“Monuments today should do what we all have to do, make more of an effort! Anybody can stand quietly by the side of the road and allow glances to be bestowed on him; these days we can demand more of monuments.”
—Robert Musil, “Monuments”
In her literary experiment Public Figures—part-poem, part-essay—Jena Osman begins by entering (literally) into the viewpoints of the stone and bronze statues that populate our public spaces. She goes on to reflect on what “you” (though not all “yous,” we know), no longer see, what symbols or histories are hidden in public. Osman’s experiment feels suddenly timely, when these ghosts have become visible to the many again. Osman wonders what “such figures see” (2). We might ask, What do they hear? Heated debates over their fate buzz around their feet. If they could join the conversation, what would they say?
Their cold lips are sealed to us. However, ghosts talk among themselves, and may be overheard. For this assignment, choose one of Philadelphia’s many, many figurative sculptures or murals. Visit your figure, then photograph both what you see—now that you’ve paused to look closely (strange or puzzling details; inscriptions; etc.)—and what (“find a way” like Osman) your figure sees, its point of view. Next, script a about a page and a half of conversation between your figure and either the statue of Enkidu in Gilgamesh OR one (or more) of the nearly 200 figures on Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Gates of Hell, which was inspired by Dante’s Inferno. The nearby Rodin Museum in Philadelphia owns the first bronze cast of The Gates. Though The Gates was never completed to Rodin’s satisfaction (he worked on it on and off for nearly 40 years) and not cast in his lifetime, several figures from The Gates were rendered separately, including the famous sculptures The Thinker, Paolo and Francesca (The Kiss), The Three Shades, and Ugolino and His Children. In addition to figures narrated in Dante’s Inferno, The Gates is also peopled by numerous figures that “evoke universal human emotions and experiences, such as forbidden love, punishment, and suffering” and “also suggest unapologetic sexuality, maternal love, and contemplation.”
Imagine: What would your figures have to say to each other? They might start by reflecting on where they fit, or don’t, in Philadelphia’s public spaces today, and offer their own—unheard—advice to citizens debating the fate of Philly’s public figures (Let me stand? Re-contextualize me? Relocate me? Expand my meaning somehow? Remove me?). This line of inquiry should lead them into a discussion of the larger heritage of which they are a part, a heritage of thinking about heroism, glory, leadership, friendship, desire, civilization, nature, violence, justice, posterity, etc. They may commiserate; they may debate; they may agree to disagree; or one may be converted to the other’s opinion. The positions taken by the statue of Enkidu or by figures from The Gates should emerge from your interpretations of Gilgamesh and the Inferno, respectively. What do these texts “say” about these themes?
You may simply alternate between speakers, as in a transcript. Be as clever, even witty, as you like in writing this exchange. Try to find their voices. Above all, however, be critical. Draw on our texts (or the histories you uncover behind your sculpture or mural) for inspiration and evidence.
You’re all added as editors to our “Ghost Town” site, each with your own named page.
First, choose your monument or mural and plan your visit. The website for the Association for Public Art has an excellent catalog of, and map to, Philadelphia’s monuments, helpfully organized by theme (“Military Generals,” “Presidents and Leaders,” etc.). Spencer has curated a list of monuments for us too! There’s no complete inventory of Philadelphia’s thousands of murals; many are featured on the Mural Arts Philadelphia website, however (John Coltrane; Dr. J; etc.).
Next, visit your monument or mural and take the shots indicated above. When you’re ready, add your images to your page. Click “Edit”. An editor will open. Click “Add Media”. Click “Create Gallery”. Click “Upload Files”. Click “Create a New Gallery”.
(You can drag and drop your images to re-order them.)
Add captions to your images! In “Edit” mode, select your gallery, click the pencil icon, and enter text captions (which may be a mix of your observations and/or lines from Gilgamesh or the Inferno that you think fit the image).
Next, add the text of your invented dialogue to your page! (Alternatively, make and upload an audio recording of your figures in conversation, perhaps with a peer voicing one of the parts.)
Don’t hesitate to run your ideas and approaches by me and Spencer for feedback!