Reflecting on the 'Maggie monument' debate and commemorative arts
Many have died before us and many will die after us.
Who we are, who we are to be and even who we were potentially to become affects how we are remembered, memorialised and commemorated. The figurative statue remains one of the most popular and most commissioned forms of memorial or commemorative art in the UK. One of the roles of such commemorative art is to enhance the physicality of the dead as a tribute to their former living self. There is a chance that one of you reading this will one day have an artist appointed to create a memorial statue of you in your honour. I hope for your sake that will never happen. If you weren’t already dead – the stress of it could kill you.
Many proposed memorial statues simply do not happen due to lack of funds, safety concerns or appropriate spaces for them to be installed. In the consideration of a proposal for a statue commemorating former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to be installed in Parliament Square, London, the local council cited ‘monument saturation’ and concerns over potential vandalism as grounds for rejecting the proposal. The decision was made in January this year but there continues to be much debate on whether ‘Maggie’ should be memorialised in this way, with some suggesting monuments already exist that more appropriately commemorate her – including the ‘whole of Wales’ or ‘Grenfell Tower’.
Where the dead should be installed is a contentious issue. The reality of memorial saturation means that we have to move some of our dead to less prominent places to make way for newer dead, or we make them smaller or we find different ways to commemorate them.
Placing is not always everything and alternatives can offer a new life for our dead. It is unlikely that Michael Jackson ever thought that he would be memorialised at Fulham football ground. It happened, just for a short time. He probably was less inclined to believe that he would find his final resting place at the National Football Museum in Manchester (who added the statue to its collection in 2014 after negotiations with Al Fayed, Jackson’s former friend and Fulham club owner).
So let us consider scale and size. In public spaces statues need to be bigger than life size to have an impact and appear in proportion. A hefty, lofty plinth adds to the grandeur as the ‘Fourth Plinth’ artists and artworks attest to. In death you will need to be represented as larger than life (usually 1.5 times larger) to live among the mortals. By definition you will be more in death than you were in life, which can be a depressing thought.
The ‘Maggie’ debate is testament to the fact that the adage ‘never talk ill of the dead’ has long past. Yet the dead, especially those immortalised as youths, experience a death that instils them with vampire-like youth, whilst we stagger around them in our city centres like the aging zombie walking dead. My cousin Duncan Edwards died aged 21 as a result of injuries sustained in the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. There is a statue of him in his hometown of Dudley where he is depicted in his England kit poised, with muscles taut preparing to kick the football at his feet. When I gaze up at him, on his newly refurbished and taller plinth – my nearing 50 year old neck aches at the prolonged straining.
Ultimately statues and memorials create work for living artists, and if you are reading this here, you may well be an artist. Memorial commissions are often well-funded and give artists an opportunity to show their work in publicly accessible spaces. So we can celebrate the dead as ‘a good job’ for artists and we should be glad that we will probably never be resuscitated as a statue ourselves. Or we can question and expand the notion of the commemorative arts so that by the time we meet our demise bronze effigies will have literally become a thing of the past.