Mark Lewis

Mark Lewis’ irreverent large-scale black and white photographs printed on color paper poke fun at official public monuments. His intention is to underscore the universal propagandistic function of the commemorative statue. Cast in a realist mold, these generic icons police our collective, historic memory. Their purpose is seldom questioned; it is largely ignored. In times of great social change or revolution, they suddenly become poignant symbols of past political orthodoxies and are torn down, destroyed, or dismantled as their hidden meaning shifts.

In order to expose the stylistic similitude of these mnemonic monuments no matter what ideological progress they are designed to serve, Lewis placed a life-size replica of Lenin directly opposite a recently erected monument to Felix Leclerc, a Quebec nationalist poet, in Lafontaine Park in Montreal. Within a week the statue had been knocked over several times. By the end of the second week it had been stolen.

The actual exhibition includes photos of the dismantling of Boris Caragea’s bronze statue of Lenin in Piatia Scintei in Bucharest last year. We see an isolated image of this statue ignominiously placed on a patch of ground after its removal. The irony of seeing this deposed icon of Lenin, who advocated the destruction of Czarist monuments in Russia in 1917, is inescapable. At the same time, Lenin stated that monuments should never again be made of such bourgeois materials as bronze, marble, or granite, but of temporary materials like plaster. On the Monuments of the Republic #1, 1990, records pedestrians—hired actors wearing Western clothes—as they walk on the marble plinth, on which the same statue recently stood,while a tiny sign on top reads “God Bless Romania.”

For Let Everything Be Temporary, 1991, Lewis has fabricated a fictional social document reminiscent of Jeff Wall’s work. In this Orwellian scene, a pedestrian walks by a high metal wall with barbed wire atop, while the foreground is littered with discarded books and propaganda material. In this historic moment that never existed but that could have, there is a centrally placed photograph of Joe McCarthy burning in a garbage can.

By presenting us with his own edifying brand of iconoclastic reportage, Lewis attempts to make us realize that our own official art is as stolid and inflexible as that realized within communist regimes. Unfortunately, by focusing exclusively on the strategic, official role of art, his own work runs the risk of caricaturing its intended purpose. Social documentary photography can be employed to present a view of reality as rigid and stultified as that of the regime it would combat. The photographer could perhaps discover a more compelling nexus of social concerns than that reflected by Lewis’ investigation of the status of the moribund icons of a dead ideology.

John K. Grande