Decoding Dictatorial Statues
Exactly two years ago, a horde of torch-wielding white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a local park. The monumental figurative sculpture in question, completed in New York by sculptors Henry Shrady and Leo Lentelli in 1917–24, depicts the military leader solemnly riding horseback, holding his hat by his side. While the sculpture itself is physically unremarkable—the equestrian has been a familiar trope in memorial sculpture since antiquity—the deadly skirmish over this particular statue became a benchmark of the growth of the nationalist movement in the US. It also reignited the debate about the meaning and function of memorials in public places.
In his new edited volume Decoding Dictatorial Statues, Ted Hyunhak Yoon, a graphic designer based in Seoul and Amsterdam, deciphers the relationship between monuments and politics through a legible archive of human gestures used by sculptors, across time and geographic location, in the creation of dictatorial statuary, an ill-defined subset of memorial sculpture that seems to range from depictions of Roman emperors and US presidents to Lenin and Walt Disney. The book evidences Yoon’s research process, begun in 2014, into images of these powerful men, each of whom “[stands] on their pedestal as if it were a stage, [lending] visibility to the performance of communication,” which resulted in this publication and a related performance-based exhibition, Notes on Gestures, held as part of Onomatopee Design Week in Eindhoven in October 2018. The statues, Yoon surmised, could be read either as a whole, as the depiction of a person, organized in different ways based on their commonalities, or in fragments, as the result of a compression of coded parts, which could be taken apart and read as messages from the leader, the political regime, or even the artist, to an audience comprised of followers, dissidents, and outsiders. In so doing, he seeks to parse out how figurative sculptures depicting powerful (often white, depending on their location) political and military leaders tied to specific people, events, and memories have been manipulated by ruling regimes or the media to suit ideological goals.
The core of the book is Yoon’s visual analysis of these sculptures from their elements, amputated and dissected from their wholes. Sections of their bodies fill Yoon’s extensive catalogue, documenting every hand gesture, arm position, and accoutrement. Conjuring the familiar image of a crowd of people pulling down a statue, Yoon’s collaborating editor Bernke Klein Zandvoort describes Yoon as a “silent toppler,” one who isolates these men from their pedestals in order to understand how these codes are constructed and what messages they convey in his attempt to find precise categories and perhaps even rules for their various combinations. However, while 19th-century promoters of the Delsarte System of reading gestures like Albert Bacon may have directly interpreted these codes as bodily expressions of emotion, detailing how a raised right arm with a downturned palm shows “Supernatural Restraint, or Prohibition” in his 1875 book A Manual of Gesture, Yoon’s method of presenting the statues as images in an archive of power allows the reader to first decipher their meaning as representations before reaching the book’s interpretive texts.
The ten short essays, written by researchers, historians, curators, a philosopher, and an artist, further decode the monuments by analyzing them in terms of their context and reception. More than providing a historical account of their existence, the authors often take a refreshingly personal perspective on an aspect of the creation, installation, removal, and disassembling of monuments from locales as diverse as Berlin, Singapore, Baghdad, and Ho Chi Minh City. We learn, for example, about an East German man who secreted away with Stalin’s ear when it was being melted down to produce animal sculptures for a nearby zoo in the early 1960s; about the tactics used by the Western media to transform the staged toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003 into propaganda against Iraq’s former leader; as well as North Korea’s role in African liberation movements and their subsequent production of socialist realist memorials to African revolutionary leaders. In its broad geographic scope, the book also compares varying ways that societies have treated “fallen heroes” with charged biographies, including Robert E. Lee.
Yoon’s skill as a designer is evident in the decorative book jacket featuring a sequence of secular mudra, in the arrangement of the corpus of his study, which is divided into a catalogue of detached body parts and a collection of historical postcards, and in the book illustrations that he used as part of his exhibition research. Its existence as an alluring material object is rounded out by Yoon’s unique tricolor layout, with teal-hued footnotes in the gutter and illustrations isolated on blacked out pages. Yet, there’s something about this book’s production that cries of exhibition catalogues and other printed ephemera made during the craze for publications in the 1990s and early 2000s, produced down to the wire with the aid of a designer eager to test limits, which seems an ever-more-rare occurrence with the advent of digital technology. Like some of these earlier examples, Yoon’s nonstandard layout is both beautiful and experimental, confirming its emphasis on design, while not sacrificing legibility. Moreover, it reveals a sense of urgency that mirrors the pressing treatment of the subject of controversial memorials over the centuries and across continents.
Dictatorial statues may be, in curator Jintaeg Jang’s words, “among the most cynical examples of the arts’ willingness to cooperate, prop up, and glorify political ideology.” In presenting these sculptures as a design problem in addition to one worthy of historical and cultural analysis, Yoon shows that it’s up to us, the receivers of the messages coded in the sculptures, to critically assess their place and value in contemporary culture. While the book offers a more easily digestible guide for the average person to navigate the contentious relationship between art and politics, in so doing through such a carefully constructed object, he also exposes the troubling parallel between the systems of power used to construct such statues and the reverential quality in the way books are designed to be both alluring and to convey at times biased ideas.