The Inner-Beauty of Outward-Ugly
by Elise Bergerson
Every American baby boomer can tell you where he or she was when President John Kennedy was shot. My father was in Mrs. Horthschild’s class when she announced the somber news and to this day says his heart races when thinking of the memory (note: this is not actually true; my father and I have never had this conversation).
Likewise, I remember where I was that fateful day when Comrade Dear Leader Abundant Glory Kim Jong Il was (likely) poisoned or bludgeoned to death by Capitalist American Oppressors: Dakar, Senegal, host city to the Monument to the African Renaissance. To most, his death was significant insofar as it was the only political topic neutral enough to fill in awkward familial silences at Christmas dinner. To me, Masterful Chief Happiness Vision Kim Jong Ill’s death was life-changing. I am speaking as someone who crafted her thesis topic around whatever subject would allow for the most expansive exploration of The Dear Leader. I was spellbound by his eccentricities. Did you know that Comrade Really-great Half-Off Sale Leader Kim Jong Il had defective rice kernels filtered out of his meals? Or that, during his tenure, he established the Kim Jong Il Longevity Institute tasked solely with keeping him alive (methinks they were understaffed this year)? Perhaps my favorite Dear Leader story surrounds the time he kidnapped his favorite South Korean actors for a mere eight years, surely for the production of some dynamite rom-coms. Deplorable man. Fascinating all the same.
I had to properly mourn the man who had earned me a good thesis grade. Luckily, as aforementioned, I was in the neighborhood of the Monument to the African Renaissance, a project built and financed by North Koreans. What better proxy for an ugly man than this ugly monument?
So far as I can tell, no one likes this thing. For one, it was built in a conservative Muslim country where Qu’ranic prohibitions against depicting people render its very existence questionable. Also questionable: the nudity of the monument’s figures (see up skirt), the fact that the statue points away from the continent it’s supposed to celebrate, and that it is built on a raised base so as to be visible everywhere in Dakar -a city too dusty to see anything set at a distance. Most questionable: the fact that the expensive monument was built in the first place, when most of Dakar’s citizenry suffers from blackouts and other infrastructural shortcomings. Quite literally, the monument casts a shadow over people who are already often without working lights.
The monument is the perfect place to theatrically weep over the death of Dear Comrade Leader and to witness a prime example of a class of monuments I term the Fugly-Ass-Unwanted-Gift-Of-Aesthetically-Challenged-Communists monument. For whatever reason, there is an abundance of monuments designed by artists in communist (or former communist) states, foisted upon unhappy municipalities the world over. The Dakar citizenry now has to pay for the maintenance of a statue few appreciate, which includes the cost of 24-hour surveillance, as the structure has been barraged with bomb threats (for its sheer fug-ness, I presume).
For another example of this structural category, I suggest readers make a pilgrimage to Moscow to this monstrosity:
What you’re staring at, aghast in horror (you can close your gaping mouth now), is a monument to Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg. Except, it’s not exactly that. Why is Peter standing atop three ships? Why is he dressed as a Roman Legionnaire? What is that decree he is holding? Well, chances are that this statue was actually meant to celebrate Christopher Columbus. The artist, Zurab Tsereteli, vehemently denies that this statue was meant to commemorate anyone other than Peter the Great. Coincidentally, Tsereteli approached the US in 1992 with plans for a statue depicting Columbus and was rejected. Still, construction commenced and, at some point -perhaps after the statue was allegedly rejected a second time by an unidentified Latin American country – the ever-resourceful Tsereteli decided to make lemonade with his sculptural lemons. The head of the statue was lopped and replaced by the likeness of Peter the Great. No need to concern yourself with the three ships’ similarity to the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria. Also, ignore the fact that the statue depicting sea exploration ended up in a locale that fails to qualify as a port city. It might also make your brain hurt to think that the monument to Peter the Great was erected in a city he historically detested, so ignore that too. Just let the fug wash over you.
Like the Monument to the African Renaissance, the statue of Peter the Great has been subject to bomb threats by Moscow residents. It too is under 24-hour surveillance. When Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov suggested that the statue be relocated to Peter’s beloved city, St. Petersburg residents countered with the suggestion that it instead be moved to Mironov’s vacation home. Not to mention that the high price of dismantling the statue, six million dollars, has thwarted efforts to rid Moscow of my favorite eyesore.
Surprising then, given the costs associated with hosting a Fugly-Ass-Unwanted-Gift-Of-Aesthetically-Challenged-Communists monument, that the residents of Bayonne, New Jersey so quickly accepted another statue designed by the great Tsereteli, this time, a monument “To the Struggle Against World Terrorism”:
The monument, a hyper-literal interpretation of the grief of surviving victims of the September 11th terrorist attack, features a forty-foot teardrop suspended in the crack of a rectangular tower. But let’s be real: there’s something…vaginal about it, is there not? I’m pretty sure that’s what vaginas look like.
The monument was originally meant to be a gift to Jersey City but, upon seeing its photo-realistic vulvic form (a refreshing counterpoint to all those phallic obelisks that litter our global skyline), they passed the buck to Bayonne. Clearly, Bayonne’s residents don’t know what they’re in for. I can only imagine that the small town’s economy will be upended as municipal funds are earmarked for the inevitable 24-hour surveillance that the monument will undoubtedly require.
On the other hand, maybe the monument “To the Struggle Against World Terrorism” will finally put Bayonne on the map much as Tsereteli’s equally fug statue “Good Defeats Evil” made New York famous.
Every year, millions of tourists forego tours to the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building in favor of this statue, on the grounds of the UN building in Manhattan, which commemorates the historical battle between a medieval horseman and his Godzilla-Mothra-hybrid foe.
This last statue makes me think that maybe I’m too hard on the creators of Fugly-Ass-Unwanted-Gift-Of-Aesthetically-Challenged-Communists monuments. Indeed, once in a while, they create something so perfectly, unimpeachably grotesque that the monuments become sublime testaments to the strivings of a flawed humanity. These are monuments that, in showcasing the artistic failures of humankind, also spotlight the the surprising achievements of people. If we live in a world where a North Korean tyrant was able to finance a statue of Africans rising out of a volcano, only to be headed back in the direction of the nearest ocean. Doesn’t that make the invention of the printing press and the success of the first transcontinental flight even better? We need these fug-ass monuments as a reminder of the relative beauty out there. Maybe instead of gazing upon their outward unsightliness, we should see them for their internal beauty: as compasses of the relative benchmarks of human history, even if these compasses sometimes point in the exact wrong direction.
Elise Bergerson currently lives in New York City and works in international affairs. She is a first-time contributor to PLAZA.