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Do Disappearing Monuments Simply Disappear?

The Counter-Monument in Revision

Author(s): Thomas Stubblefield
Source: Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism
, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Winter 2011), pp. 1-11
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
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1. Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerzs Monument against Fascism not long after its unveiling in 1986.
Photograph courtesy of Esther Shalev-Gerz.

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Thomas Stubblefield

Do Disappearing Monuments
Simply Disappear?
The Counter-Monument in Revision

Future Anterior
Volume VIII, Number 2
Winter 2011

The critique of master narratives that has characterized postmodernism has necessarily taken on an exceptional urgency in
Germany. In the shadow of the Final Solution, the power rela
tionships that undergird official narratives of history came to
embody the same Fascistic tendencies that made possible the
horrors of the past. With this abiding link between the means
of articulating history and an abhorrent past, the very notion
of the monument appeared untenable. In response to this
impasse, however, a handful of works attempted to dramatize
this impossibility by way of a refusal or even active negation of
presence. By utilizing strategies of self-sabotage such as dis
appearance, destruction, and sheer invisibility, these interventions sought to deconstruct the notion of a singular narrative of
the past and thereby free the monument from its demagogical rigidity and certainty of history.1 James Young has coined
the term counter-monuments to describe the way that the
self-effacing quality of these works not only places the act of
memory in the hands of the beholder, but also undermines the
basic assumptions of the monument itself in the process.

Of these sites, perhaps none is as active in its own annihi
lation as Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerzs Monument
against Fascism (1986), which consisted of a towering but
nondescript stele plated with soft lead (Figure 1). The plaque
accompanying the monument invited visitors to etch their
name into the columns surface in order to contribute to both
the denunciation of Fascism and indeed the monument itself
(Figures 2, 3).2 Once the immediate area of the stele was sufficiently covered with writing, the column was lowered into the
ground, making available a new surface for inscription. This
occurred eight times until in 1993 the monument disappeared,
leaving only a small window into its resting place and a plaque
that lists the chronology of its departure (Figures 4, 5).

By revitalizing the past through a kinetic exchange between viewer and the work, a multivocal and dynamic articulation was to emerge from the experience of the site, one that
would mock . . . the traditional monuments certainty of history.3 However, in the translation of theory into practice, this
productive aspect was deflated and contained by a number
of forces. Even before its formal unveiling, the discourse that
the work produced served to absorb the site into the everyday in such a way that mitigated its initial provocation. This

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process of banalization, a term I use throughout this essay

to describe the way in which the very attempt to interject the
monument into the everyday can fuel its disappearance, meant
that the a
ctive spectatorship ascribed to the experience of the
Monument against Fascism would prove only superficial. In
the end, the disappearance of the monument would function
as a projection of an already remembered past that actively
repressed the creative aspects of memory as much as it re
inforced existing narratives of history.

While Youngs concept has become a cornerstone of memory and monument studies, the case of the Monument against
Fascism suggests the need for a reconsideration of its basic
assumptions. At the heart of this revision must be an understanding of the monument as enmeshed in a social space that
is itself formed in part by discourse. Without this distinction,
the work comes to assume the status of an autonomous object
whose design or authorial intention determines its fate. As
much as monumentality itself, it is the latter assumption that
risks a Fascistic hold on history.
Taking Place: Location and the Discourse of Banalization
From the beginning, the location for the Monument against
Fascism was a sticking point for the artists, whose insistence
on a normal, uglyish place would mean rejecting the citys
initial offering of a scenic park in Hamburg for a busy retail
corner in nearby Harburg.4 Situated between a commuter train
station and a fish store, a Chinese restaurant and the market
square, dry cleaners and a baker, this bustling location was
intended to undercut the proclivity of the monument toward
invisibility on two fronts.5 Most immediately, it would safeguard the work from the ossification of those self-aggrandizing,
heroic monuments that utilize their physical remove from daily
life to reinforce the static and eternal history they articulate. In
the process, this seemingly non-monumental location would
also grant visibility to the performative aspect of the work
(its daily inscriptions and periodic lowerings by crane), and
thereby serve to sidestep what Robert Musil once described as
the monuments conspicuous inconspicuousness.6 As Young
summarizes, as a result of this prominent, even inconvenient
location, the residents of Harburg would either like it or hate
it, but they could not avoid it.7 However, in shifting the discussion from the artists intention to the actual experience of the
site, it becomes clear that what was theorized as an attempt to
intervene into the everyday would in practice only subject the
site to a second order of invisibility.

