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Bringing the Statue Down from the Pedestal

Cagla Sokullu

May 31, 2021

Bringing the Statue Down from the Pedestal

In the middle of a small park in Brooklyn, next to a few benches where people bring their lunches to eat, is a pristine marble pedestal. There is nothing on it. Children play around the rose hued ivory, colleagues spend their morning coffee breaks here among the green. And where the people stand beside it, at the very bottom of the pedestal, there is the monument. Supporting the marble are hundreds of miniature, anonymous figurines, men and women, poured from resin and fiberglass. Painted in that familiar green we are so acclimatized to witnessing in statues of bronze on the pedestal, not below, their arms are raised and weight shifted on a leg forwards, carrying the chunk of marble with all their strength. 

The artist behind the public monument Public Figures is Do Ho Suh, a Korean artist born and raised in Seoul now residing and working in London. Although Suh started his art education in Seoul, he immigrated to the U.S. to continue his studies at Rhode Island School of Design for a B.F.A. and at Yale University for an M.F.A; New York for eighteen years became his home as well as the inspiration and location of his work. This transition from homeland to foreign lands is the essential marker that triggered Suh’s evolution into the artist he is now known to be. Affected by the act of leaving home and by the otherness he experienced in the U.S., Suh has since then almost completely dedicated his art practice to investigating issues of home where “memory, history, displacement, identity and the body all come into play… [particularly the] consideration of what it means to belong” (Belcove). 

Do Ho Suh, Public Figures. 1998. Installation view at the Metrotech Center Commons, Brooklyn (October, 1998, to May, 1999). Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin Gallery, N.Y.

Although his main body of work was largely not public art per se, his practice has grown to include key works that are cherished by the communities they reside in as he grew markedly interested in the question of “public space, our interaction with it, and what public art should be about” (Suh, qtd. in Wagner). Thus, Public Figures was at its time of conception officially Do Ho Suh’s only public art piece, but his reserve has only grown with more than a few of his works paralleling the qualities and themes he has explored with Public Figures. Namely the recognizable miniature figurines in the monument reappear in other works employed in other acts and meanings, functioning as a visual connective tissue; they are one of the many components that enforce the larger theoretical connective tissue: the consideration of “tension—between home and migration, individual and collective, reality and illusion” that spans his practice (Wagner). In the scope of this essay, the works from his practice to be discussed focus on the second dichotomy, individual and collective.

The visual connective tissue created by the figurines is a good place to start to delineate where these aforementioned parallels appear. The figures find a plethora of uses and are imbued with multiple meanings in some of his most famous pieces: in Unsung Founders at the University of North Carolina, a black granite tabletop supported by 300 bronze figurines of people of color they become imbued by politics of race; in Grass Roots Square “installed in the middle of Oslo’s Government Complex… [made up of] a tree and thousands of small human figures in green-patinated bronze creating a geometric pattern across the square” they form a collective that mirror the viewer that will eventually fill the complex; in Net-Work, a fishing net formed of gold and silver human figures stretched over a large metal frame, installed on the shore in Japan with waves washing some of the figures away, as well as in his non-public work Floor where sheets of glass meant to be walked on by the viewer are supported by the raised hands of 180,000 miniature plastic figures, they speak to the bond and strength that the sheer number of individual pieces can create, alluding to the power of the masses. When he moves away from the figure, as he has done in Fallen Star (70-ton East Coast style house teetering off the roof of the Engineering School at the University of California San Diego), still those tensions of home, memory, and of the individual in their place in the world remain clear.

Public artworks from Suh: (top, left to right) Grass Roots Square, 2012, details of installation at Government Building Complex Part 6, KORO, Oslo; Unsung Founders, 2005, detail of installation at Chapel Hill of the University of North Carolina; (bottom, left to right) Fallen Star, 2012, view at the Stuart Collection, University of California, San Diego; Net- Work, 2010, detail view of installation at Setouchi International Art Festival.

