One sits with power
One does not lie down with power
The power of sitting
This is what I see
Through the intense sunlight
My feet touching the ground
I bend slightly backwards
Peek through my fingers to avoid the intense sun
Who gets a chair
What is the cost?
Watching the city (Livholts 2014, p. 33)
Cities are the spaces on earth where most humans live, and so do monuments, depicting buildings, street names, and statues. When monuments ‘speak’ through their embodied materiality of bronze, murmur, granite, or steel, they symbolise events from the past. Although monument policies change, statues tend to speak from positions of privilege and the elite, mainly white, able-bodied masculinities. This plays a role for the narrative power of governance, privileging specific events and memories over others, excluding histories of women and minorities. A post-human lens is helpful to see entanglements between humans and all forms of life, animals, objects, and things, to understand inequality in urban spaces. Ulmer (2017, p. 841-842) proposes that thinking with and thinking differently are ways of doing thought-based practice that aligns with theory, elements, things. Thinking differently also calls for doing research differently, which can lead to the invention of creative, collective, and expressive socially engaged art-based practices. In this blogpost I draw on my research in social work on monuments (Livholts 2014, 2021) to suggest that such departure opens for critical and creative research from our situated locations as researchers in the more-than-human worlds of which monuments are a part of. How can thinking with monuments, thinking differently with monuments through socially engaged art promote critical spatial practice and an in depth understanding of urban inequalities and social justice?
…though my heart is made of lead, yet I cannot choose but weep’
As I enter into the story of Oscar Wilde’s (1888/2009) ‘The Happy Prince’, I encounter a monument that thinks, feels, and speaks about the sadness to be a witness of inequalities in its time. The statue complains in conversation with a swallow, saying that ‘now that I am dead, they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead, yet I cannot choose but weep’ (Wilde1888/2009, p. 4). The statue and the bird begin to collaborate to remove the rubies and gold that adorn the statue and use it as gifts to people who live in poverty in the city.
Without making a claim of one right way of reading Wilde’s story, I suggest that it could be read as a counter-monument, asking the reader to see and see the city again through a deeper sense of time and justice where the past, present and future are interconnected. Reading Wilde’s story through a post-human lens visualises the entanglements of human and animal embodiment and agency. The conversation and alliance with the swallow illustrate a transformative narrative power that can be helpful as a departure to raise critical questions, dialogue and conversations about urban inequality.
Promoting Dialogue and Democratisation through Socially Engaged Art
My interest in research on monuments began in 2014 when I was guest participant in the collective art-based project ‘Visualising the Invisible’ and specifically the part-project ‘Immaterial Monuments’ in Skopje, Macedonia (Livholts 2014, 2021). ‘Skopje 2014’ was part of Macedonia’s monument policy to construct museums, government buildings and statues, a majority depicting war heroes and political leaders. Most statues embodied men, sitting in chairs, or on horseback, sometimes guarded by lions, with cascades of water as a frame. The project set out to use art to deconstruct hierarchical structures and promote democratisation processes by means of communicative practices through dialogue and conversations through city walks, exhibitions, and photography. During this project I reflected on the much-used quote of Musil (1936/1987, p. 1): ‘There is nothing in the world so invisible as a monument.’ How could these giants in the city remain invisible, and to whom?
Social movements have a central role as a response to historical moments of visualising the role of statues as an important issue for social justice and as counter-monuments. ‘Rhodes must fall’ was initiated 9th of March 2015 at the University of Cape Town against the statue of Cecil Rodhe, which led to a movement to decolonise education across South Africa and the removal of the statue at the university of Cape Town 9th April 2015. The movement had wider impact for universities in other countries where the statue was erected, such as Oriel Law School in Oxford, UK, and Harvard Law School, USA. Another example is the #BlackLivesMatter movement was founded in 2013 as a response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and people against racism protested across the USA and Europe, demanding the removal of statues of slave owners and representatives of racist ideologies. The death of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 25 May 2020, became the trigger for increased protests, which included demands for the removal of statues that represent a history of violence and oppression against black people. In Richmond, Virginia, the Robert E. Lee monument was removed in June 2020, and replaced with a statue of civil rights leader Barbara Johns who, as a 16-year-old, defied school segregation in Virginia in 1951, and in London a statue of Robert Milligan was removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands. In Sweden, a petition demanded the removal of statues of Carl von Linné due to his categorisation and stereotyping of humans into different races. The demand was that the entire story of his legacy should be told, including the dehumanisation of indigenous people, and promotion of white supremacy.
While the statue and the swallow in Wilde’s (1888/2009, p. 10) story create an alliance for social justice they develop a loving and caring relationship. The swallow stays too long in the cold climate instead of flying to Egypt and fall dead at the feet of the statue. When the Mayor and the Town Councillors pass the statue the next day, they see how the gold covering the body, the ruby in the sword and the eyes of the statue are gone. They decide to take it down, and when they decide about a new statue the Mayor says:
“and it shall be a statue of myself”,
“of myself” said all of the Town councillors.
Featured Figure: Warrior on a Horse Monument. Skopje, Macedonia. (Retrieved 15.3 2022: https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/alexander-the-great-statue-on-skopjes-main-square-inaugurated-in-2012-it-became-one-gm668063710-126941057?clarity=false)
Figure 1: Book cover The Happy Prince and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde. Collins Classics. (Retrieved 9.3.2022: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/the-happy-prince-and-other-stories-collins-classics-oscar-wilde?variant=32207748792354)
Figure 2: Author’s photo: Foot from the Monument Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia, Skopje, Macedonia 2014.
Livholts M. B. (2014) ‘Immaterial Monuments. Reflections from an Untimely Academic Novelist’, in
Alfreds L. Åberg C. (eds), Visualise the Invisible, Estonia, Art Agent Press: 31–36.
Livholts, M. B. (2021) Immaterial Monuments, Narrative Inequality and Glocal Social Work. Towards Participatory Community Art Based Methods. British Journal of Social Work, 00: 1-20. https://academic.oup.com/bjsw/advance-article/doi/10.1093/bjsw/bcab059/6207534?login=true
Musil, R. (1987/2006) Monuments. Posthumous Papers of a Living Author. Hygiene: Eridanos.
Ulmer J. B. (2017) Posthumanism as Research Methodology: Inquiry in the Anthropocene, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 30(9), 832-848: https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2017.1336806
Wilde, O. (1888/2009) The Happy Prince and Other Stories. London: William Collins Books.
Mona Livholts [pronouns: hon/hän/she], is a Swedish-Finnish Professor of Social Work in the Department of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki; Secretary and Executive Member of the European Association of Schools of Social Work (EASSW); founder and leader of The Network for Reflexive Academic Writing Methodologies (RAW) 2008–2017. Her research focuses on creative writing, art-based methods, and intersectionality by uses of narrative life writing genres such as diaries and letters, memory work, poetry, and photography. Themes include narratives on rape and sexual harassment, gender, space, and communication, gender in psychiatric care, community art-based practices in the study of monuments, exhaustion and creativity, glocal- and post-anthropocentric social work.
This blogpost draws on the ongoing book project: “The Glocal Turn in Social Work: Essays on the Post-Anthropocentric Condition” (forthcoming with Routledge 2022-2023). The wider framing of the project and other publications within it can be found here: https://researchportal.helsinki.fi/fi/projects/the-glocal-turn-in-social-work-theories-practices-and-writings-in