Destroying monuments part one: the dissolving city

Monuments are always more than decorative fragments of the urban scene. Here’s a public artwork that stirs up questions about their meaning, the transience of fame and “the bubble reputation” of those commemorated.

I found out the other day that Butcher Cumberland was still hanging round Cavendish Square. That’s not his official title – properly speaking, he’s called Written in Soap: a Plinth Project – but Butcher was the nickname of Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, who sits astride a horse in the middle of the square, just behind John Lewis. He’s an effective piece of public art by Korean artist Meekyoung Shin that raises all sorts of questions about the nature and purpose of monuments.

At first glance, Written in Soap is a standard equestrian statue. It looks like stone, it sits comfortably on a stone plinth and there is a little plaque telling you that it was erected in 1770. The thing is, although it was put up as a statue to the hero of the the 1746 battle of Culloden, it was taken down under a century later for political reasons, after the Duke of Cumberland had gained a shocking reputation for brutal killings and plunder (hence the nickname) and his hero status had become too tarnished to justify public memorialising. The plinth was bare until 2012, when a remarkably convincing imitation of the original was erected, in soap crafted to look exactly like weathered stone.

Written in Soap is designed to weather rather faster than stone, of course. The project was supposed to last a year, but it has worn better than expected – although the supporting metal armature is now sticking through the washed-away surface in several places – and in contrast to the original, public demand is apparently responsible for the decision to leave it in place.

I never consciously noticed the absence of a statue when I used to walk through Cavendish Square, but I remember being shocked when I first registered its presence – a man on a horse had appeared from nowhere yet it looked as if it had been there for centuries. I would have been less disturbed to see a new building – sometimes central London can seem like one giant construction site – but a modest, unassuming monument slipping into place seemed like a much bigger deal, as if I had stepped into a parallel, subtly different world, like someone in a Philip K Dick story.

Written in Soap is a work with many layers. You can simply appreciate the skill in its making or enjoy the joke it makes around the nature of the material, which convincingly imitates stone in appearance while having the opposite qualities in terms of resilience, while perhaps “washing away” the Butcher’s war crimes along with his presence. Or you can see it as a commentary on the transience of fame and “the bubble reputation” (the Duke of Cumberland went from hero to villain within a century and, before his fatty resurrection, was largely forgotten, at least in England, although in Scotland the project stirred up some anger among nationalists), or as a work that engages with the meaning of monuments and their presence in the cityscape. At the very least, it made me look twice, which is more than many works of art achieve.

But, while Written in Soap certainly looks like a monument does it qualify as one, or is it a piece of public art. And is there a difference?

In his book Written in Stone, which was one of Meekyoung Shin’s inspirations, Sanford Levinson writes that “a public monument represents a kind of collective recognition – in short, legitimacy – for the memory deposited there”. A monument is always more than just a decorative fragment of the urban scene, it’s an argument in an ongoing debate over history – what monuments depict, who decides when and where to erect them, what values are embedded in them, are all important questions.

Yet London is overrun with public statues and few people really notice them. Apparently, there are so many monuments and memorials in a part of central London between Whitehall and St James’s that Westminster council has declared in a “monument saturation zone”. But how many of us really see them or know what they represent? Even in Trafalgar Square, the central spot in the capital for people to congregate in celebration or protest, there are three plinths that tend to be overlooked, although most know that Admiral Nelson is on top of the column in the middle and that the “fourth plinth” in the north-west corner is the site of a succession of new commissions. But whose statues are on the other three? (King George IV, Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles Napier if you’re interested – and I had to resort to Google to discover that the latter two were 19th-century army bigwigs who played important roles in Britain’s rule over India.) How long would it take for anyone to spot the difference if they were replaced overnight?

Perhaps this is a reflection of how relaxed Londoners – and maybe the English as a whole – feel about their identity – the Scots’ reaction to the resurrection of Butcher Cavendish shows this complacency isn’t universal in Britain. Or perhaps it’s to do with the fall from fashion of the “Great Man” view of history, or of figurative art in the west – certainly more recent monuments and memorials in London have tended to be non-figurative. Elsewhere, the survival and significance of statues has been a very different story.

Part two of this piece looks at the smashing up of monuments that refuse to gently dissolve in the rain, in countries where national identity is far hotter issue.

• Thanks to Jonathan Polkest for reminding me about Written in Soap: A Plinth Project. For more on the artwork and Meekyoung Shin, see the website and Facebook page

 

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