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Friday, January 13, 2012

Martin Luther King Monument in Washington


Washington, DC. Martin Luther King Monument. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011.

Martin Luther King Monument in Washington

The Martin Luther King Memorial on the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. was dedicated in September 2011. The monument was designed by Devraux and Purnell/ROMA Design Group Joint Ventures which engaged Chinese artist Lei Yixin as the sculptor. The selection of a Chinese sculptor, the use of Chinese granite and Chinese masons, as well as color and style of the monument, aroused much protest during the planning and construction phases. The controversies are well documented on Wikipedia.



This monument, like the World War II monument located nearby on the mall and dedicated a few years ago are testimony to the historical amnesia and limited artistic imagination in Washington. The MLK monument - which some have dubbed Martin Luther Mao - comes straight out of 1950s social realist copybook. Such statues of Lenin, Stalin and Mao were once in no short supply. But the Communist sculptors were not original either. They looked to the Pharonic statues of ancient Egypt for their models. Maybe Lei Yixin looked a Karnak and Luxor, too.

Still, I have to admit that visiting the monument on an early December morning was a powerful experience. And the massive statue was perfect for tourist photo ops. But the humanity of the King's words in the inscriptions that line the monument wall inevitably strike one as in sharp opposition to the gigantic egoism embodied in the statue of King himself. The fact too, that the monument, like the upcoming King holiday, pulls MLK from his context.  It makes it seem that the Civil Rights movement was entirely of his making and his achievement, when there were so many other strong leaders at his side. I'd like to see them mentioned, at least by name. No doubt that King led and embodied the movement, and maybe he was its Moses. But as books like Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters make clear, the reality of the effort was so much richer and complex than this monument.

But this is always the problem of monuments. If they are too detailed and require too much work, they are ignored. And if they simplify, then they are seen - but at what cost to history? Are they doorways to the past? Or only scenic backdrops for the present? It will take several years to assess the overall effect of this monument. It is supposed to be the last great monument on the (greater) Mall. I hope so.

Washington, DC. Martin Luther King Monument. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011.


Berlin, Germany. Lenin Monument at Leninplatz (now Platz der Vereinten Nationen -United Nations Square). The statue was removed in late 1991 or early 1992. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

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