PRINT December 2020

When Statues Fall

Protester breaking off the hand of a statue of Louis XVI, Louisville, KY, May 28, 2020. Photo: WDRB News.

STATUES OF COLONIZERS ARE FALLING. The autumn of the patriarch has arrived. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French minister of state from 1661 to 1683 and chief architect, together with his son, of the Code Noir (the laws governing slavery in France’s imperial outposts), awakens covered in paint; Francis Scott Key, enslaver and author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” is pulled to the ground; British human trafficker Edward Colston ends up at the bottom of the River Avon; Christopher Columbus is decapitated; Leopold II of Belgium and his noble steed are ignominiously defaced; King Louis XVI has his hand snapped off; J. Marion Sims, the gynecologist who performed surgical experiments without anesthesia on enslaved women, vanishes; the word RACISTA is scrawled on the pedestal of Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra. . . . Believers in national and republican iconophilia on both the right and the left are up in arms: The police should come and protect these statues. The very same police who beat and mutilate the racialized, sexualized living bodies of protesters and migrants in the streets—let them now come protect these stone and metal bodies. Perhaps that is ultimately the purpose of any police force: to protect monuments to power. In his first solemn statement on the issue, on June 14, President Emmanuel Macron warns that France “will not take down statues.” He seems to have forgotten the first law of democratic gravity: All statues fall down sooner or later. As W. G. Sebald reminds us, monuments that represent the power some wield over others paradoxically contain in their violent and grandiloquent style the root of their own destruction. The iconoclastic gesture’s supremacy over any sculptural governmental decree is hidden but determinant. And the bigger the statue, the better the wreckage.

But why all the commotion over a few pounds of stone and metal? What is a statue when it is situated in a space deemed “public”? And what is it that falls when a statue falls?

The statues that have been attacked by decolonial activists are monumentalized representations of human bodies, sometimes accompanied by animal bodies, especially horses, and on occasion oxen, dogs, bears, geese, cats, or even elephants or camels. Such statues surround us, incarnating a kind of sculptural biopolitics. It is necessary to acknowledge the performative force of giving shape to one body and not another—representing it in victory or defeat, armed or unarmed, on horseback or on foot, clothed or nude, as a simple bust or from head to toe—and embedding it in the space of the city with durable materials that defy erosion and change. “Wrought works that imitate nature with the objective of extolling and elevating somebody’s actions” (as officially defined by the Real Academia Española), statues are ghosts of the past, petrified in order to arouse adoration and respect, reverence and fear, exaltation and obedience. They are oversize collective ex-votos, prostheses of historical memory that memorialize the lives of those deemed important, that preserve the bodies that deserve to be “statuefied.”


What has been placed in doubt in recent months by protests against racist police violence and by the attacks on statues is the bourgeois fiction that “public space ” is neutral and egalitarian. The streets do not belong to us, nor have they ever. Neither do the bodies that matter, those that warrant “statuefication.” In patriarchal societies of colonial heritage, “public space,” in fact, does not exist. As David Harvey has argued, space generally called public is highly hierarchical and commercialized. Urbanist Itziar González Virós points out that the street is not a public space but an administrative one, regulated and policed by municipal and state authorities. In short, what has until now been called public space is in reality a space segmented by lines of class, race, sex, sexuality, and disability, where only the white, male, heterosexual, abled, and national body may circulate as a full-fledged subject. Migrant, nonwhite, female or effeminate, nonheterosexual, functionally diverse bodies are constantly subjected to various forms of restriction, violence, exclusion, surveillance, ghettoization, and death. These modes of governance operate in very different ways, through architectural divisions, urban barriers, institutional confinements, and military, police, and political controls. Of all these techniques, perhaps the “softest” and most aestheticized (and yet still brutal) is the production of a monumental marker, which inscribes a dominant cultural narrative in urban space through the sculptural reproduction of some bodies—and not others.

We collectively inhabit an iconic landscape that is saturated with signs of power endorsed by historical and epic narratives and aestheticized and naturalized to the extent that we are no longer able to perceive their cognitive violence.