In Suh’s words, “pretty much every public art piece [he has] made is an anti-monument” — he aims for the relationship between viewer and artwork to be quite different from what    usually happens in public art. Through his  practice, “the viewers are prompted to have a  distinctive relationship with the piece unexpected from the historical arc and definition of ‘monument,’ so their way of looking at art has to change” (Wagner). Through the consideration of Public Figures and its qualities and themes as a public piece (though this conversation can surely resonate through these other public works), we get a unique chance to encounter the monument as it is brought down from the pedestal. It allows us to analyze how a groundbreaking project on public space and on the objective of public works, by reworking the idea of monument and public art as commemorative of who is looking at and can relate to it, can reframe the monument as a concept in the U.S.A. where Suh has situated it. Suh’s work also allows for the discussion of what a depiction or commemoration of the masses in its different measures and extremes can bring to the table for a deeper discussion of ‘art for the people’ and the agency it can (or at least aims to) assign to the public. And through this gaze on the contemporary monument, we can then start to consider that is next, or perhaps already underway, in the discussion of contemporary public objects and the monument as an art form.

As with any and all public art pieces and unique to their nature as communal objects, a discussion of Public Figures must start with its location. As a monument (or anti-monument, as it will be discussed below) its location in the U.S.A., particularly in Brooklyn, NY, brings with it the discussion of U.S.A.’s historical relationship with the concept of the public monument to the foreground. In an era that resonates with the aftereffects of World War II, the Vietnam War, and multiple internal tragedies in the likes of 9/11, the need to commemorate has intensified in the U.S.A. steadily throughout 21st  century and has in no way died down — Capitol Hill is proof enough for the essential status monuments hold in America’s architectural and commemorative style. Around the country, it is easy to spot war memorials, monuments of men, soldier, and scholar alike, sprinkled around cities, campuses, and in places of tragedy; New York as one of the largest international and political hubs of the country is one of the largest arenas for both the monuments and the events that promote their creation — this can be said of New York on public art as well, for its history of public art is one of the most crowded and intriguing, even if we solely consider Tilted Arc and similar controversies. 

Yet, paradoxically, the capacity of traditional monuments to preserve memories proves ever more precarious; we ask more questions in the nature of “How do we remember the past? What role do public monuments play in mediating history and memory?,” and consequently, imaginings of commemoration and monumentalism too have evolved and continue to do so in what Yates McKee calls the art system (Marcoci 2; McKee 11). Particularly, one of the chief shifts in the consideration of monument as an object of memory is who we consider valued to be remembered and etched into stone, marble, or bronze, and how we must define or redefine the object and shape we claim the monument to be, starting with Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Tom Finkelpearl even proposes that “any discussion of contemporary memorial art in the United States begins with Maya Lin,” and the ways she broke through the traditional understandings of memorials as an object of individual or war commemoration — he is not wrong: how many times have we witnessed figures of an anonymous soldier, or a well-known hero, to be the image used as the memorial for an event or tragedy much grander than the individual themselves (111)? Before Lin, the concept of commemoration in America laid with the hero, the martyr — or in the rare grand cases, with presidents’ sculptures. With Lin, we see, for the first time on a large nationally visible scale, the individualization of the movement. In an interview, Lin herself explains that she moved away from the tradition of “memorials as markers… [or] their commemoration of one or two martyrs,” but instead brought an “anti-monumentalist, intimate” perspective on the memorial as a memorialization of the individual: the true victim and hero of the moments and movements memorialized (Finkelpearl 120-21). With Lin, questions asked when making public art and monuments were renewed; instead of an assumption to look for a martyr (or any monument similar to the presidents lounging in Capitol Hill), the artists were reminded to ask: “What are you going to commemorate? What should the piece be about? What is your intention? How can you catch a person’s attention in an instant and begin to open a matter up” (Finkelpearl 120)? 

With this in mind, Suh’s work situated in New York can be seen as an anti-monument borrowing from and reframing Lin’s consideration of the individual in the monument as an effort to diverge from and clash with the American historical understanding of the monument. In Lin’s fashion, Suh approaches commemoration less as a monumental piece and more as a remembering of the individual and collective. He reframes the American monumentalist concept with Public Figures by considering the anonymous individual group, the community or ‘the masses’ as he calls it, as a force to be monumentalized, or as an anti-monument that breaks down the idolization of the singular individual in order to laud the force of the invisible masses behind the single martyr. This is visible in the interaction the work proposes with the public: the figures are around a foot tall, particularly noticeable for the viewer especially with the obvious lack of a monument above the pedestal — the eye travels down to find the masses and is forced to consider their positioning and their act of carrying the empty pedestal from a vantage point of superiority. 

Detail from Public Figures. “These figures are where you can see them up close, and they’re just over a foot high; they are Caucasian, African, and Asian, male and female” (Suh,“Anti- Monument”).

