Alongside the Black Lives Matter movement, the anti- monument movement has been growing. In Bristol in the United Kingdom, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was dragged down and dumped in the river; in the United States, ‘statues of Christopher Columbus have been beheaded.’1 In Australia, although colonial statues have largely avoided destruction thus far, many activists, academics and artists have raised their voices against these foundational symbols of colonial history. At the University of Melbourne, Murrup Barak and Professor Marcia Langton have called on the university and government to ‘look in [their] own backyard’ and ‘acknowledge what is happening on this soil.’2 Seen through such cracks, the world cannot remain the same. Should monuments to colonial invaders and settlers be shattered by a wrecking ball, as in Tony Albert’s You Wreck Me (2020)? In South Korea, statues of ‘comfort women’ memorialise our colonial past by representing victim-survivors. Do they maintain or subvert the dominant narrative? More broadly, what is the role of the monument and memorialisation in a contemporary society still struggling with colonialism and historical accountability?
The Statue of Peace (Fig. 1), by artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, erected in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul, was intended to commemorate Korean ‘comfort women’ (victims and survivors of sexual violence perpetrated by the Japanese military during occupation of Korea in the early twentieth century). The statue calls for a formal apology from the Japanese government which, as of yet, has not acknowledged human rights violations nor accepted legal responsibility for the sexual violence of its military occupation.3 The Japanese government argue that the issue was resolved with a 2015 settlement that many contend was deeply flawed and did not have the full participation of survivors (the Constitutional Court of Korea quashed this agreement in 2019).4 Survivors and women’s rights activists in Korea are still protesting this continued denial of historical events. And although the Statue of Peace is a clear attempt to redress this historical injustice, it has come under increasing criticism in South Korea.
Statue of Peace, also known as the Statue of Girl in Korea, works to embed the image of the ‘pure girl’ into South Korea’s national identity.5 It depicts one such girl, sitting on a chair, her feet bare and her fists clenched to show her indomitable will towards justice.6 Despite the just intentions of the statue, it reinforces a dangerous nationalism and anti- Japanese sentiment. South Korean history-making venerates singular heroic figures, such as Admiral Yi Shunshin, whose efforts helped repel the Japanese from Korea.7 Such figures reoccur throughout South Korean arts, culture and education, and are popular national heroes today.8 The image of the ‘pure girl’ rendered in the Statue of Peace plays into these simplistic narrative of victims, heroes and enemies. The static collective memory, reinscribed by these statues, demands we remain in the position of victim, unable to account for the voices of survivors.
I used to pass by the Statue of Peace every day, on my way to work. Two additional statues of ‘comfort women’ are located very close by; between them is a statue of Admiral Yi. Walking through, I couldn’t help but clench my fists like the girl in the statue. The monuments didn’t invite me to question why I was clenching my fists in response — it was like the hyped feeling one gets after watching an emotional war film. Recently, I visited the statue again after a few years’ absence. The statue remains in the same place but now appears passive to me. What history do we see through this statue?
Rather than replacing survivors with statues, we need to make space to raise their voices. We should prioritise the stories and experience of the 18 living survivors (the known number of survivors, so far, is 240, but 220 have passed away) over the nationalist narratives of the state. The question is, how?
I want you, the young people, to have accurate history, that Japan would acknowledge the history and teach it to Japanese students and finally apologise to us. Why should I be reduced to be called ‘comfort woman’? I am a precious daughter of my parents, and they gave me my name, Lee Yongsoo. Only [with] their apology, my honour will be restored. Until then, I will try my best as a human rights and women’s rights activist.9
— Lee Yongsoo, 2020
As Lee argues, we need accurate depictions of history. But by relying on a colonial framework — such as a figurative monument — to build our identity, we, South Koreans, erode the multifaceted historical narratives that exist in the lived experience of survivors. We might, then, look beyond the monument for a framework or mode outside of colonial constructs, to centre a different kind of memorialising. But what other processes of memorialisation might better acknowledge our history? Is it possible to reveal the complexity of history through the form of the monument? And can we remember our past without embracing anti-Japanese nationalism?
