When a statue is more than a statue

A few years ago in my old borough of Queens, I came across an ornamental column in the middle of the rubbish on the sidewalk. Regret prompted me to back down and bring the plaster orphan home. He has since moved with me to Chicago, where, wearing a pothos, he receives many compliments.

Columns, especially of a classical order, have a powerful appeal. They are stylish, evoke high art, and can look alluring, as I realized on this summer stroll. They may appear incongruous in our environment, especially on a city sidewalk. However, columns are really everywhere: decorating banks, colleges, museums, and federal buildings across the country.

It may all seem obvious, but artist Kelly Kristin Jones knows there is something more insidious behind the ubiquity of columns. “These are symbols used by whites to build power,” she said during our interview in June. “It’s so ingrained that we don’t know why they are used so heavily in our built spaces. “

Jones has spent several years questioning the prevalence of these markers in the United States, focusing on the public (and maintained by taxpayers) monuments to long-dead white men that fueled national debate and, in Chicago, a reassessment of the public arts. For his work in progress In time and in paradiseJones documents himself and others as they hold up photographs of the sky in front of local statues of controversial people. During these performances, Jones does not identify the subjects of the statues for the viewer, prompting us to imagine the possibilities of those who should be commemorated atop the pedestals. The resulting documentation gives the impression that the original statues have been erased, echoing the darkroom dodging technique.

While Jones was locked inside last year, she began to think about the ideologies of whiteness that are part of everyday domestic life. She bought ornamental columns from local sellers on Craigslist and Facebook, made of inexpensive materials such as plastic, wood, plaster or metal. The crescent stock of columns is the centerpiece of Jones’ exhibition “We Forgot the Moon by Holding the Sun” at Bridgeport Gallery 062 at the Zhou B Art Center. The resulting piece, Orders of the Empire, features dozens of columns pouring out of a corner to evoke an ancient ruin. The exhibit, which also includes photography, strives to unravel the pervasive legacy of haunting white supremacists in plain view; to show that a column is not just a column.

The crux of this systemic architectural sleight of hand is the white and right-wing obsession with antiquity. Professor Rutgers, Dr Lyra D. Monteiro, wrote that the ancient Greeks and Romans “affirmed the ancient nobility and the ability to rule of the white race, while providing a model of just empire and civilized possession of slaves ”. Monteiro describes it in her essay “Structures of Power: White Columns, White Marble, White Supremacy”, which she posted on Medium in October 2020. Monteiro tells us that the so-called founding fathers ”. . . set their heritage claims in stone, ”and traces the relentless formation of white national identity from Thomas Jefferson (whose Monticello plantation has become a synonym for whitewashed stories of slavery) to the grotesque tradition of marriages of plantation, and the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville (which revolved around a statue of Robert E. Lee) to that of TrumpMake federal buildings more beautiful“executive decree. Neoclassical architecture, writes Monteiro, was and remains a means for white men to”[seed] the landscape with the signs of the European past – of European heritage – literally marking the territory of whiteness.

Jones’ work seeks to avoid didacticism and invites us to delve into the calculated history of unbalanced power simply by making it immense and inescapable. It collects and draws attention to the breadcrumbs of this story beyond the south, still largely at the center of today’s debates on monuments. Interestingly, its columnists all live in predominantly white suburbs west and north of Chicago. They are also all white women. “I realized this was the job,” Jones said. “I reflected on the role white women always have and continue to play in maintaining white supremacy.” This is not to suggest that women are intentionally flagging white space, but that “this agenda is at work, even though we don’t know or want to acknowledge it.”

Echoing the overthrow of monuments by protesters that gained momentum last summer, Orders of the Empire tears off the columns from their cozy camouflage. Literally overturned, they are displayed like gadgets – hollow props, not royal pedestals. By summoning them, Jones creates what I had called a counter-monument, a marker that both makes visible and deconstructs collective ideas of heritage. As the exhibition progressed, the pile grew larger, becoming heavier and heavier and absurd in its utter futility.

Jones also visited predominantly white suburbs to create his photographs, visiting places such as River Forest, Riverside, Downers Grove, Elmhurst and Wheaton. Over the past year, she has broken into private yards to photograph markers intended for the public which are, again, oddly low quality. The inexpensive busts of white men and the faux Greco-Roman urns are more reminiscent of whiteness dominates. Jones uses Adobe Photoshop’s spot correction brush to make the documented markers unrecognizable, then prints and cuts the photos to the scale of the object’s silhouette. At night, she returns to the site, hides the marker with the photo and the moonlight photograph. The resulting prints, richly tonal and mysterious, are little subversions. They capture a momentary redaction of power – filtered through time and commercialization – through attentive, almost healing gestures. Some are significantly retouched, such as an image that shows the sharp outline of a bust or the like, the outlines of an amphora. But Jones’ most effective interventions are those that almost blend into their surroundings, like happy glitches in the landscape.

Jones is aware that being a white woman has enabled her to do this job – so far no one has called the police on her. Her race is one of the reasons I would say she should be doing this job: White artists don’t feel the expectations that many artists of color have when working on race, and rarely examine whiteness let alone for. non-white communities.

And Jones’ work is endless and continuous. It brings together a collection of old and tourist postcards depicting sites with historical monuments, of which more than 700 have been displayed in wish you were Here, an installation she mounted earlier this year at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in northwest Indiana. She digitally alters postcards to remove controversial markers, reclaiming the tools of the very process used to mythologize them. Jones is also racking up snapshots of white women posing with contested landmarks, and the growing filing cabinet already points to an enduring process of building a patriotic identity – intrinsically linked to United Daughters of Confederation funding. hundreds of confederate statues.

In building and struggling with these various material archives, Jones seems to be considering artist Xaviera Simmons. call for white artists: “Go further and work more rigorously to undo yourself. . . do the cultural autopsy, name what whiteness is and the centuries of evil it has done. . . Jones names, questions and involves whiteness, better equipping us to work to dismantle it in our personal spaces. v