To understand the key importance of the work in situ, we can consider it displaced to another location of disparate characteristics. In an extreme displacement, how would Public Figures function in communist China? Would the masses below be perceived similarly as it is in the U.S. as the individualization of the community, as an anti-monument? In a communist setting where the relationship and the identity of the masses to a leader and their country is so differently arranged, the community in the sculpture can easily be re-interpreted and reframed through the communist lens: with a lack of individualism as a common communal belief, Public Figures is forced to take on symbolism and meaning from the society, in this case the communist collectivist promotion of the ideal communist worker, namely the worker’s class made up of “individuals expected to work and act to promote the betterment of the community” as if bees in a hive (“Communism and Computer Ethics.”) (Does this make Mao the queen bee? Perhaps. Very likely). Then, the workers carrying a pedestal that is empty perhaps can be read with an expectation that the pedestal shall be fulfilled, with the leader of their community; it is hard to imagine in a communist location that a pedestal would be left blank (Selbourne 23). This sort of reading only becomes possible due to the sculpture being located inside this certain political system to gain meaning from, proving the importance of a public piece’s localization. In the case of the real work and its place in capitalist America where the growing conscience of the 21st century West (unlike the East where even without communism, there is much more cultural importance and placed on collectivism before individualism) has been the individualism before collectivism, the reading becomes much more caring of the figurines as self-empowered and unique individuals that together form a unique force to be acknowledged for its power and divergence, not unlike how New York is seen as a cosmopolitan melting pot where the individual is appreciated as their unique self. Reframed within China’s collectivism, the figures would become an anonymous hive-mind to carry upon their shoulders their leader eventually to take the throne while in the U.S. the viewer sees themselves in the work, the vision of togetherness based on a support system instead of a hierarchical one so prevalent in the traditional commemoration of the hero who sits atop a pyramidal hierarchy ignorant of who carries their throne. 

In line with his practice’s ever-present exploration of public space and the interaction of the people with it explained above, Suh by challenging this “established notion of the common citizen revering a monument” to a singular figure also emphasizes the power of the individual and “repositions the citizen within public space;” the ‘public figures’ supporting his stone pedestal, Suh explains in an interview by the commissioner Public Art Fund, “‘represent the multiple, the diverse, the anonymous mass…supporting and resisting the stone,’… [focusing on] the individual’s ability to claim both private and public space” (Beyond). “I realized that when it comes to public art, artists sometimes forget about who is going to look at a work and who is going to use the space, I’m always interested in making something that reflects the people who use the space” (Wagner). By allowing the viewer to occupy and inhabit a space equal to the sculpture instead of looking up to and “revering” it, Suh’s project creates an opportunity for the viewer to choose how to interact with and use the space and the object instead of being dictated as a viewer below the monument looking up. It investigates, simultaneous to the ever-changing definitions of memorial, the nature of the audience as once a passive force now given agency as a defining part of public works. His manipulation of the situating of monument directly and physically inverts an organic way to explore “the boundaries of this notion of individualism, in which each individual is the accumulation of so many different and discrete things” (Wagner). As Suzanne Lacy argues, “the inclusion of the public connects theories of art to the broader population: what exists in the space between the words public and art is an unknown relationship be­tween artist and audience, a relationship that may itself become the artwork” (20). 

Here, it is useful to consider this gesture critically as well — what does it mean to consider the masses, or in other definitions, the proletariat? What are the extremes of commenting on the proletariat? In the creation of such a symbolic visual gesture of the masses exists two underlying issues: idolization and agency. 
In representing a community, or “the people,” one of the historically recurrent issues that arise is the idolization of the worker’s class, developed within socialist philosophy and gaining prevalence in other disciplines and lines of thought. De Man in his book The Psychology of Socialism explains the concept saliently: “In order to preserve its unconditional linkage between class interest and way of thinking, Marxism stubbornly refused to countenance the multiplicity and complexity of socialist motivations. In the process, an image of the proletariat was created which showed little resemblance with reality…socialist philosophy was conceived by bourgeois intellectuals. Their inclination was to idolize the proletariat; and they did this the more enthusiastically, the less they were acquainted with actual proletarians. When a modern socialist intellectual, and above all a modern Marxist intellectual, speaks of the proletariat, it is with a reverent vibration of voice, such as might have been heard when an early Christian was talking of the Saviour, or when an 1848 democrat mentioned the People” (26-27). The key idea reflected here is how the idolization of the proletariat brings forth a distancing from the actual social group as the idolized ideology of the masses surpasses the reality of them as a class and as real people with real burdens, not an exhaustive source to fuel the revolution and throw away in their deaths and unacknowledged suffering. 

