Monumental Violence discusses importance of engaging and powerful monuments

Opening comments for the Monumental Violence talk were made by UConn president Susan Herbst. (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

The issue of controversial monuments in public spaces has become increasingly important in light of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Monumental Violence: Public Dialogue set out to discuss the issue of monuments and their meaning and impact on the United States populace.

Opening remarks for the event were made by University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst, who discussed the importance of having these sorts of conversations on UConn’s campus. Herbst stated that we were now at a time in history “where our central values are being threatened,” specifically in regards the past election and its aftermath.

After Herbst left the podium, each panelist gave a short presentation on a specific topic regarding monuments and their place in society.

The first of the five panelists to present was Kelly Dennis, who provided a brief history of Confederate Statues in the United States. Dennis stated that during times like the Civil Rights movement, reconstruction and the heart of the Jim Crow laws were peak times for the erection of Confederate statues.

Dennis suggested that this was done to establish white supremacy, stating “Confederate Monuments peaking during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement suggest that they are doing precisely what they are designed to do, confirm and promote white supremacy.”

While Dennis clearly disagreed with the presence of Confederate monuments, she was also sure to express the importance of monuments in public spaces. Dennis discussed the importance of monuments and artwork and their role of challenging and transforming ideas and meanings, while also providing a voice for victims.

Yan Geng, who began her presentation after Dennis, provided those in attendance with a unique anecdote from her childhood. Geng recalled the Tiananmen Square protests that took place when she was a young child in China.

According to Geng, monuments played an important part in the Tiananmen Square protests. In Tiananmen Square, a statue depicting the “Goddess of Democracy” was placed in front of a portrait of Mao Zedong. Geng was sure to stress the influence of the Goddess of Democracy on protestors, stating that “this statue became a powerful force to fuel the political movements.”

Robin Greenly and Michael Orwicz discussed the possibility of not necessarily taking down monuments, but repurposing them in a way that they could transform the meaning. By doing this, it would allow victims to gain control of the oppression. Greenly and Orwicz also stated that monuments should engage the viewer.

By making the monument personally engaging, it will allow the viewer to connect their personal experiences and memories to the greater historical meaning behind the monument itself. Greenly and Orwicz specifically mentioned the monuments El Ojo Que Llora in Lima, Peru and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial as good examples of monuments that engaged with the viewer.

The final speaker of the night, Alexis Boylan, shared a similar sentiment to Orwicz and Greenly. She discussed how monuments and art pieces in public spaces should not just be decorative, but should really mean something.

“Monuments should not be easy and without risk or sacrifice, and perhaps all shouldn’t and wouldn’t stand the test of time,” Boylan said.

MFA in studio art graduate student Melanie Klimjack found Boylan’s argument particularly interesting.

“It’s interesting to think about who we are talking to when we are putting these works of art on our campus, do they make the statement that we need to,” Klimjack said.

After the presentations, the floor was opened up for discussion. Audience members asked about First Amendment Rights, finding the balance between civil discourse and public ideology and the mythos surrounding Confederate monuments and memorials. Panelists kept reiterating that we need monuments and public art that creates discourse and allows for conversation, while also not getting trapped in static modes of thinking.

“It kind of made me realize how complacent everyone can be and that we need to be more active,” said MFA in studio art graduate student Jordan Thuman, “I’m not thinking in the monumental sense, but to even make my own art have more of a statement on what’s going on right now. We can’t be complacent. There needs to be action.”


Lauren Brown is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at lauren.brown@uconn.edu.