Describing a process of banalization, Noam Lupu points
out that the publics first real engagement with the controversial and much talked about site came in the form of a traffic
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jam.8 Motorists and pedestrians alike were forced to either find

alternate routes or endure extended commute times during
the installation of the work. The result of this encounter was
not simply frustration, but discourse. In the local newspapers,
the discussion of the monument began to shift from its design
features and aesthetic value to the inconvenience it posed to
the functioning of the city. (As one writer quipped, Even the
slimmest find it difficult to maneuver around oncoming traffic
at the site.)9 With this shift in discourse, this supposed catalyst
for the revisiting and remaking of Germanys difficult past was
quickly becoming, as Lupu puts it, one of a handful of construction sites throughout the city.10

This transformation was reinforced by the ongoing debate regarding the monuments cost. Not surprisingly, many
residents were less than thrilled at the prospect of spending
DM 280,000 for a work that would eventually disappear. In a
much publicized back and forth, Harburgs mayor complained
that the money would be better spent repaving a highway,
while Jobst Fiedler, the SPD head of the Harburg municipality, pointed out that that only one hundred meters of highway
could be repaved for the cost of the monument. Aside from the
issue of whether the analogy served to justify the expense,
the exchange nonetheless reinforced a connection between
the monument and the banal. In this case, it was the road
aspace that is rarely experienced with concerted attention
andmore often than not relegated to the optical unconscious.
Thus, even before its formal unveiling, the discourse that surrounded the site had come to, as Musil once wrote, impregnate [the monument] with something that repels attention.11

However, this relationship does not in itself necessarily
preclude the kind of memory work that Young envisions. In
fact, it is precisely in this context of disavowal and distraction
that the contemporary monument often functions. From this
perspective, the traffic jam, even if the monument itself does
not cause it, might very well provide a kind of blockage in
the smooth flow of information through which a new engagement with the past becomes possible. Yet, as the Monument
against Fascism illustrates, this intervention into the everyday
nonetheless carries with it a danger of turning on itself and
becoming complicit in the monuments disappearance. This
latent possibility would largely be realized by the surrounding
discourse of the site, which served to recast these same interventions as reaffirmations of the status quo.

On several occasions, Young has described the ideal
monument as one whose absence of physical presence
would allow the surrounding debate to take on the memorial
function.12 The assumption here is that this transformation
of the site into discourse would sidestep the monuments
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2. A man etches into the surface

of the Monument against Fascism.
Photograph courtesy of Esther

demagogical rigidity and certainty of history, by returning the burden of memory to its visitors [who will in turn] be
forced to rise to remember for themselves. However, as the
above discussion suggests, in this championing of debate,
Young seems to confuse the productivity of discourse with the
contingency of memory and the prospect of mobilizing the
historical record.13 While discourse may itself be productive,
that which it produces (the rules for what constitutes acceptable statements and the categories that such statements draw
on) need not be. Rather, as Foucaults analysis of power has
confirmed, discourse can just as often function to maintain
the underlying categories and rules, reinforcing the status
quo.14 Youngs assumption that this discourse of memory can
somehow be transferred to the participant from the ossified
discourse of the monument, leads him to believe that this discourse is ipso facto productive, when this is in fact not necessarily the case.

