MONUMENTAL MISCONCEPTIONS – ARTIST LIANE LANG
On a November afternoon in 2012, Dan Motrescu climbed up onto a statue of Prince George, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, in Whitehall and took off all his clothes. For close to three hours, the surrounding area was cordoned off by police, who alongside hordes of onlookers waited for the 29 year old man to eventually descend...from a perch on the top of the duke’s head.
Motrescu succeeded in snapping off the Field Marshall’s baton, and caused an alleged £10,000 of damages to the statue. But beyond material violation to the monument, the most notable outcome has to be publicity. Not for the perpetrator (he was left unnamed in much of the press), but for the monument itself.
The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association has over 9,300 entries for public sculptures across the UK. There are more than 400 public artworks in the City of Westminster alone. Some are world- famous; but most are made better known by the ‘press-worthy’ events surrounding them. A naked man always helps.
London-based artist Liane Lang has spent many years preoccupied by the notions surrounding monuments, particularly iconoclasm, and her ongoing project Monumental Misconceptions spans subjects across the UK and Europe.
The works, both sculptural and photographic, address the role of scale in our perception of art. In the case of monumental sculpture the sense of subjective appreciation or interpretation is determinedly overridden by the artist – the work has a distinct purpose and employs tried-and-tested mechanisms in its approach to materials and scale to achieve its function – to depict the subject as heroic; all-powerful; permanent. By tweaking one of these vital mechanisms – scale – Lang creates space for a much broader range of interpretations. In her sculptural interpretation of the Prince George monument, for example, the statuesque, grandiose subject is belittled in its reduction to a sculptural miniature, highlighting the absurdity of the heroic pose – made famous in this instance by the naked figure she has cast on the head of the duke (no longer the protagonist). Leaving Prince George bereft of baton, Liane Lang gives further life to the grand monument – but contentiously through the symbolic act over a century after its making.
Lang’s work in Europe – crossing various media – is also powerful in bringing such reality to stark light. The artist’s ongoing project Monumental Misconceptions includes photographic works made during her residency at the Memento Sculpture Park in Budapest, the resting place of discarded and exiled monumental sculptural works from the socialist era in Hungary. The series also includes a new series of sculptures taking as their subject defaced and destroyed monuments to dictators and deposed leaders – the sculptures themselves derive from documentation of these acts of symbolic violence: from the black and white footage of the Czar’s statue being torn down by horse-power in Eisenstein’s 1928 film October, to contemporary footage of a different kind of horsepower at work on the iconic statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The subtext? These monumental statues of feudalism – the Prussian emperor on horseback, the mighty tsar on his throne, the eminent statue of Bismarck – were all deposed and melted down by Socialists. Their bronze may well have gone into the production of Lenin, Stalin and Dherzhinsky in the following years.
Demonstrating this ongoing cycle, the latest toppling of a Lenin statue just a few days ago in Ukraine – in Kramatorsk, not far from the front lines – is now seen an assertion of “de-communization.” Who can say as what, or who, Lenin might now be recast?
“I am interested in the idea of the sculptural object that has forfeited its role to be treated and seen as an artwork. The sculpted figure can lose its status as artwork in many ways, ideological, political or aesthetic. It may do so through excessive life-likeness, ranging from the marble carving down to the tawdry side-show reputation of the wax work. The Socialist statues, many made with great skill by important sculptors of the time, became culpable by association and lost their status as artwork in this way.
“Central to this series is the notion of iconoclasm, a theme, which emerges in much of my work. Here, the statue becomes the object of bodily punishment, being treated as a symbolic site for physical humiliation, injury and execution in lieu of the real body. The symbolic act of deposition is often more powerful and long lasting than the fate of the person portrayed.” Liane Lang
The seeming permanence of the bronze statue is belied by its precarious existence, as historically only a small number survive this form of ideological recycling. Throughout Lang’s work there persists a fascination with the contextual and historical influence on the way we perceive the figure in sculpture.
A brand new series of works, “Prussians and other Villains”, comprises a host of bronze moustaches, miniature versions of those from previously destroyed monuments of infamous historic leaders, and will soon be exhibited as part of the Museum Zitadelle Spandau’s major exhibition Revealed, Berlin and its Monuments. Of the 60+ moustaches in total (and counting), the first made by the artist was the recreation of the Stalin Statue moustache in the original size, about 50cm long, rumoured (alongside the ear) to have been the only part to survive the destruction of the monument after Stalin's death.
“The moustache on its own was an intriguing object, like a furry animal, a strange remnant, both expressive and truncated, evocative and slightly ridiculous. The majority of political portraits are eventually lost, melted down, recycled or otherwise destroyed. It brought to mind the idea of an army of moustached men of history. Imagine all that was kept of each of them was that little ferrety piece of facial hair, as a symbol of truncated power and inadequately remembered lives.” LL
Beginning with Stalin, the collection initially included only Prussians, but soon – out of an obsessive intrigue - branched across fields and countries, connecting people variously connected or divided by politics, wars, blood relation or philosophical ideas, reduced to the object nature of their facial hair. The artist claims not to have a favourite (while naming Friedrich Engels and Friedrich Nietzsche as some of the more particularly enjoyable to make), and yet derives a distinct pleasure in the hilarity of the physicality of what, really, comes down to a small, strange ‘thing’:
“The early Brandenburg rulers often had beautifully effete little moustaches and fascistic tendencies across the world appear to require particularly small and stingy upper lip growth.” LL
Just as the statuesque subjects of her works may be variously belittled, they may also be – as in the moustaches – revealed as grotesquely absurd. The resulting original works thus retain the echo of the appropriated sculpture's polemic message, but create room around them for humour and a strange and haunting beauty, born of empathy – for the mighty (however tyrannical) brought low, and for the very human condition of impermanence.
Liane Lang’s Monumental Misconceptions, an infinite project as I see it, is a fascinating look at our perceptions of history, being, as it is, only truly fathomable in the Now – whether in its Present writing or reading, or its remaining Present memory of the Then. Such interventions as we see in her photographs and sculptures are not necessarily about politics, but they are discussions of iconoclasm, and in some cases – not all – the two may collide. The natural manifestation of history in objects, coincidental or intentional (often political or ideological, but not always), can often be a more enduring ‘re-writing’ of a past than in manners less tangible. But then re-writings may always be written again – edited, censored, burned, melted down and remade.
Of course, “The symbolic act of deposition is often more powerful and long lasting than the fate of the person portrayed.” LL
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Liane Lang was born in Germany and lives and works in London. She studied at NCAD in Dublin and completed a BA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College followed by a Postgraduate Diploma at the Royal Academy, where she graduated in 2006.
Liane Lang combines sculpture, film and photography to create works that re-imagine monuments and
historic houses through small interventions and lateral storytelling. Lang has recently created sculpture and film installations at Leighton House Museum, at Casa Guidi, the house of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, at Memento Sculpture Park in Budapest and is currently completing an artist residency at Eton College where she is creating a sculptural and film installation created at the school. Lang’s work involves extensive research into the history of places and objects, often touching on themes of political and social upheaval, iconoclasm and the aesthetics of decay and repurposing. She works in large-scale photography, animation and in a variety of sculptural materials including bronze. Her work has been exhibited widely both in the UK and abroad and has been acquired by MoMA and the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2014.