Lesson: Unmonumental: Fallen and Disappearing Monuments

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Global Studies, Social Studies, Literary Arts, and Studio Arts
  • "Lion," 2006."Lion," 2006.
  • "Myth Monolith," 2002."Myth Monolith," 2002.
  • "Myth Monolith," 2002."Myth Monolith," 2002.
  • "The Wreck," 2005."The Wreck," 2005.

Introduction

Written by Marc Mayer and Cathleen Lewis, Manager of High School Programs

“Unmonumental” begins as a major exhibition of 21st century sculpture by thirty international artists, and morphs as layers of collage, sound, and Internet-based art are added in three subsequent parts. The show grows and changes like a giant assemblage into a dense and over- excited environment of images and sound.

This lesson begins with the discussion of the exhibition’s theme: fallen and disappearing monuments. Many of the objects featured in this exhibition highlight impermanence, fragility and uncertainty of our times, in contrast to the idea of the monument which commemorates a person or event and is noted in history, constructed with permanent materials (stone, bronze, and marble) to withstand the test of time. Students will consider the disappearance of monuments during the first decade of the 21st century from the Buddhist statues destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan to the fall of the Twin Towers. This lesson will look to define the term “unmonumental” as well as help investigate ideas of ruin, mortality, and decay to illuminate precarious and uncertain time in which we live.

Objectives

• Students will explore the power and meaning of monuments and symbols, and their destruction
• Students will investigate works of art to make connections to broader social and cultural issues
• Students will develop an understanding of the exhibition and contemporary art practices

Vocabulary

Monument is a statue or building created to commemorate a person or event and is noted for its age, size, location, and historic significance. Memorials have celebrated political leaders and heroes, and commemorated wars. Monumental sculptures are often made of permanent materials that withstand the test of time such as stone, bronze, or marble. Through their size, materials, and prominent location in public spaces, monuments convey importance.
Assemblage is an artistic process in which a three-dimensional composition is made from putting together found, created, or manufactured materials, objects, or fragments not intended as art materials. It is an improvised but intentional grouping of different objects, composed by trial and error out of materials at hand.
Monolith is a single block or piece of stone of considerable size, especially used to create an obelisk, column, or large statue.

Materials

Images:
Marc André Robinson, Myth Monolith, 2002
Kristen Morgin, Lion, 2006
Elliot Hundley, The Wreck, 2005
Urs Fischer, Untitled Candle, 2001
Projector
Journals

Lesson Strategy

Many of the objects featured in this exhibition highlight impermanence, fragility, and the uncertainty of our times, in contrast to the idea of the monument which commemorates a person or event noted in history is constructed with permanent materials, like stone, bronze, or marble to withstand the test of time and remain in our memory.

Let’s begin our discussion with Marc André Robinson:

Marc André Robinson
Myth Monolith, 2002
Wooden chairs, dimensions variable

Lives and works in New York

• What is this sculpture made of?
• Describe the path your eye follows around the sculpture.
• How do the materials change? (How many different types chairs do you see?)
• Where do you think the artist gets his materials?
• Have you ever thrown away a piece of furniture? How did you dispose of it? Did you mind throwing a chair away? Why or why not?
• When you see chairs for garbage removal, have you ever considered them as art materials?
• How has the artist manipulated the materials?
• Based on observation, how do you think this sculpture is standing?
• What do you think would happen if you removed a chair from the sculpture?

This artwork is precariously balanced; if one part were removed the whole structure would potentially collapse. When the artist originally exhibited this work, there were no fasteners. The artist would come in each day to that exhibition space and rearrange and balance the chairs in a new configuration. Here there are fasteners to make sure it is stable and does not collapse. The chairs are linked together through wooden dowels. This artwork is titled Myth Monolith.

• Thinking about monuments, what is a monolith? (Consider obelisks, columns,
large stone slabs. Emphasize mono, meaning “one.”)
• What do you think is meant by the title?

When Myth Monolith was originally exhibited, the artist rearranged the chairs everyday, so the sculpture changed many times. Also this sculpture is composed of many chairs opposed to one block of stone, so it is not really a monolith.

• How might these ideas relate to the sculpture Myth Monolith? Compare and contrast this artwork to monuments.

Kristen Morgin
Lion, 2006
Wood, graphite, clay, and paint
64 × 47 × 56 in

Lives and works in Los Angeles

• What do you see?
• Based on observation, what is this work made of?
• Where have you seen similar sculptures in the past? On or near what type of buildings?
• What does the symbol of a lion represent?
• Do you think this work is falling apart or being built? Is it old or new?
• Wood is one of the materials used in this artwork. How would you describe this
part of the work? Do you recognize any other art practices?
• Where do you see drawing in this work? Painting?
• Describe the drawings the artist included in her sculpture.
• Do you think there is a relationship between the drawings and the sculpture?
• Can you see any relationship between the artist’s practice of sculpting and drawing?
• Is there any sense of history in this artwork?
• What do you think the story behind this history might be?

Working with unfired clay, Kristen Morgin creates reproductions of things found in nature and culture. Her works look as though they are centuries old, but in reality they were created recently, even though they fall apart easily. If you look closely you can see the artist’s fingerprints in the sculpture, revealing a history of the art-making process. It is easy to see her work and see decay or corrosion, yet work has an unexpected liveliness and mortality.