Indeed, in the memorial context, debate has proven to
carry with it both an oppressive bureaucracy and the exclusivity of panels of experts, survivors, and their families. Such
discourse can just as easily stymie the monuments ability
to mobilize the past, and thereby lead us back to the ossification that the counter-monument seeks to escape. In the
case of the Monument against Fascism, this discourse came
from not only newspapers and politicians but also the artists
themselves. Disappointed by a host of swastikas and neo-
Nazi signs that soon appeared on the surface of the stele, the
artists condemned these painful scrawls which, from their

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3. Inscriptions left by visitors to the

Monument against Fascism. The center
text reads Where they burn books, so
too will they in the end burn human
beings Heinrich Heine. Photograph
courtesy of Esther Shalev-Gerz.

perspective, bore witness not to the displacement of the official narrative of the past by the processes of popular memory,
but rather the seeming impossibility of freeing the monument
from its Fascistic tendencies.15 However, it would seem that it
is precisely this kind of gesture that such a monument would
welcome. Engaging the attraction and even persistence of Fascism as well as provoking the opposition that such statements
elicit would appear to rescue the site from both the top-down
ideology of the traditional monument and the forces of oblivion
that the form often invites. Yet this possibility was quickly
sabotaged by the authority of the artists and the discursive
frame that this position served to maintain.
Disappearance, Participation, and the Iconoclastic Gesture
Aside from the location, the primary way the artists work attempted to undermine the stasis and univocity of the monuments articulation of history is through the activation of the
spectator. In this, Young situates the work within a recurring
trend in postwar art that seeks to replace the autonomous
object with a relational and contingent identity by relying
on the viewer for both the creation of meaning and the very
construction of the work itself. This relational aesthetic is
integrated into the monument on multiple levels. Not only is
the surface presented as a blank slate for the visitors inscription, but so is the lowering of the stele and thereby the specific
visual form of the monument at any given time determined by
the degree of his or her participation. According to Young, it is
through this interactivity that the counter-monument seeks to
challenge its own authority and the historical narrative that it

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4. The Monument against Fascism

after its final lowering in November
1993. Photograph courtesy of Esther

might impose. As he describes, By inviting its own violation,

the monument humbles itself in the eyes of beholders accustomed to maintaining a respectful, decorous distance. It forces
viewers to desanctify the memorial, demystify it, and become
its equal. . . . Ultimately, such a monument undermines its
own authority by inviting and then incorporating the authority
of passersby. The monuments disappearance at the hand of
the viewer was thus intended to visualize the aforementioned
displacement of memory, whereby the spectators own engagement with the past comes to constitute the monument proper.

In practice, however, the majority of local residents
regarded the work as a disgrace (Schandsule) and even admitted feeling victimized by this officially imposed Holocaust
memory.16 At issue was not only the counterintuitive nature of
a disappearing monument, but also the aggressive imposition
of the work into the daily life of those residents who populated
the square, the position of authority the artists maintained via
their continual explanation and instruction for the work, and
finally the exploitation of the monument by local politicians.
As many have pointed out, the successive lowerings of the
Monument against Fascism were, ironically, replete with all the
fanfare of a propagandistic rally. The extremely politicized
nature of these performances was confirmed when a scheduled
lowering was postponed because of the unavailability of the
Hamburg senator for culture, Helga Schuchardt.

In conceiving of participation in terms of giving the monument back to the people, the work posited a discrete and
autonomous inner representation of the past, which functions

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5. The plaque that now resides at

the site of the Monument against
Fascism in Harburg. Courtesy of
Esther Shalev-Gerz.

as the primary if not sole constituent of memory. As an example

of what Susannah Radstone calls the over-personalization of
memory, this gesture led to the conflation of the individuals
physical transformation of an object with the transformation of an entire discursive formation.17 What is missing from
this understanding of relational aesthetics is precisely its
relational aspect. As Nicolas Bourriaud, the curator and critic
who first introduced the concept in his work of the same name,
describes, such art takes as its theoretical horizon the realm
of human interactions and its social context, rather than the
assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.18 The
supposedly relational aspect of the Monument against Fascism
seems to involve simply trading one private symbolic space
for another. This is reinforced by the works implicit formalism,
which, as Matthew Mulholland describes, serves to conflate
the monument with the very processes of personal memory,
without reference to a wider, G
erman public sphere.19 For
these reasons, participation proved less productive than had
been envisioned. Indeed, it came to enact what Brett Ashley
Kaplan calls a paralyzing reversal, whereby engagement
became the medium for the destruction of, rather than active
dialogue with, the site.20

