Monumental Interventions

In the Summer 2020 issue of ART PAPERS, Tal Beery wrote about imagining future financial models by which arts institutions might survive, even thrive, within a paradigm of pandemic, crisis, and uncertainty. He evoked early 20th-century philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s prescient claim that “the West [is] mired in an interregnum, an in-between period within which ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born.’” Writing around 1930, Gramsci continues, “in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We are, arguably, still within this liminal space, as the frequency with which this quotation is evoked attests. The now-empty plinth—where there once stood a statue of a colonizer, a rapist, an enslaver—could be seen as a symbol of this interregnum. In Fall/Winter 2020 we consider the monumental interventions of artists, which attempt to give birth to a new world, one that is free from the morbid symptoms we refuse to continue suffering.

The etymological root of the English word monument is the Latin monumentum, which translates most literally to “something that reminds.” There is a tautological dynamic at work within monument logic: People have erected monuments since the earliest records of civilization, and we know this because monuments are often crucial objects in the formation of those records. Monument is, therefore, a word used to retroactively assign significance, meaning, and preservation status to ancient and historical structures, but also to define contemporary structures, imbuing them—linguistically, at least—with the same status as monuments of antiquity. To erect a monument in public space as recently as the 20th and 21st centuries is to assert: This will have been our legacy.

There is a risk for people in power—whether political, religious, or economic—who have sought to crystalize their ideology and render it eternal. By creating actual, physical symbols of authority, one also creates a target for dissent and an opportunity for opposition to literalize societal shifts in power. And thus, monuments—particularly ones erected with the specific purpose of asserting the values of the ruling class—are a perennial battlefield.

In 2020 unprecedented crowds of protesters converged in US streets after the killing of George Floyd by police. Efforts to remove monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers—by official process or by rope and chain—are not new, but the momentum of the movement for Black lives merged with existing outrage over the persistence of such symbols in public space. Protesters calling for an end to the White supremacy they saw deep within the foundations of American policing filled public squares and parks in protest. There, they encountered monuments to the Confederacy and began to alter and tear them down.

This issue of ART PAPERS is co-edited by historian, curator, and critic TK Smith, whose work focuses on the function of monuments in the American landscape and acts of iconoclasm toward them. Discourse surrounding the status and definition of monuments is unfolding rapidly across interdisciplinary platforms. There is a long history of artist interventions into the language, form, and function of public monuments, and we hope that we can contribute to ongoing conversations by exploring places where the concerns of art intersect with those of monument and memorial. In his essay Monumental Futures, TK Smith maps a trajectory of such artist interventions toward the articulation of a monument aesthetic for the African diaspora. Smith continues and broadens his exploration in the Monumental Interventions Dossier, a special section of the issue that highlights works—by an international group of artists—selected by Smith.

In Monumental Collapse: Toppled Statues and Re-imagining Archives, artist and founder of the Toppled Monuments Archive Jillian McManemin speaks with Che Gossett about toppling or destroying monuments, their afterlife once removed through civic channels, and how these efforts relate to broader social movements. In The Political Afterlife of the Babri Masjid, Tausif Noor explores histories of a destroyed Muslim monument in India, the rise of Hindu nationalism, and Sahmat Collective’s formation and multimedia practices of response and resistance. A Living Presence, Re’al Christian’s essay on finding absence and a memorial vernacular in the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is intertwined with danilo machado’s poem and the body, Felix, where is it?

This issue includes a special section of texts from the ART PAPERS archive, in which Gary Younge’s 2003 essay Much Ado About Nothing exposes the controversies that erupted when Londoners confronted the question of an empty plinth. Also from 2003 Evan Levy’s Meteorite & Monument considers the smallness of human time, and how, when faced with interventions made by chance, preservation can be seen as an ephemeral practice. As Levy’s essay reveals, the indifferent universe cares not for our notions of permanence. In what now feels like foreshadowing, an interview from early 2020 by Tash Nikol Smith with artist Nate Lewis—which first appeared on as an online exclusive—connects Lewis’ practice of looking through a “medical lens,” caregiving, and the status of monuments.

Any contribution to contemporary discussions of intersections between art and monument activism would be remiss to not mention the vital work of Monument Lab. Founded by Paul Farber and Ken Lum in 2012, “Monument Lab cultivates and facilitates critical conversations around the past, present, and future of monuments.” The group’s collective work as artists, curators, educators, and facilitators has played a crucial role in our understanding of the discourse to which we make this modest contribution. This issue’s glossary entry comes from Patricia Eunji Kim—art historian, curator, educator, and editor of Monument Lab’s online journal, Bulletin. In her acrostic-style entry, Kim unpacks the word monument and unearths its radical potential.

As usual, we will expand upon this theme—alongside nonthematic essays, interviews, and reviews—with online exclusives at

Sarah Higgins
Editor + Artistic Director