What Would a Monument to Ending Sexual Assault Look Like?
A Questionnaire on Monuments
(ed. Leah Dickerman, Hal Foster, David Joselit, Carrie Lambert-Beatty) 
October No 165, 2018

What would a monument to ending sexual assault look like? How do histories of sexual violence (sidebar: Is there a kind of violence that isn’t sexual?) already live in public memorials everywhere around us? How do artists reroute and reassign value to these signposts of death and terror in order to create a visual language and material culture adapted to the demands of mourning and grief by cannibalizing the effects of loss lived every day?

When choreographer, artist, and amateur ethnographer Ralph Lemon was traveling across the American South visiting sites of mass protest and of unmarked lynchings for his work Come Home Charley Patton (2004), he created miniature vignettes that he left behind in his motel rooms—captured in photographs and published in his book of the same name. In one, a mass-produced white debutante figurine in a gown whose head has been removed or decapitated sits beside a stuffed duck or goose on a rock; both are placed on a carpet of Cocoa Puffs. In another, a green toy soldier lays head down beside a mound of Froot Loops. Lemon describes these as “counter-memorials”—scenes whose relationship to American history is at once literal and meaningless, irreverent and carefully staged. Sitting without a plaque, caption, or audience, except maybe for the motel cleaning people who might stumble upon it, these unseen still lifes are the inversion of the spectacular scenes of historical trauma and violence the artist also visited. The ineffable murmurs in what is withheld in these two counter-memorials mirror the excesses of the overstated expectations of, for example, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, 1965. Both refuse to fully picture a referent: They obscure the knowability of trauma. And in doing so, they mark an absence, a hollow space, a hole that the audience experiences as a feeling of nothingness, a loss that is everywhere present in the ground of American history.

Geo Wyeth’s 2014 Quartered is an approximately thirty-minute video that brings together experimental approaches to documentary film with 1970s black feminist Southern literature and musical theater. The video is the result of two research trips Wyeth took to Heath Springs, South Carolina, where he was drawn toward what local residents call “sensitivities” or “witches.” There, the artist investigated the legacy of his great-great-great-grandfather: James Marion Sims, a nineteenth-century gynecologist noted for gruesome surgical experimentations on enslaved African-American women. Trained as a musician and songwriter, Wyeth researched his ancestral origins in a purposefully thwarted attempt to reconcile his experience as a biracial, transgender man who is—according to him—often mistaken as white. The video presents the artist as both the omniscient, Robert Stack–like narrator as well as the Shard of Light, a mythological figure who uses the pronoun she/her and wears a gold lamé skirt, a black wig, and a gold Eye of Providence. The Shard travels between various times and places and has suffered an unknown trauma at the hands of Sims, who is both her father and lover. As she inhabits the landscape where Sims lived and worked, she meanders through the rural town and builds bombs. As she meets with seers who recount past traumas through a lo-fi vocoder—“a very heavy presence,” “a horrible scent in the building,” “the impression of a hanging”—the video culminates with the Shard performing a wordless song in a parking lot at an electric piano that names the trauma only through the melodic calls the artist makes for a resolution that will not come. At once a memorial to the victims of Sims’s experiments and a riposte to Sims himself, Wyeth’s video and performance limn what in the exhibition catalogue for When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South, Jamillah James has called “the personal and mythological; the everyday and the uncanny; queer optimism, futurity and the historic; and self-determination and the biological, even when visiting those spaces reveals embedded trauma or violence.”

Lemon’s counter-memorials and Wyeth’s sensitivities or witches suggest that despite the totalizing force of the genre, monuments—or rather acts of memorialization—can nevertheless hold out the possibility of recurrence necessary for meaningful redress. These forms of history-making already exist in our ordinary intimate lives, they point out. While distinct from a statist public culture that attempts to guarantee the safeguarding of official history—a plaque to Bloody Sunday, or James Marion Sims’s statue in Central Park, for example—these seemingly small and ephemeral acts of custodianship are social, shared acts of remembrance and recollection that burrow through lore, hearsay, and vernacular culture. What these two artists share is an Afro-futurist (another sidebar: The term is redundant, but worth each inflection, much like a double negative) form of monumentalization. This cosmic invocation isn’t simply a nod to Lemon costuming his performers in space suits or Wyeth dressing himself in gold lamé. Each has made a speculative monument—a spectral monument to a historic wrong that is imagined for a future made available and manifest in the here and now. As a result, the forms of public embodiment typically assumed to inhere within the genre of the monument—the nation-state, a heroic individual—are diffused across a messy assemblage of entangled people living their lives through routine, sometimes indecipherable gestures.