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Politics of Monuments and Memorials

The German occupation monument in Budapest

The German occupation monument in Budapest, courtesy Tim Venchus/Flickr

This article was originally published by the World Policy Institute on 12 July 2016

In March 2014, Budapest’s Liberty Square became home to the newest controversial monument in the city. The now-notorious German occupation monument consists of two parts: an angel and an eagle. In the middle of ivory columns lined up in a wedge, Archangel Gabriel stands with his arms wide open. His right hand is holding a golden orb, an element of the Hungarian royal insignia. His eyes are gracefully closed, as if he is fully aware of his destiny. A giant, pitch-black eagle—the symbol of Imperial Germany—ominously flies overhead. Its three-pronged claw swings as if it will snatch the orb from the angel’s hand.

Immediately after its construction, the monument was met with fierce criticism from home and abroad. Civil organizations denounced the Hungarian government, saying it was “falsifying the Holocaust” by erecting a monument that glosses over Hungary’s collusion with the Nazis. The monument comes as another expression of surging nationalism in the country, which the current government has stoked by granting voting rights to foreigners based on their Hungarian ethnicity, disseminating anti-immigrant questionnaires filled with leading questions, building fences along the country’s borders with Serbia and Croatia to block the influx of refugees, and making openly xenophobic statements against non-Christian migrants.

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Missing Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei Protest in New York: “1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei” in New York, 17 April 2011.

Ai Weiwei Protest in New York: “1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei”, 17 April 2011. Photo: Jason B. Chen/flickr

China’s Ai Weiwei has recently been removed from the creative scene. Absent and yet present, he is an artist whose work has become renowned all over the world in recent years.

Special attention was given to Ai particularly because of his creative criticism and involvement in social and political questions concerning China. In 2007, for example, at the Documenta 12, one of Europe’s biggest art fairs, Ai provoked his public by inviting along 1001 Chinese compatriots. His statement was simple yet powerful. Ai’s experiment raised awareness about how China is booming, but at the same time, about how it remains separated from the West.

Despite the regime’s restrictions, new art in China has found diverse channels of expression in the years since 1989, ranging from direct criticism of Western consumption, to mocking stereotypes of Maoist propaganda or to addressing the weaknesses of the communist regime. Ai Weiwei belongs to the latter group of creatives. He is one of China’s best-known artists and at the same time one of China’s most despised dissidents.

Ai’s arrest at the beginning of April 2011 was met with consternation by the international public. Yet the most recent wave of repression affected not only Ai, but the entire Songzhuang art district, in the eastern suburbs of Beijing. This community of artists had elected a suggestive name for their latest exhibition: Sensitive Zone. The exhibition was in itself a provocation, a powerful collection of sensitive subjects, which were not only expected but also surely intended to lead to consequences. » More

Eurovision Song Contest: Kitsch and Politics

Serbia Eurovision Song Contest 2011, courtesy of flickr

Serious business. Photo: mjohn2101/flickr

It is a tacky show, and one well worth watching. This year’s Eurovision Song Contest features another round of spacy outfits and cheesy tunes with charming titles, ranging from Norway’s ‘Haba Haba’ to Armenia’s ‘Boom Boom’ and Finland’s ‘Da Da Dam’.

The first Eurovision contest took place in Switzerland in 1956, and only seven countries participated. Britain, Austria and Denmark were not present because they failed to apply on time. While most of Western Europe still doesn’t take the contest too seriously, it’s a different story in the East.

Looking at winning countries over the last two decades, there has been a marked move eastwards, as more countries from the former Communist block have joined the contest and award points to each other. The causes of bloc voting are debatable; some say it’s political, others argue that it is cultural. » More

The Power of Imagery in War

Soldier in Afghanistan

The 'Humanitarian Warrior' in action? photo: isafmedia/flickr

I stumbled upon a very interesting article by Noora Kotilainen, research assistant at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in the latest issue of the Finnish Journal of Foreign Affairs. Since her excellent piece  has not been translated into English to my knowledge, I thought I would give you a brief summary of her argument on the importance and changing nature of imagery and photography in today’s conflicts.

She starts with the premise that war photography, or the visualization of suffering in conflict has always been a powerful means of mobilizing public opinion and action against violence. It is most successfully used in humanitarian crises or conflicts, where images of suffering people prompt us to take action, either in the form of donations or political pressure to intervene.

Despite the ubiquity of violence in entertainment and through other fictitious channels, however, war photography and the visual representation of western-led wars in particular has changed dramatically. She notes that in Afghanistan, Iraq and the ‘war on terror’ the imagery has become remarkably sterile, particularly when representing the suffering of US soldiers. » More

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Back to the 80s? Bring Them On!

80s sneaker wallpaper / photo: roberlan, flickr

One fine Manic Monday, election campaign strategists of the British Labour Party put out an ad admonishing voters: “Don’t let him [David Cameron] take Britain back to the 1980s.”

But weren’t the 1980s supposed to be The Best of Times?

At least we of Generation Y tend to think so. Back in the 80s, we were not yet so politically aware. Some of us played with Barbie dolls (you guessed it: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun), others practiced the Moonwalk, watched Alf or kept ourselves busy growing mullets – yes, Madonna said so: “Express Yourself“.

Actually, we do not necessarily associate the 1980s with rampant greed, a growing economic gap, poverty, unfettered capitalism, a roll-back of the welfare state and the looming threat of nuclear extinction.

Rather, we think of 80s rock: big hair; Dirty Dancing; a booming stock market; pegged jeans; neon colors; Money for Nothing – all, baby, Hurts So Good!

The New York Times recently commented on Hillary Clinton’s voluminous hairstyle, suspiciously resembling the big bumpy hair donned by women in the (presumably conservative) 80s. And that coming from a Democrat! (But then again, Obama these days is often compared to Ronald Reagan – a Democrat version of the Reagan phenomenon, that is.)

The Tories skillfully responded to the Labour ad, playing on the 1980s nostalgia. They released a slightly modified version of the Labour poster portraying Mr Cameron as Gene Hunt from the BBC’s popular Ashes To Ashes series. Come’on, the 80s weren’t that Bad after all!

So the moral of this campaign flop is: if you want to invoke bad memories of conservative politics in Britain, don’t use the culturally rather successful 1980s to make your point.

I hope Labour has learned its lesson; otherwise, it will turn out to be a very Cruel Summer for Gordon Brown’s party.

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