuments more about shaping viewers’ attention than it is about shaping marble or bronze? Do you think that you’re shaping attention in the same way as the sculptors whose monuments you’re now analyzing?

MR: I’m much more interested in what I would call the maquette. There is so much contained in preparatory sketches and models that is somehow vaporized in a final design. A maquette can hold all sorts of different propositions from different people about what can happen in public space. For me, this conversation is the work.

ET: I have long admired the ability of your work to shake apart our certainties, especially by showing how the way we perceive things is indelibly linked to larger cultural and social happenings. For example, in The Ballad of Special Ops Cody, you show how our perception of ancient Sumerian sculptures can’t be separated from conflicts in the modern states that now contain the sites they were excavated from.

MR: One of the things I find the most exciting about being an artist is the ability to reorder and reorient—to look at history and start to think about the potential for it to be something else. Something I loved about your book is that you’re the only other person that I know who reveres the Darth Vader statue in Odessa, made from a repurposed Lenin monument. I’ve made a vellum drawing of it for the current show, with a bottom layer that indicates what it used to be. It indicates a little bit of the mischief and humor we can access and mobilize when dealing with monuments.

I’m not saying that everything must turn into something else as we move forward. But there’s some rubble we must repair, and some rubble we can dance on.

Erin L. Thompson, who holds a PhD in Art History and a JD, both from Columbia University, teaches at the City University of New York. Her work analyzes the ways in which the deliberate destruction of art has sometimes harmed and sometimes benefited communities. Her book, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Public Monuments (W. W. Norton, 2022) traces the turbulent history and abundant ironies of our monuments.

Michael Rakowitz is an Iraqi-American artist working at the intersection of problem-solving and troublemaking. He is the recipient of the 2020 Nasher Prize and was awarded the 2018–2020 Fourth Plinth commission in London’s Trafalgar Square. His work has appeared in venues worldwide including MoMA, MassMOCA, the Palais de Tokyo, Tate Modern, and the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago.