In May 2018, New South Wales-based duo Make or Break (Rebecca Gallo and Connie Anthes) presented their site-specific performance work Unveilings at Kyneton Contemporary Art Triennial. This conversation began then, and continued over email.
When I think of public monuments I picture a white male figure cast in bronze atop a granite plinth. James Flinders, Bourke and Wills, Captain Cook. Splashes of paint thrown over them on 26 January, no pride in genocide. Confederate monuments being removed in the southern states of America. It’s about time really. Making space for non-male and non- white history to be told means the white male history is going to have to give up some space too.
In the United States and here, this public discussion around the removal of outdated monuments has sparked accusations of revisionism,1 and violent reprisals by ultra-right wing protesters.2 But the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad in 2003, aided by U.S. Marines, is an iconic symbol of American supremacy. Depends on who is doing the toppling and who is being toppled.
On the flipside, Make or Break’s Unveilings suggests a form of literally constructive reparation; a series of proposals for new public monuments of and for women.
Before and during the Kyneton Contemporary Art Triennial, Make Or Break surveyed hundreds of women in Kyneton, asking them to imagine new monuments for the town. (Across Australia, they say, there are more sculptures of giant fruit than there are monuments to women.) Selected responses became one-off performances across Kyneton that mimicked civic unveilings, complete with a fabric draped plinth, podiums and loudspeakers. However the monuments were never unveiled, existing only as descriptions for the audience to imagine.
The relationship between construction and destruction of monuments is a tricky one. Is removal or destruction enough, or does it just erase the painful history that shouldn’t be forgotten? On the other hand, what good is the construction of new monuments when the old ones are just around the corner, contradicting in their persistence?
In many ways, the strategy of Unveilings was anti-monumental. It essentially mimicked council procedure, eschewing a grand ceremony or spectacle for paperwork, permits and red tape. By replicating the official systems through which we can amplify our voices it shows up the holes, and what’s been papered over.
At the appointed hour we gather outside a shop front on the town’s main street. Connie from Make Or Break introduces herself, her suit jacket eminently official. The windows are plastered with handwritten surveys, proposals for new monuments by the Women of Kyneton — a town’s worth of people, places, hardships, triumphs. There is a proposal for a monument acknowledging the work of Aunty Lee Healy, who produced the first Taungurung language dictionary; another honours Aunty Fay Carter, a Djadjawurrung Elder.
Also remembered is Mrs Meehan, who pioneered disability services in Kyneton, alongside a tongue-in-cheek proposal for a celebration of ‘a relief from women’s mental and domestic load.
Each performance is in a different place around Kyneton. Connie directs us to follow her to this one, a ten-minute walk away. As we amble up the street we are encouraged to discuss amongst ourselves: to imagine our own monuments, to consider the implications of what a monument entails. (Really, that was the beginning of the exchange we’re having now.) We reach the place — a pub, a park, an abandoned hospital — and see a tall shape swathed in bright orange, between two towering podiums. Make Or Break straighten their suit jackets and ascend the ladders to their podiums. They give a speech, partly in unison. They describe the proposed monument, specific to each location: an hourglass, or two hands, or an artificial hill planted with flowers.
They say, several times, ‘We are not from here.’
As a gesture, this statement is important. They’re not residents of Kyneton. Also, their European bodies (like yours and mine) are not from here. It acknowledges the history of artists showing up and imposing their ideas on communities; of invasion and colonial law. It seeks to do better.
In Unveilings, nothing is unveiled. The monument remains a proposal. Beneath the orange wrappings there is nothing — only an outline, the beginnings of an idea.
I’m glad no monuments are erected on this land. I’m glad the proposals are only ideas.
Your mention of Cook, Flinders et al. makes me want to foreground the fact that that Unveilings took place on Indigenous land. Make Or Break are clear about this: in their speeches they acknowledge Country, name the Wurundjeri, Djadjawurrung and Taungurung peoples, emphasise that this place has been lived in for thousands of years. From Kyneton’s official website:
The records are unclear regarding the size of the local indigenous population at the time of early European settlement. However, squatter, Edward Dryden wrote some years later ‘Of the aborigines of my time the was a tribe of about 150 ... who camped from place to place ...’ It is believed that corroborees were held where Market St is now located.
In 1838–9 Ebden’s Carlsruhe became the base of a section of the 23rd Foot Regiment, sent as a result of incidents between Europeans and aboriginals at Barfold.3
(The original does not capitalise Indigenous proper nouns.)
In the town’s history, published on its website, this is the only information about 40,000+ years of Indigenous settlement by the Wurundjeri, Djadjawurrung and Taungurung peoples.
A little digging reveals that the ‘incidents’ — relegated to a footnote glorifying the area’s military occupation — refer to a series of battles that culminated in the Campaspe Plains Massacre, in which at least six (and up to forty) members of the Djadjawurrung were shot by soldiers and mounted police.4
Unveilings is a project ostensibly addressing sexism in Australian monumental history, but it’s the conversations raised around racism and decolonisation that have stuck with both of us. Feminism is not possible without decolonisation.
Monuments — the kind we usually mean, made from bronze and stone — sit heavy on the land. We are not from here, but placing a monument is a gesture of ownership. It says, I was here. It says, This is what we should remember.
