This is where statues come to die, gazing down not upon grand squares and mass parades, but simply each other: busts of Lenin confront ‘the heroic Soviet soldier’, and the granite muscularity of unselfish workers inspires only similarly weather-worn monuments of Soviet leaders. On the outskirts of Budapest, a collection of Communist-era statues and monuments forms Memento Park, a tourist attraction that, as the park guide put it with a grin, “shows you can make a good capitalist enterprise out of communist efforts”.
Rescued from the wrecking ball and scrapheap, the park’s statues are organized into three figure-8 loops, this ‘infinity’ representation giving each sequence an ‘endless parade of…’ (liberation monuments, workers movements, etc.) label. I can’t quite decide if this is a nice little arty concept, or clever BS.
Far from where they were originally installed and no longer serving a civic purpose, being brought to this park illustrates the politics of public art and the narratives of history represented therein. Understandably and unsurprisingly, in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, new popularly-elected governments sought to erase past markers and monuments of the Communist era, replacing Soviet heroes with those of resistance fighters and pre-Communist leaders. The same is true of many decolonized countries, where changing road names and introducing new events to commemorate are as much efforts at sweeping away the old system as they are of nation-building and forging a new narrative of a country’s past and future.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, these statues and busts that would have looked down over Budapest’s hills and squares, representing a particular vision of society, the good life and models of emulation. What seems remarkable about the park, then, is its attempt to provide a reminder of the values and norms of that age, when the typical thing for the champions of any new system is to attempt to eradicate – sometimes brutally – all vestiges and symbols of the old.
For in our historical narratives lie claims to political legitimacy, and what these narratives contain shape the standards by which political life is judged. A resurgence in Communist nostalgia in Russia; contestation over the content of Japanese school textbooks about wartime atrocities; heady exhortations to the glory days of Britain bestriding the world – appeals to ‘history’, and the stirrings of collective identity and who ‘we’ are, mandate or limit particular courses of action, whether in foreign policy or otherwise.
In the process of removing these artifacts from public Budapest – one that is still ongoing – the contrast of their reorganization in the admission-fee statue park is a glimpse of one interpretation of history, written by those triumphant at one point in time, while a different interpretation is being forged today. Public space, whether in architecture or art, always contains the fingerprints of different generations and their values and claims to power, but which often requires a little bit of an archaeological trovel to unearth the different layers of history. The accumulation of this one collection of monuments relegated from the public eye presents this transition from one layer to another so much more vividly.