The Living Monument
by Hendrik Folkerts
Mousse Magazine, Fall 2018
Places are defined by what – and how – they remember. Navigating the names of boulevards, streets and city plazas, we walk through history every day; an embodied knowledge that is channeled through the materialization of what the space we inhabit aims to remember and consequently, what it wants to forget.
This type of memorialization is inherent to the more specific structure of the monument, an architecture entirely devoted to memory. Monuments are silent witnesses, commemorating a major historical event, transgression or victory of the past. As with previous moments of political revolution, monuments are increasingly becoming the battle ground for political and social change in the present moment. However, as the following will demonstrate, the channels of remembering are as much physical and material as they are immaterial and embodied.
Since April 8, 2014, activists who gather on Budapest’s Freedom Square under the banner of the Living Memorial occupy the space across the monument dedicated to victims of the 1944 invasion of Hungary. According to the activists, this monument, erected by the ultraconservative nationalist government of Hungary in a highly distinct neoclassical ornate, whitewashes history by claiming Hungary as a victim of the Nazi military forces, while Hungary’s actual involvement in the persecution of the Jewish community preceding and during World War 2 as well as its relationships with the Third Reich are undeniable. Since the construction date of said monument, the activists together with scholars, artists and cultural workers, have been assembling almost every day, to enact the Living Memorial not as a monument made of stone, bronze or glass, but constructed of people united in resistance, through a form of mobilization and monumentalization that is inherently embodied, based on the presence of and exchange between people.
The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia (United States)
became the gathering point for a “Unite the Right” rally that brought white nationalists, neo-Confederates and the so-called American “alt-right” in violent – and lethal – confrontation with counter-protesters on August 12, 2017, following the City Council’s decision to remove the Lee statue as a step towards removing all the city’s Confederate monuments. The bodies assembling – subjected to violence – around this monument, can be regarded as either affirmative monuments and movements or counter-monuments; embodied forms of living, affirming or countering history. Closer to the author’s own locality, it was only recently that Olu Oguibe’s art work for documenta 14 – a monumental obelisk on Kassel’s Königsplatz, commemorating the history of migration in the city with the Biblical verse “I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35) carved out in German, English, Turkish and Arabic – was targeted by the right-wing populist political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). In the context of a City Council debate around the potential acquisition of the art work by the city, a local AfD representative described the art work as “entstellt”, a word carefully chosen to reflect its proxy “entartet” [degenerate] which the Nazi’s used to describe the art of the historical avant-garde in the 1937 Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich. A further promise was made that if the work is indeed acquired by the city, the AfD would appropriate the monument as a starting point for all their anti-immigration rallies.
These examples lead to an understanding of the monument – old or new – as an architecture that is always and necessarily in flux, a history in motion, and more importantly, as an assembly of bodies who gather to denounce or (re)shape the politics of memory. It is in these bodies that history is lived and continued, which shape the monument of the future as a living and breathing organism – indeed, a living memorial. I strongly believe we should begin to understand our museum collections in a similar fashion. Rather than building them as traditional archives that assume a finite interpretation of history, collections designate structures of embodied knowledge, populated by voices that speak of lived experience. Once we recognize our bodies as part of the collections that form the memory of our collectives, we are implicated in their display and become part of – and are able to confront – the histories they perform.
Carlos Motta’s new project The Crossing, which premieres at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam on September 16, 2017, entangles the lived histories of recent LGBTQ+ migrants who came to the Netherlands from the Middle East region with objects from Dutch museum collections that are anchored in the history of (forced) migration and colonialism, ultimately proposing a careful dissection of the mythology and reality of immigration to the Netherlands as well as so-called “Dutch tolerance”. Motta has previously shown his engagement with the genealogy of museum collections and the (aesthetic and political) values on which they are built, for example through his project Towards a Homoerotic Historiography (2014), which showed queer and homoerotic sculptures created by indigenous groups in the pre-Columbian Americas that have been systemically erased from the cultural memory of what is now Latin America.
The Crossing takes place at the intersection of, on the one hand, the recent immigration of Syrian political migrants against the backdrop of increasingly xenophobic, Islamophobic and right-wing politics in the Netherlands (and Europe at large) and, on the other hand, a pivoting public debate on how museums and art institutions in the Netherlands should actively de-colonize – and diversify – their exhibitions, collections and programs, as well as their overall institutional structures. The public outcry against the exhibition Good Hope. South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600 at the Rijksmuseum (National Museum of the Netherlands, February 17 – May 21, 2017) that neglected to fully acknowledge the criminal and violent mechanisms employed the Dutch government to establish and maintain the oppression of colonialism in South-Africa, is just one sign of the necessity to properly address colonization in the Dutch historical imaginary. In the field of contemporary art, the Stedelijk Museum became the focal point of critique, when cultural workers accused the museum of its lack of diversity in the wake of the closing of its satellite space SMBA. More recently, the renowned art center, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art was accused by a large coalition of scholars and cultural workers of “mitigate[ing] critique by Black and non-Black people of color while simultaneously co-opting said critique in an effort to immunize itself against it,” referencing, in part, the fact that the institutions bears the name – and therefore the history – of one of the most infamous Admirals of the 17th-century United East India Company.
