Lisa Hsiao Chen
Monuments shed their invisibility when defaced, according to the anthropologist Michael Taussig. Among the indelible images from the protests that erupted in response to the police killing of George Floyd were of people toppling statues of Confederate generals, Christopher Columbus, and other monuments. What should be the fate of controversial monuments? Should they be destroyed? Disappeared in storage crates? Or could they be used as tools for unlearning false histories and foregrounding truthful ones?
These are among the questions that animated Jean-Marc Superville Sovak’s two-month residency at Recess: Can a Statue Feel Pain?/Columbus Confessionals. Throughout his career and across different media, the Artist’s work has been invested in decolonializing history. He has made site-specific sculptures from bricks salvaged from former brickyards in upstate New York to mark the Hudson Valley as a major artery of the Underground Railroad. In his print series, A-historical Landscape, Superville Sovak reimagined the tranquil 19th-century pastoral lithographs of Thomas Cole, the paterfamilias of the Hudson River School, by imbedding harrowing images from anti-slavery almanacs and Quaker abolitionist tracts from the same time period. One of Superville Sovak’s more recent projects involved the symbolic burial of white supremacy itself through public ritual, complete with a coffin and dirt pit.
Can a Statue Feel Pain? seemed to extend his inquiry into the possibility of penitence and repair for legacies of genocide, colonialism, and other forms of racial violence. What happens if Christopher Columbus were taken down from his pedestal and made to answer for his apocryphal myth and atone for his crimes?
Can a Statue Feel Pain?/Columbus Confessionals
As Told in Eight Chapters
The Artist’s original idea was to “borrow” the statue of Columbus that currently sits on a 10-foot-high pedestal in a waterfront park in Newburgh, a mostly Black and brown city across the river from Beacon, where he used to live. In 2018 soon after Indigenous People’s Day, the statue’s hands were stained with red paint, escalating a citywide debate and two dueling Change.org petitions over whether it should be removed or allowed to stay put. But when the Artist approached the head of Newburgh’s parks department which oversees the city’s monuments, he was directed to the local chapter of UNICO, an Italian heritage group which raised the funds to erect the bronze statue in 1992. When the Artist got in touch with the head of that organization, he was rerouted to the city, which, he was told, has jurisdiction because the statue was a gift.
There seemed to be no way out of this bureaucratic limbo. The Artist pivoted to Plan B: he enlisted a friend to make a 3-D scan of the monument, which he used to produce a life-size mold from Styrofoam.
When the Writer encountered the title of the Artist’s project, Do Statues Feel Pain? she heard the echo of Statues Also Die, the 1953 essay film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. The film casts a critical eye on the transmogrification of African statuary and masks when they are stripped of their context and displayed behind museum glass. “When men die, they become history. Once statues die, they become art. This botany of death is what we call culture.”
But what if a statue’s cultural-historical context is death?
The first time the Writer sees the Artist’s Styrofoam facsimile of Columbus is on his Instagram. There’s a photograph of the Artist posing in the parking lot of a Home Depot, his arm slung casually around the statue’s shoulder. The next shot is of the Artist entering the Recess gallery with the statue slung unceremoniously under his arm like a guy who won a stuffed bear at Coney Island getting on a subway car.
The opening event of the residency takes place on a windy evening in November. Four-foot-tall prints hang from the gallery walls, large photographs of the Columbus statue transposed as negatives. The inversion effect makes the images look haunted and suspect, like something from a criminal forensics file. The prints have been sliced so parts of Columbus appear flayed, the paper gagging forward like tongues.
The most prominent object in the room is a plywood confession booth, simple and unadorned. Red curtains partly conceal the Styrofoam Columbus tucked in one side of the booth. Inside the booth taped to the walls are signs that ask: “Can the figure of Columbus be redeemed?” “Must the figure of Columbus be abolished?”
The Artist wasn’t raised in a religious household. But he seems to have found, in religious teachings and practices, a method for exploring Columbus, specifically the idea of a “penitent version of America’s Patron Saint,” one capable of serving a reparative function more broadly for monuments that have outlived their ideological purpose. On a low table sits a potted hyssop, a plant used in purification rites in ancient times. Next to it, a large wall hanging of the entire text of Psalm 51, which reads in part:
Against you alone have I sinned;
I have done such evil in your sight
That you are just in your sentence,
blameless when you condemn.
Over the weeks of the residency and despite the winter chill, the Artist makes a point of rolling Columbus and his confessional out onto the street in front of the gallery to engage whomever might pass by. The public. There’s a Yeshiva next door; little boys come by to peer curiously at Columbus in his plywood booth. Do they know who the statue is? When the Artist says Christopher Columbus, some stare blankly; they don’t recognize the name. But all know the word printed on a piece of paper tacked to the side of the confessional: “T’shuvah/תשובה״”.
