Wanted, dead or alive: do statues always leave our hearts stone cold?
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2016-03-10 Size:
Campaigners calling for an Oxford University statue to be toppled have achieved the uncanny……

Very superstitious, statue’s on the wall ... Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College.

Campaigners calling for an Oxford University statue to be toppled have achieved the uncanny. They have brought the 19th-century imperialist Cecil Rhodes back to life. His dark spirit now inhabits his statue at Oriel College as if its stone were flesh and blood. An object has become a living entity through the power of rage.

I once saw something similar happen in Sicily, where the city of Trapani has a statue of the Virgin Mary in its cathedral that comes to life once a year and miraculously moves through the streets. It has some assistance, carried at the head of a long procession to the raucous sound of a brass band. But the effect is mystical and wondrous; the statue really seems to “live” for a night.

The people of Trapani and the Oxford campaigners are both making explicit a feeling we seem to share – a belief that statues are more than mere representations. They are fetishes, totems, symbols of power, living entities to which we accord a mysterious authority. Wanting to destroy a statue is the ultimate acknowledgement of that authority.

You think I am exaggerating? The Oxford students don’t actually believe the statue of Rhodes is alive, of course, so is this just another case of the media patronising and insulting them – in the same week newspapers reported the false claim that radicals are now going after a statue of Queen Victoria. The campaign group Rhodes Must Fall makes a perfectly rational call for a symbol of imperialism and racism to be removed – doesn’t it?

A statue of Queen Victoria at Royal Holloway College, Egham, in Surrey.

Except the entire way we relate to public art in the 21st century is haunted by a cult of statues echoing earlier ages. We look on statues with superstition, not as works of art so much as icons of honour and communal memory. Good people deserve statues and bad people don’t.

While “Rhodes” – or rather a not very good stone carving of him – is under attack, the Mary on the Green campaign is trying to erect a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Sunderland fans are campaigning for a statue to be raised of their team’s celebrated player Charlie Hurley. Presumably Sunderland fans won’t be asking for a statue of disgraced player Adam Johnson. Only heroes should be on plinths.

A man who threw shit at a statue of the Virgin Mary in Florence in the early 1500s was brutally executed. We wouldn’t do that today (although we did jail student Charlie Gilmour for offending against the Cenotaph) because, however much we may want to believe in statues, they are actually, more often than not, ignored and uncared-for decorations in city squares and municipal public space.

The reports – since denied – that students were launching a campaign against Royal Holloway’s Queen Victoria drew attention to this. After all, there are statues of Victoria all over Britain – and no one notices them. Unless they are great works of art, statues stand forgotten. They slip into the urban fabric, unseen and ineffectual. They die.

This is why the people of Trapani take their miraculous Virgin through the streets. They won’t let this statue die. They care for it and animate it, hold it aloft and play music for it. That way, the statue really does live as a symbol of community.

Oxford’s Cecil Rhodes, like so many British statues, has not attracted anything resembling that much attention over the years. As dead as the imperialist it portrayed, it was just an old and inferior likeness no one cared much about. By directing so much passion towards its removal, campaigners have brought it back to life.

Of all people, Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, was fascinated by the idea of reanimation. Her novel Frankenstein imagines a lifeless body being revived by electricity. Rhodes Must Fall has given all our old colonial statues a massive 5,000-volt shock. Suddenly they are alive – as art, as history, as old ghosts walking among us.

[Editor] 张艳