We all have landmarks in our lives. They are the anniversaries and the stories we tell about them; they are scars that are healed wounds; they are the physical places – pubs, churches, forests… And Statues.
Statues are a very particular type of physical landmark. They are a physical record of place and space, serving as a landmark. At the same time they are a piece of art, a record of history, a story hewn in a touchable medium, an idol raised to men who reflect our values, a reminder of who is in charge and who should be watched. Monuments to power, fear, hope, victory.
Statues, like Stained Glass Windows in churches, started as a handy visual representation for a community. A focal point of the history and story of a people. But commissioned and paid for by those with agendas of not just which stories get told, but how those stories get told.
The men and ideas we choose to valorise in statuary reveal as much about us as it does about them. And how we portray them, the veracity of the portrayal, reveals even more. We choose our idols to make ourselves feel better. We tell physical stories through rock and wood and metal to justify the new narrative we want to form. So in an age of expansion and colonialism, an age of conquest and subjugation, we call upon and raise idols that reflect that narrative. In an era of hope, we raise corresponding statuary. In a country not our own, we either enter as supplicants and erect statues reflecting that, or as conquerors and impose fear with statues of violent men.
So when our values change (for better or worse) these men and ideas no longer reflect our own. When the depth and truth of a story becomes more clear, those we once celebrated become anathema to us and we allow our monuments to rust and crumble.
There are times when those monuments must be actively tumbled. Not in an effort to erase history, but to tell better stories about it. When tearing down idols of our old selves, we acknowledge our stories; we admit their truth and decide to tell our stories in a better way. In looking again at whether we hold the same values as those who are not only represented by our statues, but those who raised them, we become more honest about history – and how it’s painted.
We cannot change our past – but we are not slaves to its values, or its heroes. Stone stories of dead white rich men who tortured thousands and whose personal narratives speak only of exploitation and abuse are simply not the stories I want my community to tell any more. Not unless they are stories of warning and what to avoid. And they are certainly not (for me) worthy of being lifted up for all to see and admire.
I’m reminded in all this of the Weeping Angels of the Doctor Who universe. A terrifying antagonist who doesn’t actually kill you, but displaces you in time. Quantum locked into stone when observed, they move quickly as soon as one’s back is turned and banishes their victim to the past – feeding on their lost potential in the current timeline. There are a number of issues at play in the fear the weeping Angels elicit – Loss of potential, death without being dead, being torn away from all you know – but I wonder if on some level the idea of the observation doesn’t have something to say to us in this moment. That to blink, to become indifferent to the stone stories that are statues is to become somehow vulnerable to them. To ignore or turn our backs on the values and people they represent is to risk becoming enslaved to the past rather than learning from it. Stuck in the past, without intelligent interrogation of our own stories and paths we have trod, we become powerless to move on or effect our present.
I love this line from a friend’s recent post “What if… what if the past is only unchangeable in the sense that its wrongs cannot be denied – but everything else can still be shaped and given new meaning and purpose?”
Let’s stop blinking and really look at the heroes we celebrate. Let’s acknowledge that although the past cannot be changed, we can move on from its values and choose new ones. We can raise statues of Hope, Kindness, Justice and Peace – and carve and re-carve stories of those who embody those virtues. We
(“The Empty Plinth” is another great post I read on this recently, really worth checking out.)