While this participatory aspect may have been sabotaged
by a non-dialectical conception of memory, the works connection to a history of monumental iconoclasm nonetheless
evokes the euphoria of collective authorship. In the process of
touting the antiauthoritarian aspect of participation, the physical destruction of the monument came to conjure a familiar
image. From the toppling of Iron Felix during the collapse
of the Soviet Union to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the desecration of monuments by the people has typically represented
a moment of popular groundswell wherein the power of a
repressive regime is finally overwhelmed. In these images, one

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seems to witness what Boris Groys calls those human masses

[that] represent the blind material forces that covertly govern
consciously perceived human history.21 Indeed, Youngs own
rhetoric of desanctifying and demystifying the monument indirectly draws from this association. However, a recent example
of such iconoclasm suggests that staging such acts of defilement can, rather paradoxically, serve to reinforce the power
relationships that underlie the existing historical narrative.

On April 9, 2003, at the conclusion of the American invasion of Iraq, a crowd in Firdos Square began to clamor around
the statue of Saddam Hussein. In full view of the cameras of
Western journalists, the Iraqis struck the statues base with
sledgehammers, threw stones at its face, beat it with the bottoms of their shoes as it hovered above them, and then rushed
the fallen statue as it broke free from its pedestal. Despite
the infectious spontaneity of these images, we now know that
the falling of the statue was anything but organic. In fact, a
psychological operations team of the U.S. Army orchestrated
the entire event. The sense of immediacy these images conveyed was strategic, a primary vehicle for transferring responsibility from the Western forces to the Iraqi people.22

While I do not mean to suggest that the artists surreptitiously planned the sabotage of the memorial with some ulterior motive in mind, the conflict between the Monument against
Fascisms self-professed participatory nature and the buried
dynamics of its imposition from above does bear a certain affinity with the episode in Firdos Square. Both episodes served
to contain the productive aspect of iconoclasm, that is, its
tendency to produce images in the process of destroying them,
albeit for very different ends. In the case of the Harburg monument, not only were instructions printed in newspapers and
posted on the accompanying plaque, but so, too, were the artists present at certain events to condone and oversee such actions. More broadly, by presenting this act of iconoclasm within
a contained environment that detached monument destruction
from actual historical change, the work offered a sanitized and
ultimately impotent version of these grand images of destruction. Relative to such experiences, etching ones name into a
soft slab of lead amid the shopping district of Harburg seems
hardly to carry the charge of the intoxicating images of historical change that the work conjures. However, like the events
in Firdos Square, the work co-opts the vitality of monument
desecration to reinforce its claims to legitimacy.
Conclusion: The History of the Counter-Monument
While Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz may have sought
alocation that was not historically burdened, the representational strategy they employed nonetheless brought with it
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a number of connections to the past that in hindsight help to

explain the brief but tumultuous life of the Monument against
Fascism. Of these, perhaps the most recognizable is the affinity
of the work with the familiar postwar trope of the unrepresentable. While in the aftermath of the Holocaust illustrating the
inadequacy of representation served to preserve the unfathomability of the event, such a strategy has undergone a radical
transformation in recent years. Adornos original prohibition
on poetry, and the expectation of a necessary failure of the
image it engendered, has largely been undermined by popular
culture. From Sophies Choice (1982) to Schindlers List (1993),
Hollywood has not only sidestepped the taboo but in fact wed
the event to the image in intimate fashion, especially for those
born after the war. Recognizing that the unassimilable quality
of the event does not necessarily preclude representation in
the contemporary sphere, scholars such as Hayden White and
Saul Friedlander have recently declared the Holocaust to be
unrepresentable no longer.23 In such a context, recourse to absence as an aesthetic strategy cannot be considered in terms
of a contemplation of the ineffable; rather, it seems to introduce a kind of nostalgic emptiness that lacks the productivity
of its postwar instantiation.24 Derrida makes a similar distinction between the architectural articulation of the void in Daniel
Libeskinds Jewish Museum and the refusal of closure one
finds in the Platonic chora. Whereas the latter functions as a
place that precedes history and the inscription of Forms, Libeskinds evocation of a historically determined visual trope presents a space that is already circumscribed by the history it
claims to destabilize.25 In similar fashion, the negativity of the
Harburg monument, its continual disappearance from view and
general weariness of presence, largely failed to materialize as a
future-oriented potentiality, but rather came to illustrate what
Leo Bersani calls the susceptibility of all potential b
eing to
nothingness as if potentiality could itself fail to takeplace . . .
could tilt the universe backward into the void.26

