The Downward Spiral
Jordan Wolfson, Real Violence (2017)
This has been a year of disappearing statues, but what will become of all the defaced idols and broken images? In his latest column, Dean Kissick writes about why iconoclasm is back and what we can do about its aftermath.
At a dinner recently I was sitting opposite a woman who began talking about the statue from Firdos Square in Baghdad that, in an event staged by the US military in April 2003 to visualise its imaginary victory, was pulled down, stamped upon, decapitated and dragged away through the city. It was later replaced by a green modernist sculpture by Bassem Hamad al-Dawiri depicting a family holding up a sun and crescent moon, symbolising the again completely imaginary unity of Iraq. Around 2013 this sculpture, which was fooling no one, was also removed and destroyed and the columns surrounding it were taken away for good measure so that there could be no more statues. The monument of an invincible Saddam; the monument’s theatrical destruction, representing a strong America; and the new monument, representing a peaceful, happy Iraq, were all illusions. But the woman at dinner was not speaking about this. She was speaking about something much more interesting.
She said the Firdos Square Saddam is now in America, in a place called the Garden of Evil. Her friend had been there. The Garden of Evil exists. It’s in Dallas, Texas and belongs to real-estate millionaire Harlan Crow. On his back lawn, among the magnolias and oaks, is a collection of statues of assorted despots that Crow, a conservative, maintains, he says, as a symbol of man’s cruelty. There’s a Joseph Stalin, marked by the attacks of protestors, and a Nicolae Ceausescu that was smeared in excrement when Crow’s representative found it in Eastern Europe and, allegedly – though I’m not so sure about this part – the Firdos Square Saddam is in there too, whatever is left of it. I’ve also read that one of Saddam’s legs, which was left hanging from the column, was found in a garage in Duisburg, and that a former SAS soldier was arrested for attempting to smuggle part of Saddam’s arse into the United Kingdom.
Our conversation turned to iconoclasm because of the running battles in Charlottesville, Virginia, which began with a rally in opposition to the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and was followed by the toppling of a monument of a Confederate soldier in Durham, North Carolina, which crumpled to the floor like a discarded item of clothing. Whatever spell this object had been intended to cast upon us, it was remarkably easily broken. Indeed, the twenty-first century has so far been a century of iconoclasm: it began in 2001 with the felling of the Twin Towers, which was the greatest spectacle ever seen on television. In 2006, also in Manhattan, we had Dash Snow masturbating onto a picture of the dead body of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (founder of what would become the Islamic State) on the cover of the New York Post and then sprinkling it with red, white and blue glitter. In 2015 we watched the destruction of Palmyra by the Islamic State, who were, in their own way, masters of the spectacles of iconoclasm and horror with which attention can be sought, and stories told, in the digital age.
In the art world this year, there has also been a renewed iconoclastic fury. The most significant theme of art discourse has been the desire to destroy artworks: at the Whitney Biennial, Hannah Black called for the destruction of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till. At the Walker Art Center sculpture garden there was a successful campaign to have Sam Durant’s Scaffold removed and dismantled. At documenta 14, Roger Bernat’s Oath Stone was kidnapped by the group Lgbtqi+ Refugees in Greece. In Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, last December, a golden statue of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was installed by artist Italy Zalait overnight and promptly taken down by the public the next day. This iconoclastic urge has come not only from the left, but also from the right, and the who-knows-where: at various locations across the world, Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner’s He Will Not Divide Us flag has been found and defaced. At Skulptur Projekte Münster, for reasons more likely connected to youthful vandalism than politics, one of the figures in Nicole Eisenman’s fountain was decapitated and its head still hasn’t been found. One imagines it hidden in a bedroom somewhere in the small Westphalian city, which has a history of iconoclasm going back to the Anabaptist Rebellion of 1534.
Jordan Wolfson attracted a lot of flak for his auto-destructive virtual reality work Real Violence (2017), also at the Whitney, in which he beats a lifelike animatronic doll to “death” with a baseball bat. It’s an interesting work because it’s iconoclastic to itself. Wolfson – an artist with an uncanny ability of finding the zeitgeist and making something hypnotically disgusting out of it – is literally attacking one of his own sculptures and stamping on its automaton head. It’s hard to call for the destruction of recent works because many of them are already destroying themselves.
With the return of the culture wars, events in the art world have begun to crystallise the political issues of the day again. Hannah Black’s call for the destruction of Schutz’s painting was a rare instance of contemporary art predicting, and perhaps shaping, the future, which is one of the things art is supposed to do. After Charlottesville, iconoclasm has also become one of the biggest issues in Western politics. Now that the means of transgression have been lost – it’s difficult to imagine an artist working today making anything more shocking than what flows out of various orifices of the net constantly, around the clock, every day – destruction is one of the only ways an artist can shock people, or make them listen. And destruction is just another form of expression: speaking to the New York Times, artist Adam Pendleton described the removal of confederate statues as a “performative act” that should be welcomed. Images have never been so important. Now that politics is more of a spectacle than ever and we’re living in a constant stream of images, rolling continuously down every screen, it’s an important time to be making images, and it’s also an important time to be destroying images.
But what will become of all the defaced idols and broken images? In Moscow, in the 1980s, the sculpture park of the Central House of Artists was filled with modernist sculptures. Towards the end of the summer of 1991, as it became apparent that the Soviet Union was collapsing, statues of Communist Party leaders from across the city were taken down, brought there and left on the grass. It came to be known as Fallen Monument Park. Broken images can still have an afterlife and should, perhaps, be taken to image graveyards to die. Many confederate statues have disappeared this year, as have some controversial artworks, and who knows where they’ve gone. But if, at a dinner a few years down the line, somebody were to tell me about another Garden of Evil, one filled with hammer-pocked Saddams, collapsed statues of defeated Southern generals, Dana Schutz paintings, Steve Bannon’s oil portrait of himself as Napoleon, Ivanka and Jared’s collection of zombie formalism, battered Jordan Wolfson puppets with missing limbs, George W. Bush’s paintings of Vladimir Putin – I would definitely want to go.
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in New York.