The power of statues derives precisely from the fact that they are representations of human bodies, figures that look like (or do not look like) us, that we can (or cannot) compare ourselves to, however strange their scale or attire. Any one of us could, theoretically, be a statue. But for this to happen, it is essential that your body “matter.” In fact, we know that although the faces of modern statues really are likenesses (if typically aggrandized) of the people represented, the bodies are often those of the working poor, including sex workers, who were used as models. Their bodies were copied and at the same time erased to serve as the foundation for faces that mattered and were worthy of eulogizing. That’s why all of these statues are a lie. They do not represent the bodies of specific individuals, but rather the normative political body; they stand for the values of virility, racial purity, wealth, and power, affirm the victory of the patriarchal-colonial discourse that commissions and installs them and occludes undesirable narratives. There is no statue that depicts Colbert jerking off as he looks at a map of Africa, or of Brother Junípero or Colston sexually assaulting indigenous or Black men, women, or children.

All statues are a lie. All statues are made to one day be toppled.

In the modern patriarchal city of colonial heritage, the normative monumentalized bodies of statues collectively articulate an aesthetic of domination that produces identification and distancing, cohesion and social exclusion. “Public” sculptures do not represent the people; rather, they construct them. Not only do they instantiate a pure, national body, they also establish an ideal of colonial, sexual citizenry. We collectively inhabit an iconic landscape that is saturated with signs of power endorsed by historical and epic narratives and aestheticized and naturalized to the extent that we are no longer able to perceive their cognitive violence. This is why some people claim that Barcelona’s statue of Columbus, for example, not only is beautiful (!?) but “belongs to” the city’s landscape. Nevertheless, a Catalan or a migrant walking by will not see the statue in the same way a Castilian does; a racialized person and a white person are not questioned in the same manner by a sculpture of Brother Junípero; an assigned female does not see the huge number of nude female statues in parks or gardens, facing numerous militarized male bodies bearing swords or guns, in the same way as someone who has been raised as a man. Stated differently, this ubiquitous corporeal public praise of the values of white, masculine, and heterosexual supremacy makes the modern city a patriarchal-colonial amusement park, a kind of Westworld populated by eerily motionless avatars of domination, belonging, and recognition—or submission, exclusion, and erasure. That’s why all statues must fall.

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Durham, August 14, 2017, oil on canvas, 28 × 35".


Judging by the forces that destabilize them, statues fall for three reasons: decline, removal (from above), and toppling (from below). In the first case, the statues become meaningless objects: They are forgotten and left to erode until they are disfigured; they become faceless stones; they are worn out and not repaired—even the name on the plaque may fade or be covered by mold or ivy.

In the second case, they are pompously dislodged by government decree: a grandiose gesture via heavy machinery that usually signals a regime change. The de-Sovietization processes in the former Eastern Bloc involved hundreds of demolitions of this type. Often, these procedures were intended to convince the public that radical change was indeed under way. In Ukraine in 2015, Communist monuments were destroyed in the morning, and almost that same afternoon new heroes took their places. It is more productive when, instead of a simple substitution, symbols from the past are maintained but reread in a critical manner. For example, in the Ukrainian city of Yuzhne, the artist Alexander Milov transformed a sculpture of Lenin into one of Darth Vader and wrote on an accompanying plaque: “To the father of our nation, from its grateful children and stepchildren.”

The third case is the most unpredictable and politically the most interesting. With ropes, hammers, picks, shovels, bags, paper, paint, flowers, and any other implements or techniques available, statues are collectively transformed, disfigured, partially dismantled or dismembered, or brought down completely in an unauthorized, unofficial, and usually illegal manner. The French Revolution; the anticlerical, anarchist movement before and during the Spanish Civil War; and the ongoing global uprisings against racism are a few examples of the kind of upheaval that galvanizes waves of this most dramatic form of “falling.”

Statue of Vladimir Lenin modified to represent Darth Vader, with photo of original monument in foreground, Pressmach factory, Odessa, Ukraine, March 21, 2019. Photo: Gaelle Girbes/SIPA/Shutterstock.


