‘We Have to Help Them Be Useful’: Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko Explains How Existing Monuments Can Be Made to Speak for the Voiceless

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Krzysztof Wodiczko: Monument for the Living." © Art21, Inc. 2020.

In the past decade, a public reckoning has unfolded over monuments in the United States, about who gets honored and why, and whether statues to figures such as Confederate generals should be removed from display altogether.

The Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko has spent his career addressing these thorny subjects, often by appropriating the objects themselves. Civil War monuments, architectural facades, and other physical landmarks have often been the canvases for his video projections.

Earlier this year, the artist was commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy in New York to create a project addressing one of the park’s most prominent statues: a monument to Union Admiral David Glasgow Farragut.

In an exclusive interview with Art21 conducted earlier this year, the artist described the practice of creating the project, titled Monument for the Living. 

“People always gather in front of monuments,” he said, noting that often it has less to do with historical awareness than it has to do with the convenience of finding a place to rest.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Krzysztof Wodiczko: Monument for the Living." © Art21, Inc. 2020.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Krzysztof Wodiczko: Monument for the Living.” © Art21, Inc. 2020.

For his project, Wodiczko projected video clips of refugees speaking about their experiences directly onto the statue of Farragut, aligned perfectly so that their arms and faces mirror those of the monument.

“Communicating with others, it’s very important,” he said. “Once it is shared, it opens the path to healthier life.”

The final work is lit up at nightfall, so that visitors to the park are confronted with the voices and gestures of a living refugee.

“We have to help them be useful for the living,” the artist says of existing monuments. “Maybe there is a future in which some of these monuments will never need to be built.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, below. The video projection of “Krzysztof Wodiczko: Monument for the Living” is temporarily suspended. More information is available on the Madison Square Park website. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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