By modeling the image of a community after a collective gesture as their visual representation, Suh’s Public Figures can be interrogated critically in its definitions or approaches to the concept of the masses itself — who is to disprove the alternative reading that we are looking upon an idolized, empowered anonymous image of the masses as an idealization of this large societal class? The anarcho-syndicalist revision straightforwardly has acknowledged the mythical and utopian character of the Marxian conception of the proletariat… in order to proclaim it a “‘beneficial myth’ that could kindle and maintain the revolutionary fire in the popular masses” at the height of its affluence (Pels 51). It served the ones in power to leverage the masses through an idolization of the worker’s class and directly through a mythical empowerment of the masses to then imbue the community with. Adopting a similar lens, the tireless, ever-supportive and harmonious hive-mind mentality glorified for the worker’s class now set on a reverse pedestal and glorified as the sole figure imagined in Public Figures as a monument is quite far from the modern worker’s class. The burdened, underpaid, undervalued laboring class, the “actual proletariat” of today is far from what the statue may tell of the image of the idolized proletariat, by a bourgeoisie or a modern capitalist setting where most of its weight is carried by the proletariat at the bottom of the pyramidal scheme of capitalist production. And the more we look at them as this monument, the more distanced we are of their realities within and among our capitalist, materialistic society.

The second concern to arise from a critical reading of the masses imagined in Public Figures is the concept of agency, and how the agency of the figure depicted is reflected in the work. More fundamentally, does agency of the masses exist in their depiction in the work? What meaning or individuality is loaded onto the masses as the figure in question? In the case of the miniature figures prevalent in Suh’s work, though they are claimed to be different genders, races, and ages — which can be glimpsed into in certain cases (especially in Unsung Founders with its figurines representing particularly the African American community) — the community represented in the works can be classified as ‘the faceless masses.’ Suh explains that these choices create “an organic way to explore the boundaries of this notion of individualism…the accumulation of so many different and discrete individuals creates a bigger group, a bigger country and a bigger world” (Laster). In this case, what becomes of individualism? Does this anonymous group of organisms not inch closer to the previous discussion of the masses in socialist China with their collectivism and purpose for the betterment of something bigger than themselves — not unlike the masses that build the pyramids for the pharaohs and died doing it? Then, the concept of agency is blurred: on the one hand, in the ideal reading of the work intended by Suh, the masses have the power, they are the power behind all of it — this is what makes the passerby stop and consider, to relate and see themselves in the sculpture. On the other hand, and not any less potent as a reading, is the masses with no agency, no power but their duty to carry this pedestal on their hands and backs, to help something larger along while lost in the faceless crowd and perhaps die trying. Of course, a worker’s life full of effort and strife to achieve and survive is an honorable thing not many can endure, and we must acknowledge the initial, essential gesture to memorialize it beyond a hero on a pedestal. But the question we must ask is if this particular method of memorializing is giving appropriate agency and doing justice by the people in question we are trying to memorialize. When the key individualism and personal effort of the people is not shown in its full form in the sculpture, should we deem it worthy to commemorate said people through it? 

Suh’s efforts here are clear: in situating the piece in the U.S., he enforces and encourages the former reading and therefore the memorialization of the people in a place where the people themselves can relate to and interact with the object itself made for them. In this sense, the project is definitely successful. Regardless, it is useful to scrutinize facets and alternative worlds for the object to consider such a discussion that can bring forth better questions to be asked and better solutions to be created for the next time an anti-monument for the people is built. 

Then, if we accept the monument as a tool for remembering, how do we push the idea of monument and memorialization forward? What do we construct to remember, with appropriate, fair commemoration of the people, of their efforts? Do we need monuments anymore, or are we well beyond them in this new era where what art itself means is muddled and redefined by the minute? What is the new frontier for remembering? Out of a countless many, I am sure, as there is never an end to possibilities of the new in art, one particular concept developing and growing in its influence comes to mind: performativity and public performance in the realm of anti-monumentalism, the “performative monument.”