The most recent attacks on statues supplement preexisting graffiti, including the thousands of feminist, queer, and trans tags that have gradually covered cities in recent years. All of these phenomena are, to borrow Umberto Eco’s phrase, forms of “semiological guerilla warfare”: They question dominant discourses around racial, sexual, and gender privilege through means at once rhetorical and physical. The current campaign targets the material manifestations of cultural grammar in the city. It aims to rupture the false coherence of patriarchal-colonial reason’s semiotic framework, to open closed discourses, and to return meanings that have been reified—literally “petrified”—to the public arena, extracting them from the sacralization of power so that they can be collectively reconsidered. When a statue falls, it opens a possible space of resignification in power’s dense and saturated landscape.

That’s why all statues must fall.

There’s a tectonic analogy between the toppling of statues that have served as Western civilization’s cultural emblems and the necessary dismantling of the patriarchal-colonial infrastructure of capitalist modernity. In the same way in which we talk about the restitution of works stolen during colonization from their countries of origin, we have now begun to focus on an equally necessary process, which could be called the destitution of public symbols commemorating colonial reason. If restitution involves the physical displacement of stolen objects—that is, their return from Europe and North America to former colonies—then “destitution” is about setting in motion practices for the cognitive resignification of history. Contrary to the opinion of “universalists” (who, of course, are not universalists at all but seek to protect the dominant culture and white supremacy), the actions of those who tear down statues cannot be an anachronistic sin against the intelligibility of history because history is always and by definition “anachronistic”; rather, the iconoclasts are challenging a history and, by extension, contesting the idea that the past is ever merely intelligible, as opposed to constructed and reconstructed. The sculptures of Colbert and Columbus have always been anachronistic; to use Robert Smithson’s beautiful words, they have always been “ruins in reverse.” Columbus was first installed in Barcelona in 1888 and Colbert in Paris in 1830. We are meant to grant these effigies the status of relics, to honor them as physical links to the past, but in fact they have nothing to do with the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, just as the famous clock in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has nothing to do with classical antiquity.

Processes of antipatriarchal and anticolonial subjectivation merge with these practices of destitution and resignification. The question is not whether statues should fall, but rather whether public authorities and cultural elites want to participate in overturning them or would prefer that those demanding justice remain silent subalterns so they can maintain their petrified privileges.

This process of material resignification of urban space generates chaos but also political joy and eventually critical justice. A revolution is not just a supplanting of modes of government but also a collapse of modes of representation, a jolt to the semiotic universe, a reordering of bodies and voices. It is important that these moments of intervention, critique, and destitution not be criminalized but rather welcomed as gestures of the political subjectivation of those who have been and still are objectified by the techniques of patriarchal and colonial government. One characteristic of a radical democracy is its capacity to understand the critical reinterpretation of its own history as a source of creativity and collective emancipation, instead of hastening to homogenize voices and contain dissidence.

Engraving of the destruction of Edmé Bouchardon’s 1758 equestrian statue of Louis XV, Paris, 1792.


When statues are toppled, it is as if a collective force has grabbed hold of the clock of history and sped up its hands. Right now, the hands of the clock are spinning. Unfortunately for nationalist iconophiles, patriarchal and colonial statues have either fallen, are falling, or will fall. Now the question is what to do with the remains of Colbert and Columbus, Napoleon and Josephine, Key and Jefferson Davis.

One could, for example, replace the statue of Columbus at the foot of La Rambla in Barcelona with the sculpture Not Dressed for Conquering/HC 04 Transport, 2010–, by Austrian artist Ines Doujak, which some say depicts the former king of Spain Juan Carlos I in a sexual embrace with the anticolonial Bolivian activist Domitila Barrios de Chúngara and Walter Benjamin’s proverbial wolf of fascism.* But perhaps this would be too much of a tourist attraction, and Barcelona needs not only decolonization but also detouristification. A better option would be to ditch Columbus and leave an empty space that invites public debate and critique and offers an unobstructed view of the horizon, so that the main thoroughfare of Barcelona opens to the Mediterranean: a gesture of hospitality rather than one of conquest.