In Unveilings the monuments sat lightly, liable to be whipped away by a breeze. They are the start of a conversation, not the finish. You’re travelling now in Europe, half a globe away. Of course, the question of monuments — of historical erasure, of fraught ownership — is one that Europe has been having for millennia. Has this discussion around Unveilings opened up any conversations for you there?
In Wien (Vienna) H is working on a monument to asylum seeker rights campaigner, Ute Bock, that also functions as a counter-monument to a statue of Karl Lueger, the mayor of Wien from 1897 to 1910. Lueger is known for developing the modern infrastructure of Wien, and for his extreme anti-semitism that inspired Hitler. C tells us about the Jewish district Leopoldstadt, named for the seventeenth century Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, who expelled Jews from other parts of the city, forcing them into the ghetto. C says there are now discussions around whether the name of the district should be changed, and that street names throughout Wien have recently been officially and unofficially challenged, including the change of Dr-Karl-Lueger-Ring to Universitätsring in 2012.
O tells us about Leninopad, which literally translates to ‘Leninfall’, as in waterfall. As part of Euromaidan — the wave of protests across Ukraine in 2013 and 2014 following the Ukrainian government’s decision to strengthen ties with Russia instead of signing an association agreement with the European Union — Leninopad saw the toppling of many remaining monuments to Lenin across the country. In 2017 the grey concrete Friendship of Nations Arch in Kyiv (Kiev), built in 1982 to memorialise the unification of Russia and Ukraine, was temporarily transformed into a brightly coloured rainbow for Eurovision.
E tells us about the giant metronome in Letná, Praha (Prague), that stands where the world’s largest monument to Stalin once did, although not for long — only from 1955 to 1962 before it was demolished during de-Stalinisation. The podium was bare for a long time but the metronome has been there since 1991. In 1996 it was joined by an eleven metre tall sculpture of Michael Jackson to mark the start of his world tour. We are in Praha during the Pride Parade and I’m feeling pretty disillusioned with the number of corporations taking part. Microsoft, Google, IBM, Vodafone and ExxonMobil all have floats. Some faith is restored when the parade finishes with a contingent from ‘Alt*Pride’, a socialist collective reminding us of the politics of Pride. Later we are discussing their placards; ‘STOP COMMERCIALISING PRIDE’ is something we all agree on, but D reminds us that the sign reading ‘QUEERS’ but with the Q replaced by a communist hammer and sickle is incredibly alienating as a Ukrainian, where Soviet (now Russian) occupation over the last century has been responsible for extensive crimes against humanity.
I’m wondering about the lasting impact of these actions. It’s been a long time since Stalin was demolished in Praha, perhaps long enough for the hammer and sickle to take on a new, or old, meaning.
Maybe it’s about visibility, contextualising the outdated or problematic monuments with clear information or new structures.
In Glasgow the Women’s Library have produced a series of women’s heritage walks.5 Browsing the PDF maps I can see dozens of sites where women have made history, however as I walk through the town there are almost no monuments or plaques to draw my attention. These women and their work remains invisible to most people. An exception is a giant nappy pin sculpture marking the former site of the Royal Maternity Hospital. The plaque accompanying the nappy pin reads ‘MHTPOTHTA’ first (the Scottish Gaelic) and ‘MATERNITY’ second. Seeing English de-privileged in this way is refreshing — a reminder of the other cultures and histories present here.
Language is another important tool for addressing one-sided depictions of history. O tells me about the importance of maintaining Indigenous or pre-colonial languages. She is careful to speak in Ukrainian wherever possible, even though Russian is more commonly spoken in Kyiv (which, in turn, is the latinised Ukrainian spelling of the capital, over the Russian ‘Kiev’). I think of the hundreds of Indigenous languages that have been lost to colonisation in Australia and the work being done by First Nations people to maintain those that have survived. What are the Wurundjeri, Djadjawurrung, Taungurung names for the land being considered in Unveilings, and what do these names teach us about it?
It feels like a multilayered approach is the only way to deal with complex histories surrounding monuments. No single tactic — construction, destruction, contextualisation, decolonisation of language — is enough by itself.
Unveilings uses the tactics of (proposed) construction and contextualisation to deal with the issues of monuments in Kyneton. How do we apply all of these tactics (and more) to monumental history around the country? But it’s going to take time; we’re not going to be able to fix it all, nor claim a ‘victory’, in our generation.
It’s funny how monuments so often take the form of small objects made giant — a metronome, a nappy pin. (Does the metronome in Praha tick? Or is it just a static sculpture, holding the idea of time without enacting it?)
A monument is a stand-in for collective memory, it’s a metonym hardened into granite or steel. It’s tempting to think that from the dozens of completed surveys returned to Make or Break by the women of Kyneton, one will emerge the winner, the leader, chosen to be erected permanently in the town.
Of course, this doesn’t happen. And in the end, it’s clear that the real monument produced in Unveilings is in fact the stack of green- paper surveys with their handwritten ideas, each one a snapshot, a fraction of the stories of the Women of Kyneton. Gathered together, these ideas really do constitute a collective memory, one that is meandering and varied, rich with contradictions in a way that slabs of stone and metal can never be. I hope it’s the beginning of something, a problematising of colonial tropes of memorial, a journey towards something more.
Anna Dunnill is an artist and writer living in Narrm / Melbourne. Her current research focuses on queerness, craft practice,religion and tattooing.
Danni McGrath is an artist and printer interested in language and communication through distributed media. She is from Perth (Whadjuk Noongar Country) and lives in Narrm / Melbourne.