Monument Manoeuvre

Standing on the second floor balcony of the ICA looking out across the greenery of St James’s Park to the London Eye, Westminster Cathedral and beyond, artist Tim Brennan reads out two passages. The first concerns Westminster City Council’s disinclination to allow any more statues to be built in the city, arguing that future monuments should rather live in the form of tress or gardens rather than statues; we have simply already filled the city with memorable figures. The second is an encyclopaedia introduction to various forms of amnesia. This is the beginning of Monere Manoeuvre, a walking tour of monuments in the vicinity of the ICA, and the following is written from memory and a single page of notes that I wrote immediately after the walk.

The area immediately around the ICA contains the physical manifestations of many sets of unpleasant power relationships: the clubland of St James, the odious Institute of Directors, the embassies of foreign power, all butt up against Whitehall, the home of the direct bureaucratic instruments of government. It’s fertile ground, and two artists have used the ICA to explore it in the last year alone: Cerith Wyn Evans in his tribute to Marcel Broodthaers, opening up the lower gallery to the Colour Guard on the Mall; and Heath Bunting in his exploration of local embassies. And again, with Memorial, we find ourselves exercising a fantasy about the memorial form in a part of London in which there is apparently no room for any more.

Brennan’s method is the juxtaposition of evocative quotation with the physical presence of objects, and so once outside the ICA we move from monument to monument as he reads from printed passages pasted into a brown notebook. It immediately feels like being inside an interactive Patrick Keiller film, but it’s also the opposite of the new Time Out brand of London geekery, of dreary fact-collection, the pursuit of local history in the hipster garb of a wildly-misunderstood concept of ‘psychogeography’.

By James Cook’s statue on the Mall, he reads a passage describing the proliferation and differentiation of Polynesian culture across the eastern pacific, and the duality in the social structure of natives and strangers (the principle of tangata whenua, but not in so many words). From the statue of Charles I at the south end of Trafalgar Square we can see the Banqueting House and receive a gratifying description of the hours preceding the regicide, but with Uganda House also in view there is also a disquieting account of the tactics of Idi Amin’s Public Safety Unit.

Any kind of guided tour reawakens my dormant geekily enthusiastic child who wants to ask questions about this thing, that thing, where that quote comes from, almost as much as I want to show off what I already know. But Brennan eschews the role of the knowledgeable or even impressible guide: he cannot even pretend to be able to answer all the questions we might have.

The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square becomes a catafalque; what is now Thai Square on Pall Mall and was once Norway House is adorned with a Blood Eagle, cause for an account of the vicious Viking torture that stripped a bird shape from a man’s ribs before drawing out his lungs. Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to traverse the North West Passage is recounted; at the foot of Edward VII’s plinth shrapnel scars are examined and shellshock described.

Amnesia returns as a refrain: amnesia caused by physical trauma; amnesia caused by psychological trauma; amnesia caused by hypnosis; amnesia of an event that will never be recoverable because memory was not transferred from the short-term to the long-term memory faculties, a simple and irretrievable loss of data. I wonder what is being forgotten; whether it would be better to forget some of the people of whom these statues were built. In Budapest, where the revulsion for the statues of the former regime was violent and unambiguous (unlike London, where we feign to regret the crimes of empire and yet preserve the likenesses of its bloody criminals) the statues that were hacked down in 1989 have been resurrected in a statue park on the outskirts of the city. Here they are both simultaneously remembered and forgotten.

Standing by the memorial to Robert Falcon Scott, Brennan begins to describe the symptoms of and recommended treatment for, hypothermia before breaking off to ask if any of us have ever suffered from hypothermia and then if any of us can remember what we were doing a year ago on the seventh of July. I have to remember two years ago first, before remembering standing on the Mall participating in a two minute silence outside the ICA building that most of the passing tourists and traffic were unaware of and failed to participate in. He asks if this is the kind of living memorial that Westminster Council is talking about. I’m not so sure a moment can be a monument.

Lastly there’s a local favourite: the grave of Giro, faithful companion of the last Weimar ambassador to London buried beneath a small stone at the top of the Duke of York’s steps; Brennan tells another story: that beneath the carpets of what was the German Embassy on Carlton House Terrace there remains, unfound, a swastika flag. He finishes with a killer unscripted anecdote: Ribbentrop, Oswald Mosley, Diana Mitford and Albert Speer sitting on the balcony of the German embassy in 1937, looking out across the greenery of St James’s Park and discussing their plans for a transformed and reshaped London. Imagine a London rebuilt by Speer, I say. Isn’t that what’s happening now? he asks.

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One response to “Monument Manoeuvre

  1. In a sense, London came close to being rebuilt by Speer last year, before it came to light that Peter Phillips, who was standing for RIBA President, was also a BNP member, and not by half either. Thankfully, the glowingly wise Sunand Prasad was elected. http://www.guardian.co.uk/race/story/0,,1799077,00.html

    In 2001, the environmental consultancy I then worked for carried out an asbestos survey of the ex-German Embassy (now the Royal Society). There was a temptation to remove the ornate gilded Prussian plasterwork that we found above the 1960s suspended ceilings, take it back to the laboratory under pretext of contamination, and then sell it as Nazi memorabilia on eBay; which we overcame. Nevertheless, on crawling through the ceiling voids, one of our surveyors discovered some scrawled German graffiti. Excited at having found what may have been undiscovered historical evidence, that might have even changed our view of that tumultuous time before the war, he got on his mobile to our office. The German text was shouted across the room to me; I in turn was on the phone to my German wife. Word by word we translated it, with shaking handwriting, until the message was revealed: THIS IS WHERE THE LIGHTING CABLES NEED TO PASS INTO THE FIRST FLOOR.

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