Iconoclasm is as prone to failure as crash diets: Three statues are removed today, and a dozen more appear tomorrow. We need a slow and deep iconoclasm that is not just a preface to a replacement of figures. All monumental statues that commemorate patriarchal-colonial modernity would have to be taken down—absolutely all of them: the political, military, and ecclesiastical figures that compose the majority as well as the human traffickers, the doctors and scientists who espoused race theory, the solemn rapists and eminent génocidaires, and, not least, the writers and artists who produced the language and representations of power. To console iconophiles unsettled by the fate of their idols, all these statues—from Colbert to Columbus, San Martín de Porres to Brother Junípero, Leopold II to Colston, Davis to Sims, and so on—could be used to create the Monument to Modern Global Necropolitics. While we’re at it, let’s also get rid of the sculptures housed in nongovernmental spaces, the dozens of Francos and Mussolinis gathering dust in the museums of “historical memory.”

Empty pedestal after the removal of a Vladimir Lenin statue, Kharkiv, Ukraine, September 29, 2014. Photo: Sergei Kozlov/EPA/Shutterstock.

Let the museums remain empty and the pedestals bare. Let nothing be installed upon them. It is necessary to leave room for utopia regardless of whether it ever arrives. It is necessary to make room for living bodies. Less metal and more voice, less stone and more flesh.

All, absolutely all, of the dismounted statues should be relocated to the same place and, rather than elevated, made to stand on the ground, side by side, about six feet apart, as if maintaining social distance to protect themselves from viral contamination—violence, terror, and hate are more infectious than any virus. Visitors could walk among them in that silent Mausoleum of Modern Historical Terror, touch them, get to know them, look them in the eye, perhaps one day forgive them. As for statues that have been decapitated (such operations are hardly new; for example, in Fort-de-France, Martinique, the acephalic Empress Josephine was on display from 1991, when her head was removed by activists denouncing her involvement in Napoleon’s restoration of slavery, until this past July, when the statue was destroyed completely), the disarticulated body parts could be recovered, and the figures that have been broken into pieces intermingled with the bodies that are still intact. Within public space as well as within the unconscious, a fragment can sometimes be more powerful than a complete object, just as an absence can be more meaningful than a presence.

Let the museums remain empty and the pedestals bare. Let nothing be installed upon them. It is necessary to leave room for utopia regardless of whether it ever arrives.

We could debate the best site for this gigantic recycled Monument to Modern Global Necropolitics. One option would be to install the statues in the main square of the city of Burgos, Spain, a few steps away from the Casa del Cordón, where Columbus, it is said, signed the agreement with the Catholic monarchs to set out on his transatlantic journey. They could be placed at the Port of Liverpool, or in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, or in front of the Bourse Maritime in Bordeaux, France, or in the gardens of the Royal Palace of Brussels. . . . There is no shortage of appropriate places, but none would be big enough to accommodate them all. So maybe the best place to put them is on a line that precisely delineates the borders of Europe and the United States, as defined today by their respective governments. That Punctured Wall of Infamy would replace the barriers and ditches, walls and fences, border-police stations and customs offices. All those statues, situated a few feet apart from one another, would remain there, signaling that the territories currently defined as Europe and the US are the results of their practices and discourses of violence. And there they would stand, history’s last borders, reminding us of where we came from, until, one day, they fell—pushed over by the wind, jostled by passersby (who would no longer have to be called migrants), dissolved by the rain.

In the meantime, while the toppled and relocated statues melt away, let’s use the empty pedestals left behind in all cities as performative platforms that other, living bodies can stand atop. We do not suffer from a forgetting of normative history but from a systematic erasure of the history of oppression and resistance. We do not need any more statues. Let’s not ask for marble or metal to fill those pedestals. Let’s climb up on them and tell our own stories of survival and liberation.

Translated from Spanish by Michele Faguet.

Paul B. Preciado is a philosopher, a curator, and a trans activist. His most recent book is Je suis le monstre qui vous parle (Can the Monster Speak) (Grasset, 2020, forthcoming from Semiotext[e] and Fitzcarraldo).


*Because of its references to colonial history and the body of the king, the sculpture was the object of institutional censorship at the 2015 exhibition “The Beast and the Sovereign” at Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona.