Published July 13, 2012
Spanish artist Santiago Sierra premiered a giant piece of rock called ‘The Black Cone, Monument To Civil Disobedience’ in front Iceland’s parliament this January. Sierra cracked the rock with a black cone, which “alludes to black cone-shaped hats that condemned persons were forced to wear for humiliation during the Inquisition in the 12th century,” according to a press release. The monument is marked with a plaque bearing a quote from the French Revolution’s Declaration Of The Rights Of Man And Of The Citizen: “When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.”
Having gone through Santiago’s massive archive of provocative works, performed and exhibited all around the globe, it seems a bit strange to see him buying into ‘the image of Iceland’—an image usually centred on the pseudo-link between Iceland’s nature, art and nightlife, but also on the country’s most recent history of protest, as if by taking to the streets and later voting against paying a tiny bit of the debt imposed on society by Icelandic capitalists, the Icelandic public somehow waged a war against global capitalism. “The performance commemorates this protest,” the press release states, “and a wave of protests that have taken place around the world in the last few years, from the Arabic Spring to the Occupation of Wall Street.”
Few have openly voiced their opinion about the rock so far, but as Santiago Sierra has offered it to the City of Reykjavík on the condition that the rock stays permanently at Austurvöllur, there are bigger questions to tackle, such as what this monument means.
WHAT IS A MONUMENT?
While a monument honours its subject, it is also its tombstone. One looks back and remembers the subject, its great impact on society and its historical importance because it’s not among us anymore. In other words: because of its death.
In the case of the 2008–9 protest, the act of honouring it and thereby acknowledging its death could be interpreted as a declaration from those who participated that they are happy with what came out of it: the government they toppled being replaced by a centre-left pro-capitalism one that has brought Icelandic finance back into the game in a way acceptable to and honoured by the International Monetary Fund. And if that’s the case—if the good majority of those who revolted simply wanted a new government—there’s no point in arguing against that.
It does, however, not change the fact that a more radical, non-party-political element was evident in this revolt, manifested in individuals and groups who revolted against the all-encompassing hierarchical structures of the commodity-society we live in—for anarchy and individual autonomy. This element’s impact on society can clearly be seen in a decreasing faith in party-politics, less fear about speaking up about and against corruption and state repression, and a larger spectrum of anarchist-oriented ideas.
Acknowledging this brings forth another way of understanding monuments: Not only as reminders of the past, but also in an encouraging way, as a reminder of potential and possibility.
WHAT ARE WE REMINDED OF?
Despite many people’s emphasis on the alleged peacefulness of Iceland’s uprising, it’s clear that the often high level of force—violence and property damage at times—played a significant role in threatening the authorities. As is the nature of such revolts, it was easy for those in power to ignore written and spoken word whereas it was much more difficult for them to close their eyes to the bricks that broke parliament’s windows.
Instead of dismissing these elements as apolitical and criminal in nature, one should view them in their historical context. There is a tendency to glorify certain protests—often those far removed in time or place—and to play down their force, the blood, the broken arms and wounded heads. Such manipulation of history—call it a notional monument—enables the pacification of dissent by claiming that only purely non-violent methods can succeed in victories. Take for instance the glorification of Martin Luther King rather than Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi as opposed to the Indian independence movement’s more militant elements, and the Arab Spring and Occupy movements opposed to last August’s London riots.
Being a giant rock, Santiago’s monument could however serve as a historical pick-me-up, encouraging us not to allow the ruling powers to dictate how the game is played.
HOW DO WE WRITE HISTORY?
Some say that history is written by the conquerors. But things are not so simple; one can also become a conqueror by writing history.
So far, the history of Iceland’s 2008–9 revolt has most visibly been written by the mainstream media, a handful of conservative writers, and the police force claiming that the protest was remote-controlled by a number of leftist parliamentarians. Obviously, these historians will neither acknowledge the victories felt by those who protested nor the necessary methods used to see them come true.
On its own, Santiago Sierra’s Black Cone is far from strong enough to radically affect this manufacturing of history. But it certainly get can get those of us who protested with other aims than simply moving a few asses to and fro in the hall of parliament, to consider how we are writing this history. Not only with ink on paper but also as an event in a history of events to be remembered, understood, learned from and, most importantly, continued.