The Monuments of Power


September 11,

The Monuments of Power

by Ian Buruma*

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/power-of-monuments-charlottesville-by-ian-buruma-2017-09

Why should public spaces in the US be purged of images of Confederate leaders, while statues of Admiral Nelson and Cecil Rhodes still stand in Britain? The way we tell stories of our past, and keep memories alive in cultural artifacts, is a large part of how we view ourselves collectively.

NEW YORK – The ghastly spectacle last month of neo-Nazis marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying torches and barking slogans about the supremacy of the white race, was sparked by the city’s plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army, which fought to retain slavery in the secessionist South during the American Civil War. The statue of General Lee on his horse has been there since 1924, a time when the lynching of black citizens was not a rarity.

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 Cecil Rhodes on Horseback

Inspired by the events taking place in Charlottesville, advocates have emerged in Britain seeking to pull Admiral Nelson off his famous column on Trafalgar Square in London, because the British naval hero supported the slave trade. And two years ago, protesters at the University of Oxford demanded the removal of a sculpture of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, where the old imperialist had once been a student, because his views on race and empire are now considered to be obnoxious.

Image result for statue of Admiral Lord NelsonThe  Lord Admiral Nelson Monument stands in London’s Trafalgar Square and is one of the most iconic in London–An Artifact of British Naval History.

There always was something magical about this kind of iconoclasm, which rests on the belief that smashing an image will somehow solve the problems associated with it. When English Protestants challenged the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, mobs laid waste to stone-carved saints and other holy representations with pick-hammers and axes. Eighteenth-century revolutionaries did the same to churches in France. The most radical example occurred in China only a little more than 50 years ago, when Red Guards destroyed Buddhist temples and burned Confucian books – or indeed anything old and traditional – to herald the Cultural Revolution.

It is easy to deplore this type of destruction. Great buildings and works of art are lost. One is tempted to assume that only people who believe in the magical power of images would wish to erase them. The sensible way to deal with monuments of the past would be to see them simply as artifacts of history.

And yet it is not so simple. Who would argue that after 1945 streets and squares in German cities should continue to be named after Adolf Hitler? It was surely not just a childish mistake to remove sculptures of the Führer – or of Soviet leaders in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989. One could argue that images of these leaders and their henchmen lacked the artistic value of great churches of medieval England, or Tang Dynasty Buddhist sculptures in China. But then statues of General Lee are hardly worth preserving for artistic reasons either.

The question is where we should draw the line. Should a historical figure be judged by the amount of blood on his hands? Or should we establish a proper time frame?

It might be argued that monuments celebrating villains who lived within living memory and would still cause grief to surviving victims must be removed, and that anything older should be left alone. But that doesn’t quite work, either. The argument for preserving a sculpture of Hitler in a public place, assuming that such a thing still exists, does not get stronger as time goes on.

Many people in the US South argue that Confederate monuments should be protected as mere reminders of the past, as part of a common “heritage.” The problem is that history is not always neutral. It can still be toxic. The way we tell stories of our past, and keep memories alive in cultural artifacts, is a large part of how we view ourselves collectively. This demands a certain degree of consensus, which often does not exist, especially when there has been a civil war.

The case of postwar Germany is quite straightforward. Both East and West Germany set out to build their collective futures in direct contrast to the Nazi past. Only a resentful fringe still wishes to cling to fond memories of the Third Reich.

Nonetheless, to this day, German authorities ban the display of Nazi imagery, fearing that it might still tempt people to repeat the darkest episodes of their country’s history. This fear is understandable, and not wholly irrational. Such temptations could even become stronger as Nazism fades from living memory.

Britain has a less traumatic recent history. The views of Cecil Rhodes, or Admiral Nelson, though fairly conventional in their time, are certainly no longer fashionable today. It is highly unlikely that many British people gazing up at Nelson on his column or passing Oriel College, Oxford, will be inspired to advocate slavery or build an empire in Africa.

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The American South, however, is still a problem. The losers in the Civil War were never quite reconciled to their defeat. For many southerners, though by no means all, the Confederate cause and its monuments are still felt to be part of their collective identity. Although hardly anyone in his right mind would advocate the revival of slavery, nostalgia for the Old South is still tinged with racism. That is why statues of General Lee in front of court buildings and other public places are noxious, and why many people, including southern liberals, wish to see them removed.