Perhaps the answer could be in the history of the anti-monument movement. The current anti-monument movement is not new. The #RhodesMustFall campaign attacked the symbol of colonial monuments so successfully it ignited a global debate on decolonisation in the academy across the world.10 In 2015, students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa demanded the removal of statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist and mining magnate, from their campus, a demand that spread to other campuses across South Africa.11 This inspired students at University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, who further questioned the curriculum and institutional structures of their university.12 At my own university, University of Melbourne, the Richard Berry Building (named for a former professor and eugenicist) was renamed in 2017, following years of campaigning by a group of staff and students, but the names of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientists, eugenicists and racists like Baldwin Spencer, Frank Tate and Wilfred Agar remain.13
While students and communities around the world have demanded the removal of colonial monuments, cultural institutions are starting to question the colonial legacies they have upheld, and are making moves towards amending their historical culpability. Major cultural institutions across Australia have begun showing the work of First Nation artists, rarely seen in these spaces previously. These works subvert dominant narratives by exploring memories, stories and histories of colonial violence. Although not necessarily classed as ‘monument’, one such example is Trawlwoolway artist Julie Gough’s The Gathering (2015), which investigates the landscape of Tasmania, her traditional homeland.14 This work was shown in The National 2017: New Australian Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney.15 The installation included a video and 28 found stones presented on a dining table inscribed with the names of Tasmanian colonial estates. The video work moves through the landscape, pausing to frame cleared land, felled trees, the fence or the gateway to private properties. Gough’s journey is punctuated by white text on a black screen — excerpts from historical documents, such as newspaper and journal records, detailing how Aboriginal land was stolen through brutal and strategic dispossession and turned into European property. The work ends with a list of the names of colonial landowners, footage of a burning landscape behind. In a recent lecture, Gough said that her work is about ‘facing history and truth telling in the deepest sense which is really [about] making evident what has happened and bringing it out of archives and back to country.’16
The #RhodesMustFall campaign attacked the symbol of colonialism via monuments and institutions, and Gough’s artwork shows the importance of facing the complexity of history and truth-telling. Both challenge the values and historicisation of settler-colonial states, unsettling static monuments and the false narratives they legitimise. When we embrace the static monument, we unconsciously assimilate the colonial occupation of history. Continuing to destroy the fixed-frame dreams of the colonial past is urgent. Girramay, Yidinji and Kuku-Yalanji artist Tony Albert’s You Wreck Me (2020) shows the revolutionary power of the play of images.17 In You Wreck Me, Albert parodies the Miley Cyrus pop hit ‘Wrecking Ball’. Swinging atop a wrecking ball, just like Cyrus in her music video, Albert shatters statues of James Cook while singing the chorus of the song, using humour as a means of subversion. One by one, the statues of Cook are ground to dust; in the end, Cook’s ship bursts like a bubble in the sea. The colonial legacy disappears like smoke. Parody enables Albert to deconstruct the power embedded in the monument. You Wreck Me provides us with an opportunity to reflect on history as something mutable rather than static. It ‘folds’ the sleek surface of the monument, and it finds the ‘creases’ in colonial history.
While the colonial histories of Australia, South Korea, South Africa and the United Kingdom are distinct and each come with a set of complex relations, we can see, through the speed at which the anti-monument movement has taken hold around the world, a fundamental acknowledgement that static monuments, as modes of memorialising, are insufficient and painful, especially for survivors of colonial violence. As we have seen in the case of the Statue of Peace, the fixed frame of these monuments, whether for colonial authority or survivors, reinscribes colonial violence and nationalist mythology. However, moving artworks such as The Gathering and You Wreck Me offer not only resistance to dominant national narratives, but also a method of reshaping our understanding of history and the present. We must fold the monument through this anti-monument movement in order to assure a new future. The artworks mentioned above, which bring together the importance of truth-telling and the complexity of history, allude to a possible way forward for memorialisation in today’s society, which is still grappling with colonial legacies, historical accountability and structural change.
Jung Sujin (she/her) is an art writer and MA student in art curatorship at the University of Melbourne.
Bronwyn Carlson, ‘Friday essay: taking a wrecking ball to monuments – contemporary art can ask what really needs tearing down,’ The Conversation, 12 June 2020. ↩
See: Murrup Barak team and Karen Davis, ‘A message from Murrup Barak’ and ‘A message on reconciliation and action,’ University of Melbourne, June 2020. ↩
See: ‘South Korea: Lawsuits against Japanese government last chance for justice for ‘comfort women,’ Amnesty International, 2020. Also see: Lim Joohyun임주현,‘[fact check] Is it true that Japan has sincerely apologized to comfort women...? [[팩트체크K] 위안부 피해자에게 성실히 사과했다는일본...사실일까?],’ 13 February 2019. ↩
Statue of Peace detailed description: empty chair (death), bird on the shoulder (peace), the bare feet hardly touch the ground (suffering) two-fisted (promise for peace). See: Kim Yangsoon 김양순, ‘Have you seen the Statue of Girl? Why is she clenching her fists? Hidden symbols [소녀상보셨습니까?7왜주먹을쥐고 있을까?숨은상징들],’ KBS News, 20 March 2017. ↩
Historically, Korea was invaded by Japan several times; the Imjia War of 1592-98 and the Japanese occupation of 1910-45. Many problems that arose during the Japanese occupation, such as the matter of the ‘comfort women,’ are still not resolved. On the other hand, the Korean government’s history-making also contributes to current anti-Japanese sentiments. In 1966 the government founded a committee for establishing statues of patriotic martyrs in order to create a sense of unification and settle down the unstable society after the Korean War. By 1972, the committee had established 17 statues of figures, such as admirals who had achieved victory at wars, as well as monuments to groups like the elite male warrior youth group Hwarang (sixth/seventh centurt) and Korean independence activists during the Japanese colonial era (1910-1945). The committee’s aim was not much different from other forms of monument propaganda. See: Jin Hye- yoon진혜윤, ‘The history told by the patriotic martyrs [애국선열조상’ 이말해주는역사],’ The Monthly Art 월간미술, December 2016, 90-93. ↩
See: Gary Foley, ‘Eugenics, Melbourne University and Me,’ Tracker Magazine, February 2012.. See also: Marika Dobbin-Thomas, ‘Melbourne University bows to pressure, removes racist professor’s name from campus,’ The Age, 21 March 2017. ↩