“When you make a mistake, what should you do?” the Artist asks the boys. “Make T’shuvah,” they respond.
“What is step one in making T’shuvah?”
“You must say what is your mistake.”
“Okay, like confession. And then what?”
“You must say you’re sorry,” one of them says, pleased to know the answer.
“Make America say ‘sorry’ again!” the Artist quips, and they laugh.
If the Artist can be said to have an modus operandi, it might be narishkiet—roughly translated from the Yiddish as “foolishness.” He’s most at home, he’s said, when he’s coming at a problem or issue from the perspective of narishkiet, a kind of “cultural naivete.” Playing the fool. Asking simple questions and seeing what kind of answers shake out. He believes this approach was a a natural outgrowth of his feeling of being a perpetual foreigner, the mixed-race son of a Trinidadian mother from Trinidad and a Czech father who grew up in Canada but now makes his home in the US. He sees narishkiet as an extension of the estrangement and alienation that has shadowed his own sense of self-identity. One of his earliest art works as an MFA student at Bard College was to film members of a construction crew flipping through an issue of Artforum. The men on the crew laugh and shake their heads at the spectacle of contemporary art in the pages of the magazine. Is the art ridiculous? Are the men lacking in sophistication? Should the artist be taken to task for instigating this set-up? Who’s the fool?
On a Saturday in mid-December, the Artist organized a public workshop where participants learned the basics of plaster and silicone mold-making. They made molds of their hands which the Artist intended to integrate into the project. One of the participants made a mold of her hand flipping the bird, her riposte to old Chris.
(The writer missed this event because she was in San Luis Obispo on a family trip. Her mother-in-law had wanted to see an outdoor light installation in nearby Paso Robles. A storm canceled the event as well as electricity at their AirBnB, forcing the family to retreat to a nearby inn where the writer discovered, in a faded newspaper clipping in a scrap album, a mention of a once-thriving Chinatown in the area—one of the largest on the west coast in the 1890s!—that had been wiped from existence except for one building in the city’s downtown, now a boutique among many that sold an assortment of vaguely artisanal products, expensive chocolates, candles, soft throws and the like that cocoon the town in a monochromatic sheen of upper-middle class luxury, while buried beneath a parking lot and multi-story garage lay the vanished Chinatown, the Chinese families and their small businesses, the white supremacist riot—all that history that would have been of great interest to her and her family, much more so than the attraction touted online, something called “Bubblegum Alley,” which was, regrettably, exactly as it sounded: an alley whose walls were covered in gobs of old chewing gum.)
It’s a week before the closing event of the residency. The writer, who has arranged to meet the Artist in the late afternoon, finds him tinkering with the confession booth in the street. Columbus is laid flat on a folding table as though being prepped for surgery. She remarks on the statue’s chipped index finger, damaged when the statue tipped over in the high winds that hit the city a few days ago. They chat for a bit and agree to keep talking indoors.
The artist says he had hoped that the project might be of service somehow but now he’s not so sure. One problem he’s run into is a not uncommon perception that “confession” equals “forgiveness,” and it’s not his intention at all to let Columbus off the hook so easily. He had in mind “repentance” along the lines of the Jewish tradition, which involves a repair process connected to the meaning of “T’shuvah as ‘return’”—a return to past wrongs in order to work through and reckon with those wrongs.
He’s been reading Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s book On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World. The book has made him reconsider his original concept of centering the project on Columbus in the first place. In her book, Ruttenberg argues for a victim-centered approach. Ask them what it would take to repair the harm that’s been done to them. What would penitence look like then?
Meanwhile, there’s still programming to be done, dialogues to pursue, and it hasn’t been going well. The Artist has tried to engage the New York City parks administrator in charge of monuments. Declined. He tried to talk to the dean of the Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College, CUNY. Declined. He attended a service at a Catholic church in Brooklyn in part to engage a priest in dialogue. Nope. He tried reaching out to a Native American organization in upstate New York. They made it clear that they were uninterested in devoting a drop of energy to anything Columbus-related.
There seems to be a wall of avoidance surrounding Columbus. I don’t got nothing to say to that guy. He’s dead to me! is how one participant in the Artist’s mold-making workshop put it. Few visitors to the gallery have taken up the invitation to write responses to the questions posted throughout the space to stimulate engagement. The Artist gets it. Whatever the reason—fatigue, frustration, wariness—people are tired of Columbus. Look, even he’s sick of talking about Columbus.