Further, by starting with the monument itself, the Monument against Fascism and indeed the very concept of the
counter-monument not only leads the discussion back to the
intentionality of the artist, but perhaps more troubling, posits
the site itself as the primary determinant in its relation to
history. While its design and vision are crucial aspects of the
process, these aspects do not wholly determine the narrative
of interaction and the relational quality that undergirds such
cultural forms. By considering the work as the primary source
of meaning, the creative capacity of the counter-monument
effectively ends at the artists hand. A true becoming in relation to the past would require not necessarily an absence of
determinants, but rather the capacity to unleash a productive
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force that would incorporate the site and its assumptions.

Conceiving of the monument in terms of an autonomous form
is to invite participation into a realm that the artist has already
preconceived. In such a space, action transforms only an object
rather than the historical record it engages.
Thomas Stubblefield is a full-time lecturer in art history at the University of
MassachusettsDartmouth. His research interests include cultural memory,
postmodernism, and the theory of photography. He is currently at work on a book-
length project on 9/11 and the visual culture of disaster.
James Young, Memory/Monument, in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Robert
Nelson and Richard Schiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 239.
The inscription on the plaque read, We invite the citizens of Harburg and visitors
to the town to add their names here to ours. In doing so, we commit ourselves to
remain vigilant. As more and more names cover this twelve-meter tall lead column,
it will gradually be lowered into the ground. One day it will disappear completely,
and the site of the Harburg Monument against Fascism will be empty. In the end,
itis only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.
In an e-mail sent to the author on February 6, 2012, the artist Esther Shalev-Gerz
points out that the monument was commissioned by the city of Hamburg in the
context of the rise of neo-fascism and [was] not about the past.
James Young, The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today,
Critical Inquiry 18, no. 2 (1992): 274.
Petra Kipphoff, Das verschwundene Iknkmai, Die Zeit, 19 November 1993.
Translation from Noam Lupu, Memory Vanished, Absent, and Confined: The
Countermemorial Project in 1980s and 1990s Germany, History and Memory 15,
no.2 (2003):136.
Robert Musil, Monuments, in Posthumous Papers from a Living Author, trans.
Peter Wortsman (Brooklyn: Archipelago, 2006), 64.
Young, Counter-Monument, 274. As Matthew Mulholland puts it, the artists envisioned the monument not merely as something physically imposing (both in the
sense that the monument itself was indeed of traditional monumental proportion
and in the sense that it actually impeded pedestrian traffic, thereby forcing its bare
image on the public), but also as something mentally imposing. The Power of
Remembrance: Memorials and the Holocaust, Kedma 4 (Spring 2007): 22.
Lupu, Memory Vanished, Absent, and Confined, 137.
Harburg-Heilllat der Baustelle, Harburger Rundschau, 6 August 1986.
Lupu, Memory Vanished, Absent, and Confined, 137. The resulting metonymic
exchange is succinctly illustrated by the title of the 23 October 1986 Harburger
Rundschaus piece on the monument, Harburg: Home of the Construction Site.
Musil, Monuments, 64.
At a December 2003 panel discussion at New Yorks 92nd St. Y on The Meaning
of Memorials, Young stated, Better a thousand years of Holocaust memorial competition than any final solution. Similarly in a 1999 essay, he claims, In the end,
the counter-monument reminds us that the best German memorial to the fascist
era and its victims may not be a single memorial at allbut simply the never-to-
be-resolved debate over which kind of memory to preserve, how to do it, in whose
name, and to what end. Memory and Counter-Memory: The End of the Monument
in Germany, Harvard Design Magazine 9 (Fall 1999): 9.
James Young, At Memorys Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary
Art and Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 48.