The lived histories of the LGBTQ+ people in The Crossing – one of the two main elements of the work – are captured in an eleven-channel video installation. Motta engaged his subjects through the organization Secret Garden, which supports and aids LGBTQ+ people, especially those with a migrant background or refugee status. Each channel bears the name of the person sharing their personal story. Anwar from Egypt (Anwar) maps out his tear-ridden experience from Egypt, where he was tortured in prison, publicly shamed and disowned by his family for being gay, to Kuwait, where an outing by an Egyptian colleague led to further violence, to the Netherlands, where he came after searching the Internet for “gay rights” but once again found himself at the gates of a prison (the refugee center in Alphen aan de Rijn). Mala from Morocco identifies as a transgender woman, “with a beard.” In Mala, she narrates her own experience of coming out to her parents, being homeless after a subsequent violent encounter with her family, and becoming an active agent in the queer scene of Morocco against law 489 that criminalizes same-sex relationships. Although her manner is one of subdued pain covered up with awkward smiles, the joy of coming to the Netherlands is visible on Mala’s face. However, the joy is short-lived. Arriving during the annual Gay Pride event, she is attacked by three men who address her in Moroccan and beat her up. “I thought, wherever we go this curse will follow us.” She now lives in a refugee camp, running a queer magazine, yet is surrounded by the same violence and the new racism. There is Benham from Iran, Butterfly from Syria, Faysal from Pakistan, Hatem from Egypt (his face blurred out), Layan from Syria (her face covered by her hair), Mahshid from Iran, Najat from Iraq (we only see the back of his head), Raneen from Iraq and Zizi from Iraq (her eyes covered by a mask), of course among countless other stories and experiences like this.
It is perhaps inviting to think of such documentary projects as sentimental or even moralistic, yet Motta’s straight-forward camera work allow his subjects to simply tell their story. The deep physical and emotional trauma their bodies have been subjected to is at times unbearable to hear, but the candor and heartfelt emotion with which they share their histories makes it impossible to turn away. There is no moral to the story, as Mala’s video clearly demonstrates. Western Europe’s political and cultural values are not celebrated as a land of the free, even though that is often the incentive of the forced political migration The Crossing revolves around – rather, the homophobia and by consequence, violence, are as profoundly felt in the country of arrival as it was in the country of departure, added to by the rage of xenophobic and racist sentiments that run freely in many countries in the West, including the Netherlands.
The various video channels are clustered around a second element of The Crossing that further complicates the long-sustained myth of Dutch “tolerance”: two vitrines showcasing over thirty objects that belong to various Dutch museum collections, from the aforementioned Rijksmuseum (National Museum) to the Wereldculturen Museum (World Cultures Museum) and the Amsterdam Museum. These objects introduce longer lines in the history of (forced) migration to the Netherlands as well as how the notion of immigration relates to – or is at odds with – the history and politics of (Dutch) colonization. A print by Jan Frederik Christiaan Reckleben from 1635 celebrates the Dutch Republic as a refuge for the exiles of the faith: “perfugium miseris” or refuge for the unfortunate. This print is echoed by the work of an anonymous printmaker that represents the Lutheran emigrants banished from Catholic Salzburg in 1732, accompanied by a hymn that praises their willingness to accept exile for the sake of their religion and welcomes them to the Dutch Republic. Such celebrations of the “free state” are juxtaposed with colonial photography and paraphernalia from the late 19th and early 20th century, capturing the very specific colonial relationship between the photographer/producer of the image and his subjects, mostly from Indonesia and Suriname, both former Dutch colonies. The more contemporary objects relate to the often acrimonious debate on integration, free speech and freedom of religious expression that arose in the increasingly nationalist and populist political context of the Netherlands and Europe in the beginning of the 21st century. The pink djellaba by Corne Gabriels (2014), worn by a group of Moroccan-Dutch participants of the 2014 Amsterdam Gay Pride, produces a stark contrast with the plaque on which the words “Long live free speech! Away with executioners of the prophet” are a grim reminder of the extreme political tension that emerged following the assassination of the writer and filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004. Such are the extreme contradictions of today.
The Crossing puts the respective collections on display as mechanisms that shape the cultural memory of a nation as well as the ways in which history is acknowledged, ignored, shifted or revised. Through the various objects in the vitrines, Motta creates an ambiguous monument that aligns recent political and social events with a longer history of migration, foreignness and otherness, and the great debt of the European nation’s colonial past. Moreover, Motta enforces a conversation between this monument and the other one collected in the eleven screens surrounding the vitrines: the experiences of people who were forcibly displaced in search of a better life, faced with the backlash against immigration and the same homophobia that drove them out of their home countries. Their voices populate the space as a living monument, comprising oral histories and personal experiences, put in the context of a collection to further complicate how we remember yet also how we enact history in the present. The installation invites us to consider how we fit in this body of objects. If we implicate ourselves, we may recognize or identify with some of the experiences on the screens or acknowledge that perhaps our bodies and minds have also been the vessels for the histories we observe in the collection of objects. These transitions from the individual experience towards the collective awareness, from the material to the embodied, towards the body as the site of lived history, makes the monument truly alive.
 See https://lazeefuik.com/2017/05/15/open-letter-to-the-board-of-amsterdams-rijksmuseum/.
 See https://dutchartinstitute.eu/page/8717/june-14-at-19-30-diversity-criticism-and-the-closure-of-smba and http://www.platformbk.nl/2016/07/ww16-schaduwen-in-de-woestijn-bij-de-sluiting-van-smba/ (Dutch)
 See http://www.metropolism.com/nl/news/31933_open_letter_to_witte_de_with.