In the outskirts of Sofia, where I found myself one October, there’s a somewhat secret garden where the state of Bulgaria is hiding away the past. The Museum of Socialist Art is a sombre, poignant affair, tucked away among modern office buildings and the token concrete abandoned factories. It’s a museum dedicated to exiled communist era public art, removed from municipal buildings and town squares in an effort to root out memory. The space is a far cry from the fairground attractions of similar museums in Prague or Berlin, well curated and designed to satisfy the curiosity of Western visitors who tick their city break lists there, in between shopping and dinner. The one in Sofia looks more like a graveyard, with neat paths cris-crossing grassy patches where statues of marble or iron stand to commemorate their very own final destination.
The struggle to come to terms with our past involves confronting it, but more often than not, this is manifested in the wanton destruction of everything that carries an association with it. In the US South, statues of Confederate soldiers are being pulled down by anti-racist demonstrators or removed by local governments following public outcry. A similar furore over statues of Sir Cecil Rhodes at universities across South Africa and as far as Oxford is still raging : the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is aiming at the desecration and eventual removal of these monuments, still inevitably associated with colonialism and white supremacy. Then there are enduring images from liberated Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s statues were toppled and then ceremoniously struck with shoes as the definitive act of desecration, from a nation that suffered through decades of political repression under Hussein’s cult of personality . And as for the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ gigantic bust in the Philippines, it has been repeatedly bombed and even had a sacrificial exorcism performed to it : these are extreme acts of defiance and cleansing against what can be considered the enduring dark influence of the persons or regimes represented in these monuments. And it is significant how these are usually performed after their removal from power : these acts become indicative of the ongoing difficulties societies have with healing the wounds or totalitarianism and repression.
L to R : Rutherford Country Confederate Memorial in Murfreesboro, TN (© Brent Moore) / Cecil Rhodes Statue in Cape Town (© Fritz Joubert) / The remains of Ferdinant Marcos bust after the 2002 attack (© Artificial Owl)
In the same manner, during the immediate post-Soviet years after 1989, several socialist monuments are demolished, abandoned or just moved out of sight to remote locations across the former Eastern block, and the garden of the Museum of Socialist Art is such place of enforced oblivion. In these first decades of the 21st century, people are still struck by an atavistic fear of the past, and dealing with it by burning flags, effigies or symbols to demonstrate solidarity with the new ideals and ways that replaced those of the ancien régime : It’s been more than 200 years since the revolutionary events in Paris, but we are readily becoming an angry mob with every turn in history, looking for another Bastille to demolish.
However, in this modern era where post-truth reigns and the masses are being manipulated through the most blatant and outrageous lies, where media outlets and politicians thrive on the gullible among us, this fear of symbols seems to be hypocritical. At a subliminal level, it is also inherently barbaric : This is reminiscent of Entartete Kunst, the Nazi persecution of all art considered degenerate and insulting to the status quo at the time. This may read as a strong analogy, but the key word here is art, and how it has often been used not just as expression, but as a medium to control culture.
Monuments have an inherent duality – they are of course manifestations of a person, or a scene, and quite often convey or carry an ideal. But they are also magnificent objects of art, and as such, they represent the artist’s self expression and can communicate not just ideas, but also purpose or emotion. When Bulgaria’s post Socialist centre right UDF government demolished Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov’s mausoleum in Sofia and interred his ashes in a cemetery, they sought perhaps to attack the repressive cult of personality associated with the dead leader’s remains, but in the course of doing so, demolished a magnificent and architecturally significant building in the heart of Sofia, leaving behind nothing but a vacant space.
It is an interesting spot to visit, where the futility of monument destruction is perfectly demonstrated : Locals or tourists still walk past this popular thoroughfare, and still relate stories of Dimitrov and the mausoleum – despite its glaring absence. One can say in fact, that its very absence enhances curiosity rather than killing it out. Another perfect example of the futility of this practice is the old House of the Bulgarian Communist Party in Kazanluk ; it is literally falling apart and there has been no interest for its conservation by the Bulgarian state. Instead, it is alleged that successive post socialist governments have encouraged its demise, by allowing the place to be broken into, stripped of materials and vandalised. However, the beauty of Georgi Stoilov’s incredible brutalist masterpiece and its surroundings is undeniable, and today the Buzludzha monument is one of the most recognisable and well visited places in Bulgaria, and (quite thankfully) many independent efforts for conservation and re-purposing are currently under way. We sincerely hope they will be successful, and look forward to this outstanding space getting a new identity, and with it, the new lease of life it deserves.
So why can’t we think of these monuments and architectural marvels as just art, and therefore look beyond the ideas they used to represent and try to preserve them? It is only rational. I always admired the German word for a monument : denkmal, deriving from denken : to think. Ultimately, monuments are there to make us think, and despite some of them being old symbols of repression, no one can deny the ambitious vision and technical skill that has gone into creating them, and the way they evoke memory and pique our curiosity for the interesting history surrounding them – and this is never a bad thing. Memory is exactly how we understand and deal with the past, and an important part of the healing process. As Archbishop Oscar Cruz said in 2002, the perpetrators “should have never destroyed the monument to evil in this country.” For him, the Marcos bust represented “a monument to evil, warning people never to become what this man was.” These are wise words : it is indeed up to us to change perspective, and begin looking at such controversial art and monuments as testaments to what shouldn’t be, rather than what used to be.
Talking of controversial, U.S. President Donald Trump naturally comes to mind. But even such a divisive and uncouth leader can make sense on occasion. As he puts it in one of his more rational, and as such, less popularised tweets : “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
All images © explorabilia (except where stated otherwise)
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