Throughout history, statues have held immense symbolism, helping to bind permanent depictions of the past with the impermanence of the present. Their foundations model an era of yesterday with the hope that, in the frantic chaos of today, their subjects are remembered. Yet, there remains an uneasy narrative associated with the erection of statues, which, entrenched in their foundations, lies a skewed representation of the antecedent events they seek to portray.
This is not to doubt the emotive prowess that statues have, particularly when they are sculpted as both reminders of unity and selflessness. In virtually every town and city in the United Kingdom, there lies a wartime memorial of a soldier or fighter; their presence converted into hubs of community gathering every Remembrance Day. More generally, however, there exists a great tragedy with statues and memorials, which, borne through an ironic paradox, their fraught vulnerability to changing contemporary political conditions is exposed. The polemic of last summer etched this painfully into our national discourse; the evocative statue has become a melting pot for the residual social cleavages of a divided country.
In many respects, it is unsurprising as to why statues have become epicentres for deeply complex and probing debates. After all, they are mere snapshots of time, unable to comprehensively relay the contexts to which they owe their standings. Here too rests a far more disconcerting consequence of the legacy of the statue. That is, of course, the conceptualisation of identity carried with it which serves as a reminder of a time divorced from the climate of our own. Questioning our identity invites paranoia and preoccupation, eliciting fear and uncertainty. Statues are fixed extractions of identity; permanently strapped to a context alienated from the here and now. This uneasy tension of immovable identity is perhaps what Dolly Parton, in rejecting a statue of herself, may have been keen to sidestep.
By framing this contentious debate in this way, I feel that respect and integrity can be afforded to those figures whose legacy could be transferred to stone-form. Yet, I am worried that by ascribing such a permanent representation to someone, their achievements are lost from the wider context in which they were forged. The remarkable inspiration of Sir Tom Moore is a particularly poignant example of this; his fantastically charitable efforts under the clouds of a dark pandemic lifted a nation. But it is only by combing through the true efforts of Sir Tom that a deeper reality is found: those frontline workers, often underpaid and overstretched, formed the binding unity through which he so brilliantly tapped into. His charity was, one would imagine, for those at the very frontier of fighting the pandemic. It would feel counterproductive, then, to extract these accomplishments away from the moment by fixing them to an isolated stone figure, one ripped away from the contexts of a delicate pandemic era. This also taps into the obvious problem: more than 100,000 have died from Covid-19 in the UK, and we would, however inadvertently, be inviting an anxious debate about who we immortalise and why, if we revert to statue building.
Instead, the figures of our times should be remembered by the pages of history, where, through inquiry and deliberation, the beauty of our leaders’ achievements (and failures) can be complemented with context and vigour, derived from the imperfect and multifaceted lives they led. Through keeping remembrance free to the whims of elastic discourse, a fairer picture of our times and identities can be better reflected. This, one imagines, would permit us to ditch the stone-cold nature of statues, always frozen and lost with the passing of history. After all, time doesn’t wait for anyone.
Image: Samuel Bryngelsson via Unsplash.