There is no perfect solution to this problem, precisely because it is not just about images carved from stone. Resentment in the South is political. The wounds of the Civil War remain unhealed. Much of the rural south is poorer and less educated than other parts of the US. People feel ignored and looked down upon by urban coastal elites. That is why so many of them voted for Donald Trump. Knocking down a few statues will not solve this problem. It might even make matters worse

Malaysia: UMNO apes the Taliban


September 12, 2016

Malaysia: UMNO apes the Taliban

by Tay Tian Yan

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Image result for The Three Chimps

This is Positive Thinking ala Malaisie

Fanaticism knows no limits, from the Middle East to the rest of the world. Often the boundary between fanaticism and insanity is equally blurred.

Many years back when the fanatical Taliban ruled Afghanistan, many world-shocking events took place there, such as the shocking demolition in the name of  Islam of statues of Buddha in Bamiyan.

For thousands of years, the Bamiyan Valley was a regular stop on the Silk Road for travellers from China, India, Persia and Europe. Bamiyan was an important hub of Buddhist learning. Thousands of monks and craftsmen erected countless awe-inspiring Buddha statues on the walls of the cliffs in the valley, the biggest of which stood at 38m and 58m tall.

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The Bamiyan Valley

Aesthetically, these were masterpieces attesting to the pinnacle of cultural eminence. From the historical point of view, they were priceless legacies of human civilisation. For over a thousand years, these two enormous Buddha statues stood over this land and the many historical developments taking place under their noses.

Unfortunately such godly artistic creations were blown up and reduced to rubble by the Taliban in a matter of hours. Similarly, after Islamic State fanatics captured parts of northern Iraq, they blew up 3,000-year-old Assyrian relics and statues in the ancient city of Nimrud.

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They also destroyed the Temple of Bel and Baal Shamin in the 4,000-year-old city of Palmyra in northern Syria they subsequently captured, smashing up the invaluable ancient animist relics.

Khaled Asad, director of Palmyra Antiquities Museum, was executed by the IS. Taliban and IS prohibited idolatry on the pretext of defending their religion, destroying priceless statues and relics without taking into consideration their enormous historical value.

What has been brought down can never be restored; neither can pieces of history be duplicated. The fanaticism and insanity of these people have shocked the world and brought tears to millions.

What has this to do with Malaysia? The eagle statue in Langkawi and the statue of fallen heroes at the National Monument have received media coverage of late. Some clerics who thought they were safeguarding their religion called for their demolition to preserve the sanctity of the religion and stub out idolatry.

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A Popular Tourist Attraction on the Island of Langkawi, Kedah

The eagle is but a symbol of Langkawi and a popular sightseeing spot. No one is going to worship an eagle statue anyway. As for the National Monument, it was built in honor of the warriors sacrificing their precious lives for the nation, and was meant to inspire Malaysians to be patriotic. Similarly, no one is going to deify and idolize them either.

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Remember the Men and Women who gave their lives so that we may live in Peace. That Peace is now under threat from ultra Malay Islamic Extremists and Najib’s pursuit of existential politics–Din Merican

Narrow-minded and radical interpretations of such people have religionised everything that crosses their minds and banished all who are not with them. This is the crudest manifestation of the pride and prejudice born out of such fanaticism.

If by chance their wayward thinking gets approved and legitimised, the country’s diversity and universal values will be completely uprooted.

An architectural beauty and brutality


August 20, 2016

An architectural beauty and brutality

by Julia Mayer

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Can architecture help heal the wounds of Cambodia’s genocide? Julia Mayer takes a look at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia’s new memorial to a dark past, the Sleuk Rith Institute in Phnom Penh. 

Passion and patience make strange bedfellows but are essential when best-laid plans temporarily go awry.

Youk Chhang, founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) continues to work tirelessly on his ambitious proposal to reconcile his country’s brutal past with its rich ancient cultural heritage. He is trying to build a multi-purpose centre commemorating Cambodia’s genocide and is doing this in what can best be described as an uneasy present.

Facing numerous setbacks, Chhang, who is also a survivor of the infamous Khmer Rouge era of 1975-79 in which more than two million people perished, remains undeterred.

“We were planning to start building in February this year,” says Chhang. But efforts have ground to a halt. The delay is very complicated involving government bureaucracy, and we are working to resolve it now.”

Designed by the late multi award-winning London-based Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, back in 2014, the Sleuk Rith Institute’s design immediately conjures images of a distant future as well as Cambodia’s glorious past. Five towers reminiscent of Angkor Wat rise from the monsoonal mists of the famed and beautiful jungle to inspire yet another allegory — trees of knowledge and life.