Since the coinage of the term “performative” in 1950s by J. L. Austin in his speech act theory, performativity and through it, interactive public actions, has seen an incredible rise in popularity as a genre of contemporary art as it evolves in the age of internet and as a way of self-expression in the current time of potent sociopolitical unrest where boundaries between protest and art blur. “The performative monument, an emergent genre of interactive public actions, rests on a new notion of agency in public space, in which political responsibility is performed by historically aware individuals in acts of commemoration… performance, a supposed antipode to the monument in its ephemerality and dematerialization, did not neutralize the monumental but reinvented it as a new practice: one that involved the audience explicitly through conventional transactions.” The empirical shift from performance to monument production in the work of postwar European artists, Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramović, and Peter Weibel among many others, exemplifies saliently the emergence of a performative component to the memorial culture of the 1980s and '90s, mediating between history and the individual in ways sketched by the ephemeral events of '60s and '70s performance” (Widrich 2). It is interesting to consider, then, the application of this constructed concept of performative monument to the development of commemoration and remembering through art, action, and protest. As the event status of performance prevents the formation of hierarchies, critical dichotomies have fallen away in acceptance of performativity as an essential part of art making for today’s needs from art as action: what has been blurred is a dichotomy between the ephemeral and the permanent. 

In the case of the monument, it seems by definition impossible to move away from the permanent, and yet the ephemeral has found its way into the monument through the creation of performative monuments. Nicholas Bourriaud states thus that “present-day art has no cause to be jealous of the classical ‘monument’ when it comes to long-lasting effects;” explaining that relational art “touches eternity precisely because it is specific and temporary,” in other words, that ephemeral events have chains of effects that are long lasting, but this hardly troubles a traditional view of the monument as authoritative persistence over time (54). This activates the consideration of monument as a performative act instead of an object, or a froze soldier on a pedestal, even an empty pedestal at that. It opens up the consideration of monument as a public gesture, purely performative instead of permanent: it is not hard to find examples of it today, with the protests and monumental gestures we see on the streets for George Floyd, for Strike MoMA, for Gezi protests in Istanbul a few years ago. There appears a realm of possibilities for commemoration and public acts of remembering most of us do not think of when faced with the historical definition and physicality of the monument. Yet the conceptual monument, the tool for remembering, does not need these confines. Commemoration is a public act, not necessarily connected to personal memory or experience (though this cannot be excluded), “an act in which the past is cited in the present as a commitment to future responsibility” (Widrich 262). In this sense, a monument can be anything that can help us remember, an empty pedestal, cradling a dead hare, or a simple shout of a salute to the sky, a protest walk by hundreds at Times Square, or a BLM sign painted onto the road for miles, as long as it is worth exploring and remembering for all the right reasons. 


Works Cited 

Belcove, Julie L. “Artist Do Ho Suh Explores the Meaning of Home.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 7 Nov. 2013,

“Beyond the Monument.” Public Art Fund, 1998,

Bourriaud, Nicolas. RelationalAesthetics [Esthetique relationelle 1998], translated by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods with the participation of Mathieu Copeland. Paris: Les Presses du Reel, 2002. 

“Communism and Computer Ethics.” Communism: Work Ethic and Motivation,

“Do Ho Suh: ‘Rubbing / Loving.’” Performance by Do Ho Suh, Art21, Art21, 2016,

“Do Ho Suh.” Victoria Miro,

Lacy, Suzanne. Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Bay Press, 1996.

Laster, Paul. “Do Ho Suh: From Sculpture to Film.” Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, Nov. 2019,

Man, Henri de. The Psychology of Marxian Socialism. Transaction Books, 1985. 

Marcoci, Roxana. “Counter-Monuments and Memory.” MoMA, vol. 3, no. 9, 2000, pp. 2–5. JSTOR, Accessed 29 May 2021.

McKee, Yates. Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition. Verso, 2017. 

Pels, D. “The Proletarian as Stranger.” History of the Human Sciences 11.1 (1998): 49–72. Web.

Selbourne, David. “Middle-class Socialism and Working-class Politics.” Against Socialist Illusion. Palgrave Macmillan, London. 1985.

Stubblefield, Thomas. “Do Disappearing Monuments Simply Disappear?: The Counter-Monument in Revision.” Future Anterior, vol. 8, no. 2, 2011, pp. xii-11. JSTOR, doi:10.1353/fta.2011.0015.  

Suh, Do-Ho. “The Anti-Monument.” The Walrus, 1 May 2020,

“Unsung Founders Essay.” Identity – Controversy – Justice,

Wagner, Sandra, and Do Ho Suh. “Personal Histories: A Conversation with Do Ho Suh.” Sculpture Magazine, International Sculpture Center, 1 Nov. 2012, Accessed 27 May 2021. 

Widrich, Mechtild. Performative Monuments: The Rematerialisation of Public Art. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014.

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