Defacement and/as Historical Redress
Stefanos Tsivopoulos, Lost Monument, (2009). Screengrap from single-channel video, HD cam transferred to Blu-ray, 16:9 Color, stereo. Duration 27min. ©stefanostsivopoulos
By: George Mantzios
In 1963 the Order of AHEPA (Greek Organization of Americans of Hellenic Descent) commissioned Felix de Weldon, the sculptor of the iconic Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, Virginia, to sculpt a statue of Harry S. Truman as a gift to the Greek state in commemoration of the Truman Doctrine and the defeat of communism in Greece. Since its installation in Athens in 1964, the 12-foot bronze statue has been repeatedly vandalized, bombed and toppled, becoming a kind of anti-imperialist effigy. Bombs, paint, metal grinders and rope have likewise become broadcast media in the cultural politics of its ongoing defacement.
For example, on 16 April 2018, a contingent of KKE (Communist Party of Greece) supporters had broken off from a main protest group heading for the US embassy to protest recent US, French, and British airstrikes against Syria. Wielding a metal grinder and rope, the assailants attempted to topple Harry S. Truman from his mount but were dispersed by riot police. According to Yorgos Perros, a member of the labor union PAME, the Truman statue is “a symbol of imperialism and the United States in Greece,” claiming the attack as “a symbolic move against the U.S. and the war in Syria” (Reuters, 2018).
The multiple episodes of violent protest directed against the statue since its public inauguration invites a meditation on defacement as a popular and timely modality of historical redress. As the recent wave of attacks against colonialist, imperialist, racist, sexist and Confederate statues throughout the U.S. and around the world attests, acts of defacement can work with and through the material forms of seemingly bygone historical relations of oppression to redress their persistence in the present. And so, more important than the identity of the personage a statue depicts are the historical relations it landmarks in the uneven geographies of present struggles for social, political and/or racial justice.
Consider this: iconic public statues are like antennae in virtual infrastructures of historical reckoning. They congeal and relay the distribution of what is taken to be sensible and thinkable –that is, what goes without saying– within a cultural field. Being so “conspicuously inconspicuous” (Musil 2006: 64), a public statue can serve as a discrete, abbreviated codex for fraternal desires, national values, racialist logics and civilizational conceits; that is, for the common sense of the dominant cultures in relation to which they stand in some sort of representational affinity.
On the other hand, differential relationships to such monuments (be it defacement, worship, disregard, etc.) reveal how cultural, artistic, political, and/or technological mediations do not just reflect or represent, but intervene in the enactment and transmission of differential capacities of historical dwelling in the present. As such, defacement gestures to a kind of immanent political critique that works by shifting the terms of historical redress from a focus on a public monument as an object of historiographical analysis to the modes of its ongoing (re)presentations.
As a form of political protest, then, a statue’s defacement is tantamount to a gesture of unmasking. The violence discharged against a statue fleshes out the still ongoing relations of violence that belie its inert presence as a material relic of an ostensibly bygone past. The labor specific to the act of defacement thus works through a generative kind of negation, whereby the destructive act doubles as a reanimating force. As my anthropological work on the ab/uses of the Truman statue demonstrates, acts of defacement become politically legible by destabilizing and/or remediating the distinction between a material representation (e.g., of the 33rd president of the United States, itself a symbolic personification of the Truman Doctrine) and what that representation ciphers (the Cold War specters of state terrorism, imperialism, and anti-communist repression that continue to haunt the [neo]liberal fantasies of nominally democratic regimes in and from Greece today).
Defacement can thus work as an exposition of a society’s open wounds; it works to the extent that it betrays a society’s “public secrets” (Taussig 1999): in this case, the dominant national culture’s disavowed and ongoing complicities in historical forms of violence and discrimination. And as official commemorations surrounding the bicentennial of the Greek revolution attest, such complicities are often disavowed through tired but well-rehearsed (and well-funded) nationalist rituals of memorialization, belonging, and solidarity. As my anthropological work on the ab/uses of the Truman statue demonstrates, defacement can draw out such complicities into public (re)view, and in ways that call renewed attention to the performative dimensions of historical redress and its relationship to the materiality of collective memory.
Accordingly, my work is interested in how acts of defacement can remediate iconic monuments into ballistic interfaces of and for public appeal and historical redress. Along these lines, my focus on the statue of Harry S. Truman in Athens has been inspired by artistic remediations of archival materials pertaining to the monument’s commission, transport, installation, and multiple defacements. Chief among these inspirations is Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ 2009 multimedia video installation, Lost Monument. Casting Truman as an itinerant statue, Tsivopoulos combines photographic archives with original film documentaries to stage a reflexive and uncanny commentary on the enduring and entangled legacies of the Truman Doctrine in and from post-war Greece. At the forefront of my interest in works like Lost Monument is an anthropological consideration of such artistic remediations as extensions of the acts of defacement they (re)present.
In my recent article, “Cold War image-myths: A crime scene ethnography of defacement and historical redress from Athens, Greece,” I explore the political aesthetics of defacement, elaborated through an experimental ethnography of Cold War historical redress and political recrimination. Specifically, I stage a speculative crime scene investigation into the whereabouts and status of Harry S. Truman in present-day Athens. Like Tsivopoulos’ installation, my experiment involves shifting the terms of historical redress from a focus on the statue of Harry S. Truman as a historiographical object of analytical study to the phantasmagoric modes of its ongoing defacement and (re)presentations in and from post-war Greece.
Mantzios, G. (2021) Cold War image-myths: A crime scene ethnography of defacement and historical redress from Athens, Greece. International Journal of Cultural Studies [March, online first]: 1-18.
Musil, R. (2006 ) Monuments. In: Robert Musil: Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, trans. Wortsman P. New York: Archipelago Books.
Reuters (2018) Greek communists try to topple Truman statue in Syria air strikes protest. Arab News, 16 April. Available at: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1285626/world (accessed 10 April 2019).
Taussig, M. (1999) Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Tsivopoulos, S. (2009) Lost monument. Available at: https://www.stefanostsivopoulos.com/lostmonument (accessed 7 July 2020.)
George Mantzios is a PhD candidate in social-cultural anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada. He is also an associate program coordinator for the Pelion Summer Laboratory for Cultural Theory and Experimental Humanities (https:// www.pelionsummerlab.net/)
Cite as: Mantzios, George. 2021. “Defacement and/as Historical Redress.” Decolonize Hellas blog, 25th March https://decolonizehellas.org/defacement-and-as-historical-redress/