“The repression of cultural knowledge during the French colonial era, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime’s ideology as a form of education meant that links to the rest of the world were severed.It was an ideology that almost destroyed us. Today we are still chained to the past, which is why for me, only education can set us free. We should not be enslaved by the past. We cannot escape it; we have to face it,” says Chhang.

The name Sleuk Rith is highly symbolic and refers to the power of leaves, explains Chhang, as he recounts a story of Cambodian intellectuals and activists secretly writing messages on dried leaves during the colonial era to preserve their knowledge and culture.

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The symbolism runs even deeper.

There are distinctive parallels between the ancient regional tradition of meticulously writing Hindu then later Buddhist texts on palm leaves, sastra, to the hundreds and thousands of leaves of paper filled with forced confessions delivered under unabated torture, to reams of survivor testimonies painstakingly recorded and collected by the DC-Cam team since it began its work in 1995.

Chhang is quick to mention that within the concept of the power of leaves exists another meaning — plain paper, or that critical moment before the page fills with ideas and feelings, and which allows for the possibility of new versions of the history of genocide.

“When I was growing up, there was no education, and very few had traveled outside of the country,” says Chhang.

“As a result of genocide, Cambodians are now all over the world, and I think, because of that, people have formed a new version of the history of genocide. Each person comes with a different idea, different ways of thinking and different views, so there’s no singular interpretation.”

The new building is meant to inspire reflection, reconciliation and the restoration of relationships broken by the Khmer Rouge’s near four-year reign of terror. However, unlike other memorials and in situ sites scattered throughout the country offering explicit and undeniably invaluable evidence of the atrocities orchestrated by the regime, the Sleuk Rith Institute aims to tell the same horror story a little differently.

“Many young people look at a skull, a shackle or a blood stain on a wall and feel that it is the older generation who are responsible for the mistakes made,” says Chhang.

“They see the past as remote and have problems seeing it as part of their identity. But if you come in with photography, with beauty, with dialogue, you bring them in, and they start to question.”

Reinterpreting the atrocities in any way as ‘beautiful’ immediately calls for a reevaluation of aesthetics, as does the message that is hoped to be shared and retold by others.

Sites like Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison and interrogation center codenamed S-21, and Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’ where the majority of prisoners were executed, all serve as important witnesses to the past.

However, it can be argued that they elicit intense feelings of pity, shame and disbelief, which can be counterproductive when trying to understand what happened and to possibly achieve reconciliation through empathy. And not everyone can visit such places.

“The best memorials evoke reflection and commemoration, but are also living, dynamic places that engage with all generations in the community,” says Chhang.

“A memorial should be enlightening, a place where both the younger and older generation can feel comfortable learning about the tragedies of the past to find new ways to heal, and to move forward.”

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The centre will not only commemorate the lives lost but also serve as a tribute to the survivors via a museum of memory. It will also be an archive of all documents about the period, a library and an international research center for genocide studies, placing the Cambodian experience in context with other atrocities still being perpetuated today despite global outcries.

While such outcries have sadly done little to lessen the frequency and the impact of genocide across the globe, the fact remains that there are survivors and with them comes the arduous and initially insurmountable task of rebuilding a stable cultural identity that helps to heal. These efforts require hope and relentless optimism.

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Architect Zaha Hadid

Architecturally, Zahara Hadid’s futuristic designs embody this kind of optimism, as well as the belief that the past defines the future. The future depends on it, and, so by challenging the more traditional pessimistic practices of memorialising traumatic histories, her designs reach into the future as if to show that this can be, if not already, achieved. In the case of the Sleuk Rith Institute, this can be seen in the shimmering waterways and the warmth of exposed wooden beams that evoke the image of verdant and fertile trees or the themes of the rebirth of knowledge.

By widening the conceptual space for healing, the Sleuk Rith Institute has a profoundly important role to play. It shows that heritage so unequivocally rooted in pain and shame can be transformative through an oddly unsettling yet familiar kind of beauty that has the potential to evoke much-needed empathy and compassion.Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Youk Chhang, founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia

“Genocide is part our identity– it is our identity. It just takes a matter of time to accept it,” says Chhang.

Time is a great healer, and after a succession of delays we can only hope that Cambodia will see a building it so desperately deserves — one that will aid a more informed idea of the past well into the future.

Julia Mayer is a Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies student at the Australian National University. She has lived in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea, and has written extensively on traditional arts, performances and cinema in the region. She is also the Asia Correspondent for Metro Magazine Australia.

A building and brutality