In her book Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, Erika Doss writes about the memorializing mania in the late 19th century as the American nation state started to solidify with the far-flung boundaries of the country finally wrested from the native peoples who lived here. Busts marking wars won, Indians killed and towns founded were slowly supplemented by bronze statues to abstract ideas such as honor as well as toga-clad busts of great European leaders.
This colonizing land grab is the pivot point upon which the country’s sense of self rests, and it is uniquely embodied in the landscape of St. Louis.
At Sculpture City Saint Louis 2014’s recent conference Monument / Anti-Monument, St. Louis’s two great, conflicting man-made objects as markers of place and of St. Louis’s place in the originary myths of America were the central, ghostly heart of our conversations. The man-made construction recognized the world over is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, aka the Gateway Arch (1947-1965), by Eero Saarinen, which presides over the Museum of Westward Expansion (1976), buried beneath the Arch’s glorious gleaming legs. The Arch, a spectacular sculpture (although this claim was challenged during our conference, with building and infrastructure arising as ways to understand the Arch), proclaims the good accomplished when Thomas Jefferson purchased land from Napoleon and, by extension, the Spanish, both of whom had slipped the continent-sized carpet out from under the feet of the Native Nations.
The other man-made works that persist in asserting their presence (despite tremendous effort to erase them) are the ancient mounds of the Mississippean peoples scattered around the St. Louis region. Archaeological digs have established that this culture flourished around 1,000 years ago, not as an outpost of the empire in Mexico City, but as a fully self-determined cultural, social and political community with its own traditions. Early Americans knew of the mounds, but later immigrants destroyed them with vengeance, thinking they were more likely made by aliens than the broken and corralled peoples of late 19th century America. The yin and yang of these monuments / anti-monuments (which is which?) provide an interesting backdrop to St. Louis’s newest monument (or anti-monument), another emblem of the past that America wishes to forget.
A visit on September 9 to Ferguson showed the Quicktrip, burned in the initial response to the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, surrounded by fencing and no protests to be seen. While many on-going peaceful protests have moved indoors to the churches and meeting halls of our area, the Quiktrip is left exposed to natural forces (of nature and cheap building materials). One recent article posted on Facebook reported that neighbors want to preserve the Quiktrip as a marker of a new civil rights movement; the fencing suggests that this damaged building will come down shortly, although recent news footage has the Quiktrip as a backdrop to a now-international outcry against our country’s persistent discrimination against people of color, particularly African Americans.
Rebecca Solnit posits that “landscape is the victim of history” in her book Savage Dreams, and indeed, St. Louis is unique in how our landscape bears the scars of our collective past while being a place where, perhaps, we might begin to reconcile to our future.
A version of this article was first published on-line in critic Mary Louise Schumacher’s Art City blog for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, inspired by Monument / Anti-Monument, http://www.jsonline.com/entertainment/arts/art-city-explores-place-anti-monuments-in-milwaukee-and-beyond-b99329937z1-274357511.html