See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York:
Vintage, 1995); and History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley
(New York: Vintage, 1990).
The artists explained, The scrawling hurts. . . . We are not satisfied with this
public. Harburg mit Kubel ausschutten, Harburger Rundschau, 1988. Cited in
Lupu, Memory Vanished, Absent, and Confined, 146.
Lupu, Memory Vanished, Absent, and Confined, 141.
Susannah Radstone, Memory Studies: For and Against, Memory Studies 31,
no.1 (2008): 33.
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza
Woods (Dijon: Les Presse Du Reel, 1998), 14.
Richard Crownshaw, Conceptual Indeterminacies and the Retheorisation of the
Art of Vicarious Memory, Forum for Modern Language Studies 44, no. 2 (2008): 223.
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Brett Ashley Kaplan, Unwanted Beauty: Aesthetic Pleasure in Holocaust Representation (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 162. As Mulholland explains,
It was almost as if the public enjoyed destroying the monument. Power of
Remembrance, 30.
Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008), 75.
With the exception of one poorly played scene (the covering of the statues face
with an American flag by a U.S soldier), this presentation removed the sense of
outside intervention with the hopes of naturalizing the destruction of the statue
(and perhaps in a broader sense the country itself).
Saul Friedlander explains, The extermination of the Jews of Europe is as accessible to both representation and interpretation as any other historical event. Similarly, Hayden White has claimed, I do not think that the Holocaust, Final Solution,
Shoah, Churban, or German genocide of the Jews is any more unrepresentable than
any other event in human history. Saul Friedlander. Introduction, in Probing the
Limits of Representation, ed. Saul Friedlander (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 23; Hayden White, Historical Emplotment and the Problem of
Truth, in Friedlander, Probing the Limits of Representation, 52.
Citing a pervasive fear of aesthetic pollution that pervades postwar art and
architecture, Brett Ashley Kaplan points out that even the initial connection between monumentality and Fascism was shaky at best. Not only did the conception
of, for example, Speers monumental architecture predate the Nazi regime by at
least a century, but so was there considerable disagreement within the party over
the proper form of Nazi art. In fact, many, including Goebbels, were sympathetic
to modernist designs despite their eventual demonization in the Degenerate Art
exhibition and other venues. Nonetheless, as Kaplan points out, postwar visual
culture continues to operate from the assumption that monumentality is inherently
Fascistic, and for this reason often sabotages its own attempts at history in the
process. Kaplan, Unwanted Beauty, 152.
Jacques Derrida, Response to Daniel Libeskind, Research in Phenomenology
22, no. 1 (1992): 92.
Leo Bersani, Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject, Critical Inquiry 32
(Winter 2006): 169. This failure to historicize both the category of the unrepresentable and the conception of monumentality against which it is counterposed leads
to a contradiction concerning the origins of the aesthetic strategy of the Monument
against Fascism. Ironically, the counter-monument owes its inception to none other
than Lenin, whose monumental program from 191822 called for a peoples art
that would utilize ephemeral, disappearing monuments as a means to undermine
existing tsarist works. As Albert Boime summarizes, Lenin employed this strategy to
liberate monuments from their supernatural look of frozen solemnity and activate
them as humanly accessible agencies advancing the progress of the revolution.
Not designed for eternity but for eventual self-destruction. This counterintuitive
historical lineage reinforces the formative relation that discourse maintains to the
monument, as an almost identical aesthetic strategy can serve opposing ends at
different moments in history depending on the way its conceptual underpinnings
are articulated. Albert Boime, Perestroika and the Destabilization of the Soviet
Monuments, ARS: Journal of the Institute for History of Art of Slovak Academy of
Sciences 2/3 (1993): 218.

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