In my research on the Monument to the Revolution, as one of the foremost commemorative spatial sites of state power in Mexico City, I have written in Journal of Latin American Studies on how the monument is a significant architectural form and a profoundly ambiguous carrier of utopian promise. Completed on 20 November 1938 the monument has served, on one hand, as the stage for official ceremonies remembering and honouring the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and its heroes ever since. On the other hand, it is also a space that invokes a redemptive dimension of collective resistance. Beyond the recognition of state and class power, the Monument to the Revolution is an everyday place as well as a locus for transformational politics, including social movements from students, workers, and campesinos in contesting the site as a social space. The Monument to the Revolution is therefore an ambiguous carrier of utopian promise because it is both the spatial base for honouring and remembering the “heroes” of the Mexican Revolution and for collective contemporary resistance against state and class power in Mexico.
Most recently, I have come across the work of Thomas Kellner that captures the contradictory dynamics of the Monument to the Revolution in a new and original form, which is being exhibited at the Conny Dietzschold Gallery in Sydney (5-31 May 2015). Why might this be interesting in thinking about monuments; the triumphal procession of the victors in history; and attempts to establish a tradition of the past?
In a kindred blog post on memorialising monuments, I emphasised Walter Benjamin’s comment that ‘. . . we begin to recognise the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled’. Relating this to his theses ‘On the Concept of History’ one can show how a succession of victors attempt to form a continuum of history whereby days of popular celebration and revolutionary memory enact conformism. Equally, though, Benjamin is interested in opening up an alternative temporality, seeking ‘to make the continuum of history explode’, to interrupt historical continuity, by ushering in a ‘now time’ of social emancipation.
Thomas Kellner’s work is interesting because, since 1997, he has been reinterpreting anew iconic architectural structures across the world by using a technique of composing with multiple photographic images a single art form. Kellner therefore constructs a scene by a succession of analogue photographic ‘shots’ that are arranged in a grid of columns and rows. Once developed, the photographic film is contact-printed so that a composite scene comes together from the small rectangular frames. The result is a fragmented aesthetic that re-presents architecture to connote breakdown, fragmentation, rupture, and instability.
In 2006, Kellner embarked on his Mexico series to focus on the structures and seismic effects of Popocatépetl; Teotihuacán; La Catedral de México; the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe; the Palacio Nacional; the Palacio de Bellas Artes; the Palacio de Correos de México; the Castillo de Chapultepec; the Columna de la Independencia; the Universidad Nacional Áutonoma de México, and, finally, El Monumento a la Revolución that, at the time, had a huge banner hanging from it of, among others, Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa of the División del Norte as one of the significant forces during the Mexican Revolution.
These images are captured in the book Mexico (2011) by Thomas Kellner that includes a very good essay by Fernando Castro. Drawing from the latter, it is noted how Kellner decodes the fragments he puts together to construct a scene frame-by-frame without attempting to recreate the exact continuity of lines and forms, at times deliberately creating misalignment, to evoke the unstable reality of the terrain in Mexico City as well as its uncertain political atmosphere. In so doing, Fernando Castro notes how the breakdown of these architectural forms, including the Monument to the Revolution, evokes the poem ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Shelley, about the decay of power, the decline of leaders, and the pretensions to greatness projected by politics and its monuments. The sonnet by Shelley, thinking about the vanity of power in relation to the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, repays close attention:
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Equally, as a monument of the bourgeoisie, the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico could be similarly understood as a ruin even before it has crumbled, as Walter Benjamin reminds us.
What Kellner’s work prompts, then, is a sense of critical reflection on the fragments of revolution and the spatial logics of the state in order to question the symbols of state power and the foundational narratives of the state. As a result it might then be possible to incite a process of peeling away through architectural spaces the different skeins of history shaping Mexico. Space and history therefore come together in questioning the open-ended fragments of revolution.
It will be interesting to explore further the work of Thomas Kellner, not only on Mexico but also his work on the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer as a modern utopia in Brasília. And for those in Sydney one can even experience the exhibition of Thomas Kellner’s work at the Conny Dietzschold Gallery in just a few days time (5-31 May 2015).
Please note: the work of Thomas Kellner has been reproduced here with the permission of the artist.