After they took down the Columbus statue in Grant Park in 2020, its stump remained, silent, wrapped in plastic. The statue became its own monument of absence, a marble pedestal holding the empty space where history had been effaced and revised. In Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz’s solo exhibition, “The Monument, The Monster and The Maquette” at Jane Lombard Gallery in New York City, a black tarp covers an inflatable shape that rises and falls, reminiscent of a statue being built and then falling at once. The artwork is titled “Behemoth” (2022), referring to a monstrous quality.
On a pedestal that Rakowitz has constructed from antique fragments of historical objects glued together, the artist’s pencil writing can be found on almost every object—handwritten footnotes detailing origins or histories. On one side of the pedestal, it is written: “Monument is derived from the Latin verb monere, meaning to remind, advise, warn. Also derived from monere: demonstrate, remonstrate, monster.” “American Golem” (2022) has bronze horses for arms and a carved wooden head.
It is unclear where these sculptures are from, yet to write with pencil directly onto the seemingly historical object is reminiscent of protest graffiti on larger monuments. But if we think of one of the origins of the word monument, “to advise,” we can think of his writing as advisory, warnings to the future.
In relation to his Jewish Iraqi heritage, Rakowitz’s ongoing project “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist,” which he has been working on since 2007, is about revising the histories of monuments that were stolen from archaeological sites in Iraq and now placed in museums. In “The Monument, The Monster and The Maquette” at Jane Lombard Gallery, Rakowitz adds more histories to the project. In the drawings that he titled “Monuments in Spolia” (2022), he layers two versions of the same monument. Such as when a statue of Lenin in Ukraine was transformed into a statue of Darth Vader, or when a bronze statue of a Roman general was melted into coins. There’s humor to his work, but also a deeper message about what we remember and what we forget. This echoes the statements made in pencil, reminding us that histories can easily be erased without a trace.
Michael Rakowitz spoke with Erin L. Thompson, the author of “Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments” last year, when this same exhibition was at Rhona Hoffman Gallery. Rakowitz explained that “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.” In creating monsters out of monuments, especially one that is enormous and breathing in and out in the gallery space, Rakowitz gives us the space to reflect on what we revere, what we look up to, and the statues we let stand as emblems of history.
“Michael Rakowitz: The Monument, The Monster and The Maquette” is on view at Jane Lombard Gallery, 58 White Street, New York City, through October 21.
Written by Mana Taylor