An Interview With Krzysztof Wodiczko About Monument
We sat down with artist Krzysztof Wodiczko to discuss his current work, Monument, in Madison Square Park. Wodiczko describes how, through works of public art, he concentrates on subjects that propel contemporary crises. Over a half century of art-making, he has realized outdoor projects in cities and municipalities that consider pressing topics including war, domestic abuse, statelessness, immigration, and homelessness.
1. What makes Madison Square Park particularly powerful for discussing refugee resettlement?
Madison Square Park, located in the heart of Manhattan, is populated by monuments to prominent civic leaders, military commanders, and soldiers who represent our values, contributed to our democracy, and gave their lives to defend this country’s freedom. Accepting and resettling refugees remains a fundamental civic value in the United States, at the very core of its democratic tradition and identity. A discussion of refugee settlement using the symbolic environment of a prominent monument in the Park is therefore particularly appropriate. Refugees deserve to have a public presence, even a monumental “pedestal.” They are not just beneficiaries of our help, but also important contributors to our values and to the American Dream. I hope the exhibition will inspire conversations between diverse Park audiences and give viewers a more complex understanding of the needs of refugees and the situations millions have left behind.
As many contemporary scholars agree, the American Civil War caused the greatest refugee crisis of the 19th century. Admiral David Glasgow Farragut is remembered and honored as a prominent Civil War hero. However, the real heroes of all civil wars are refugees. They are the living monuments to war trauma, yet often they are forgotten and unacknowledged in public space. It is time to acknowledge refugees’ personal war experiences as historical. Their public testimonies are a powerful warning and a call to action against the continuation and perpetuation of civil wars.
3. What do you expect reactions from the public to be to the work? Can you anticipate this?
I hope that as the monument is brought to life the projection will, in turn, animate the hearts and minds of the public, helping to inspire a greater emotional understanding of both the refugees’ lived experiences and the help displaced persons desperately need. Borrowing the words of David Miliband, President, International Rescue Committee, we must strengthen the civic demand that “the United States, the world’s richest nation, reverse the current course of denying assistance and safety to refugees and asylum-seekers.”
I also hope that the work will demonstrate the significance of the refugee experience to American history, culture, and identity.
4. How did you determine who would be filmed for this project?
The project received generous help from organizations that provide social assistance to refugees: Refugee Council USA (RCUSA), a coalition of humanitarian organizations including the International Rescue Committee, and Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS). These organizations provided introductions to resettled refugees who expressed an interest in participating in this project. Further direct and personal contact between possible participants and myself and the Madison Square Park staff helped to build trust in the project and confirm their willingness to participate. My conversations with the participants helped them to select the life events they wished to discuss. Everyone who volunteered to tell his/her story was included in the final project.
Honoring the participants’ requests and the advice received from RCUSA and IRIS, a maximum effort was made to ensure participants’ anonymity.
5. How does Monument figure in to the national conversation on Civil War-era monuments?
With the use of projectors and projecting mapping I am turning a silent and motionless statue into a speaking and performative monument to living refugees—the unacknowledged heroes of civil war.
Rather than destroying monuments we must engage them in cultural and pedagogical projects. We can make sense and use of them for ourselves and for future generations in historical, critical, and political spheres. A critical engagement offers the chance to make an informed and thoughtful contribution to a better future, one in which we will finally find ways to resolve our social and political disputes without armed conflict and refugees and there will no longer be a need to build new civil war monuments and memorials.