But the thing is, we may be sick of Columbus, he continues, but he just won’t go away. Columbus remains the third most monumentalized figure in the country, right behind Lincoln and Washington—to say nothing of the cities, districts, counties, and universities that bear his honorifics. Still, for the purposes of the residency, he’s got to work with this guy, Columbus. Or work him over. The Artist recounts a conversation he had with one of the boys from the Yeshiva. You can’t tell them that it’s art, the Artist says, that’s a surefire way to alienate them. The boy ventures to say that the statue is like a prop. The Artist is delighted. Yes, a prop! That’s exactly what it is! He’s not sure yet what he’ll do for the closing event. How will he bring everything together?
The Artist removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. What will he do with this project when it’s finished; when the whole thing will be dismantled, he muses out loud, mostly to himself. Maybe build a greenhouse.
A cold Saturday afternoon in January. The Artist welcomes the audience at the gallery with a confession. He says this space, this residency, is where he learned to truly define what and who the public is in when we talk about public art. He wants to come clean. The residency has made him rethink who the “public” is in public art and reflect on own inadequacies as a parent and artist. Look, he says. I’m not Jewish. I’m not Native. I’m not even American! The audience laughs at this last confession, which swallows the Artist’s off-the-cuff joke about George Santos.
The Artist has curated a lineup of other artists for the closing event. The violinist-vocalist Iva Bittová kicks things off with a soulful Kaddish that pivots into a language and composition all her own. The violin accompanies her guttural calls, squeals, beseeching trills, and tongue clicks. The poets LaTasha Nevada Diggs, Bob Holman, and Ava Birch take their seats on tall stools facing the audience. The poet Edwin Torres, using the principles of Butch Morris’s “conduction” technique for jazz improvisation, conducts an ensemble performance of voices, first of Psalm 51, and then of Langston Hughes’s 1935 poem, “Let America Be America Again.”
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
The poets’ voices swoop and fall, clash and swell, and retreat like a tide. Meanwhile the Artist is lugging the Columbus statue from one audience member to another while rubbing the statue’s damaged index finger between his own fingers so pieces of the Styrofoam crumble off. Some people merely observe. Some slightly recoil. Others cup their hands to receive the crumbles. He sets the statue down on the table arranged behind the rows of chairs. He revisits the audience again, this time with a tray bearing half a dozen molded hands, which people are invited to handle.
mediately find their groove? What makes a performance a ritual? Repetition, belief, and time.
Now comes the ceremonial twist on the “laying of the hands.” The Artist uses metal BBQ skewers to affix the molded hands to different parts of Columbus’s body— in his side, near his collarbone, on the inside of his thigh. A few of the rods have to be bent by hand; the Styrofoam is surprisingly difficult to penetrate, requiring hammers and other tools to drive the skewers in. The Artist is visibly sweating. He wipes his brow. With the hands laid, the Artist reinstalls Columbus in the confession booth. Nested in the red curtains, Columbus resembles a bull after the tercio de muerte, pierced with hands instead of sharp banderillas. There’s an element of body horror here; Columbus is the monster and the Artist, his Frankenstein.
In Moscow there’s a peculiar outdoor park where you can walk among busts and statues of Stalin and Lenin, long removed from their original sites, arranged as awkward guests at a garden party. A similar scene unfolds at a park in northern Taiwan, known informally as the “Garden of the Generalissimos,” where dozens of bronze and metal Chiang Kai-sheks, the dictator whose repressive rule was known as the White Terror, amble the grounds like residents at an assisted living facility. The spectacle of these monuments, denuded of their symbolic power, is uncanny and disarming. Maybe one day there will be a Garden of Genociders where all the Columbus statuary can be put to pasture, an outdoor house of mirrors where they can continue gazing thoughtfully at the horizon line while pointing their fingers (J’accuse!) at each other.
Big maybe. As of this writing, the Columbus statue in Newburgh remains in place. With some exceptions, this is the case with most such controversial monuments, where efforts to remove them have landed them instead in legal purgatory. But at least one Columbus has left the premises. To mark the official end of his two-month residency, the Artist posted a series of photographs on Instagram that documented Styrofoam Columbus being loaded on the back of a small pickup truck and then driven away. The statue appeared smaller and smaller as it retreated into the distance. Goodbye, Columbus! (Hughes: America was never America to me.)
Thompson, Erin L. Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments. New York: W.W. Norton, 2022.
Ruttenberg, Danya. On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2022.
Hughes, Langton. “Let America Be America Again.” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994.
Monuments, Monumentality, Monumentalization: W.J.T. Mitchell and Michael Taussig. Dia: Chelsea, December 6, 2014 (https://www.diaart.org/media/watch-listen/video-monuments-monumentality-monumentalization-w-j-t-mitchell-and-michael-taussig)
Sparks, Leonard. “Christopher Columbus Statue in Newburgh is Vandalized.” Times Herald-Record, Oct 16, 2018
Kapambwe, Mazuba. “Artist Jean-Marc Supervill Sovak Contends With Valley’s Social Dynamics.” https://www.scenichudson.org/