The Decapitated Statuettes
Every morning I saw the same statue. I guess she never got to see me from its lofty height. Of course, she knew who I was. From the most basic elementary school I was taught that man - now conjured in bronze - had been the founder of my hometown. Don Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada stood out in that legion of Spanish heroes who conquered the - supposedly - naive and wild Latin America. I saw the statue so many times, I stopped seeing it. Years later, and from one night to the next, the pedestal that held the Andalusian began to become the favorite place for graffiti alluding to social causes and soccer team shields. For years I also witnessed the hard - and useless - work of expert conservationists, who at a very high cost - chemicals for cleaning statues are extremely dangerous - periodically removed the ink and paint inscriptions; which took longer to erase than to reappear. The symbolic battle was settled when the University of the Rosary decided to surround the statue with a populated garden to prevent the heritage object from being "affected". And it worked.
There are no harmless statues. And much less when they portray the former leaders of political, social or economic feats; which as we know these days, age very badly. The case of Jiménez de Quesada is no exception. The sculpture contains at least two controversial symbols - seen in the light of the new times -: a sword which, in turn, insinuates a cross on its handle. Religion and force (as well as disease and traps) were the bastions on which the powerful Spanish empire was built in this hemisphere. Symbols that for centuries made up what was considered a hegemonic and accepted culture: the Hispanic community. However, it was thanks to the graffiti that I was able to learn that in one way or another - that version of official history embodied a possible confrontation. The disrespect for the symbol made it relocate into a new discussion. The statue, which had become invisible, came back to life when it was attacked.
This rebirth was also exacerbated by the fact that the statue was located in public space. Full center of Bogota. A natural setting for the emotional tensions of each and every one: where a dialogue -often unconscious- between passers-by is represented. Inhabiting public space -in itself- is a form of expression. This is also the place chosen by the spokesmen of history to reaffirm the stories and presumable versions; from visual impositions that include architecture, monuments and statues. For centuries, these objects were considered untouchable, as if "contacting" them would cause the potential disappearance of a memory worth preserving. We now know that this is not true. Humberto Eco, in his History of Beauty, states that it was the Greeks who conceived certain artistic forms from their contemplative nature; that is, from the distant relationship between the observer and the artistic object. A fair example of the so-called Apollonian beauty. It is forbidden to touch.
Possibly, one of the marks of the 21st century is the disappearance of the untouchable. This is demonstrated by an infinite number of circumstances, but above all by the crusades - ironically - of thousands of citizens, who in different corners of the world are removing statues of people as sinister as Leopold, the Belgian emperor responsible for millions of deaths in the Congo, or as lucky as Columbus, who by a mockery of fate ended up discovering a continent. Although I am far from acting as a defender of statues, I fear that the guillotine through which many characters in bronze and stone are being passed, implies giving up an opportunity for dialogue. To tear down a statue is not disproportionate, it is counterproductive. To silence a conversation that has not yet been completed can be extremely damaging to society's culture and memory. The Roman emperors knew this well when they razed the evidence and contributions of their political enemies - including their statues - in order to erase them from history forever. So well they did that we still don't know how much we lost.
I agree with all those who say that many of the statues celebrate unmentionable scoundrels and villains; and that something must be done about it. However, that does not mean that their presence in history is a waste. In other words, it is better to intervene (at least transfer?) that version of history, and provoke conclusions, criticism and present condemnations than to simply eradicate it and annihilate it as if it had not happened. Although for the most conservative this would be to trample on tradition, there are plenty of examples of artistic actions that have temporarily transformed monuments and statues; and in this way have enabled part of the public debate on the main subject: the progress of man's ideas. This is the case of the recently deceased artist Christo, who together with his unfailing companion Jeanne Claude, covered the famous -and patrimonial- Reichstag building with a blue-grayish mantle of one hundred thousand square meters for fourteen days: the forceful symbol of German democracy. So did the urban artists. JR, a worthy heir to graffiti, who covered the iconic pyramid of the Louvre Museum with photographs; and Olek, the Polish artist, who wove colorful threads onto the stubborn statue of the Wall Street bull in Manhattan. The result? The whole world returned to talk about monuments or statues; the symbol was reborn to become something different, better and subject to the ethical repertoire of the contemporary world.
(In any case, I find it curious to see how certain solutions proposed by the authorities to protect the statues resemble disguised artistic actions, as is the case of the cube made of metal sheets that now covers Churchill in London)
In any case, the solution, or at least one of them, is in front of our eyes: the temporary artistic intervention of the statues that deserve a second trial in history: as would be the conquerors, the slavers and the criminals, all heroes who have come to nothing. For those romantics who fear destroying heritage with a brushstroke or a weave, it is worth remembering that as Professor Juan Esteban Constaín quoted in a trill: graffiti on monuments goes back to ancient Egypt, philosophical Greece and combative Rome. In other words, it would be giving a heritage and historical solution to a heritage and historical debate. Art will put everything in its place.
By the way, a program of this nature, converted into a public call, would be a beautiful and adequate opportunity for the urban art medium (of which I am a part) to go out and devour the bronze and stone bowels of history and with that consecrate the birth of new ideas. That which happens every time the aberrant is submitted to the hope of creation.
Perhaps it was just a matter of taking away Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada's "don".