The artist explains, “I think my work makes an attempt to express what it means to be mortal.”

Elliot Hundley
The Wreck, 2005
Plastic, pins, photographs, paper, charcoal, pastel, bamboo, Styrofoam, floral foam, acrylic paint, string, glue, wire, shells, and feathers
96 × 96 × 42 in

Lives and works in Los Angeles

• Looking closely, what materials do you recognize in this artwork? (Styrofoam, fallen column fragments, shells, wax, feathers, quills, pins, parasol, beach mat, skeleton, vegetation, images of sails and an engine propeller, image of oars.)
• What materials can you list that are man-made, what materials are organic and from nature?
• What images can we list that pertain to flight or nautical vessels?
• In which culture and time would you find this column?
• What does the toppled column say about the culture that it comes from?
• Can you list great civilizations from history that have left behind ruins that we visit today?
• Is this object referencing a type of historical ruin?
• How does this reflect time? Does it talk about past, present, and future simultaneously?
• What happens in the ocean when man-made materials have sunk? How does nature take over these foreign objects?
• Which type of ecosystems grow under, over, and around it?
• What type of things might we find washed up from a past civilization? What might we find from our present civilization?
• How does this work speak to life and death?
• How does it speak to forces of nature? Does it relate to any recent events?
• Do you think it speaks to ideas of mythology? How?
• Do you think this work speaks to sentimentality, or does it have a universal message?
• What do you think the title of this piece is?
• How does the title inform how we see the artwork?

Hundley’s collaged wall works and sculptures, assembled from found materials – bamboo, string, paper, photographs, magazine clippings, plastic, and foam – loosely jumble together narrative bits and scraps of information. Hundley’s choice of found, often ephemeral objects embeds each work with sentimentality and personal meaning, but these small scale details are at times suggestive of more universal imagery and ideas: mythology, forces of nature, and aerial views of vast and fantastic landscapes.

Urs Fischer
Untitled, 2001
Wax, wick, pigment, brick, and metal
67 × 18 × 11 in

Lives and works in New York

Before beginning the conversation, consider issues of instability and the female nude in art history.

• What are we looking at? What materials does the artist use?
• What does this work say about transformation and change?
• Why do you think the artist might have used wax in making this work?
• How does the artist talk about instability? Why did he use a wick?
• How does this work address the idea of time? How does this work speak of the history of art-making? How does this work speak of fallen monuments?
• How has the use of the female nude served as a muse in art history?
• What is the artist doing to this muse? Why?
• What do you think about the work being ephemeral and fleeting?
• How does this work relate to the title of the exhibition? The idea of the burning monument?

Urs Fischer uses a range of materials to express that art, much like life, is fleeting. The artist’s work displays how materials behave unexpectedly during the art-making process. Fischer’s pieces are a record of the artistic process as well as a final artwork.

The artist says, “My work never ends up looking the way I intended. But it’s better that way; the imagination cannot really force the material into a desired form.”

Conclusion

• What do monuments represent?

• How are monuments supposed to work?

• What type of power do monuments possess?

• Based on looking at this artwork and our discussion, what elements define “Unmonumental?”

• If the first decade of the 21st century is being defined by the destruction and disappearance of monuments, what are some examples of this phenomenon during our lifetime? (Consider the falling of World Trade Center, the Taliban destroying Bamayan Buddha statues from 3 A.D. in Afghanistan, and the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue during the American invasion in Iraq.)

• What happens when a monument is destroyed? What type of message does that send?

• How does the theme of fallen monuments speak to an uncertainty of our present time?

• Did any of the artworks you saw make you think differently about art, how you look at art, or the world?

Homework

Have students consider Myth Monolith, by Marc André Robinson. As a sketch book activity students should explore their neighborhood and take note of what items, objects, and materials have been discarded or thrown away. Through sketching and writing, have them observe what things are discarded and why. What materials might they assemble from off the street to create an artwork? What do these objects and materials say about the place we live and our culture?

Standards

We have utilized the Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Visual Arts to assure that we meet the benchmarks and the strands of learning, we incorporate all five strands into the lesson plans: art making, literacy in the visual arts, making connections, community and cultural resources, and careers and lifelong learning in the visual arts.

Blueprint for Teaching and Learning About Art
1. Art Making
2. Looking at and Discussing Art
3. Developing Visual Art Vocabulary
4. Reading and Writing About Art
5. Problem Solving: Interpreting and Analyzing Art
6. Recognizing the Societal, Cultural, and Historical Significance of Art, Connecting Art to Other Disciplines
7. Observing and Interpreting the World
8. Awareness of Careers in Visual Arts
9. Arts for Enjoyment and Lifelong Learning

National Standards (mcrel.org)

Art Connections
Standard 1. Understands connections among the various artforms and other disciplines

Visual Arts
Standard 2. Knows how to use structures (e.g., sensory qualities, organizational principles, expressive features) and functions of art
Standard 3. Knows a range of subject matter, symbols, and potential ideas in the visual arts

Literary Arts
Standard 8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media
Standard 10. Understands the characteristics and components of the media

Additional Resources

Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, and Massimiliano Gioni, Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century. New York: Phaidon Press, 2007

Jackie Spinner, ‘Hussein-Era Symbols Disappear Under Edict,’ the Washington Post, January 9, 2006