The western hemisphere has a new tallest statue, and it is in Puerto Rico, of all places. “Birth of a New World”, a 268-foot monumental sculpture of Christopher Columbus by the Georgian-Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli, was unveiled earlier this month near Arecibo on the north coast of the cash-strapped Caribbean island. Not that it was possible to “unveil” an object over 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. But the event marked the culmination of a 25-year journey for the bronze-and-copper colossus that ranks among the more bizarre art stories of recent times.
The statue was cast in Russia in 1991 and intended as a gift to the United States to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. Having been turned down by several mainland cities due to its monstrous size, ugliness and the prohibitive cost of installation, it was eventually accepted in 1998 by Puerto Rico, where Columbus had landed on his second voyage in 1493. Further delays ensued, and for a decade the statue lay in its 2,750 constituent parts on a Puerto Rican beach, exposed to sand and salt like some Ozymandian relic, ruined before its time. “Birth of a New World” was finally erected in its current location with the support of a local businessman and the artist’s own money at a cost of $12m. It is hoped that the statue will attract tourism to an island currently going through a $72 billion debt crisis.
Tsereteli has had a long and varied career, but his reputation for overblown, outsized statuary was cemented in the 1990s under the patronage of his friend Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow. Most notorious was his Peter the Great monument in central Moscow, so reviled by locals that some even plotted to blow it up when it appeared in 1997. Like “Birth of a New World”, it depicts a vast bronze mariner standing on a ship, left hand on a wheel and right arm raised aloft (holding a scroll, in contrast to Columbus’s rather awkward Alan Shearer-style salute). When Peter the Great was erected, the rumour went round that he was in fact Columbus in disguise, fresh from his stateside tour of rejection. While the urban legend has proved remarkably hardy since, Muscovites must now face the fact that their Brobdingnagian bronze was intended for them all along – which is puzzling, given that Peter the Great hated Moscow.
Monumental sculpture usually reveals more about the ambitions of its sponsors than the person or event it purports to commemorate. In 1992, just after the fall of the USSR, a grand donation from newly capitalist Russia to the United States entitled “Birth of a New World” would have had clear diplomatic implications beyond the Columbus anniversary, heralding a new era of trade and co-operation between the two countries. But 25 years on, the geopolitical winds have changed. What does the statue say now, beyond the vanity and perseverance of its wealthy maker? At any rate, in this age of post-colonial reckoning it is surely insensitive to erect a monument to a coloniser on an island whose indigenous people were all but wiped out by him and his followers. Several Puerto Rican groups have protested to this effect, buoyed perhaps by the example of Venezuelan campaigners who, in 2004, pulled down another Columbus statue from its pedestal in a Caracas square.
But if “Birth of a New World” feels out of step with the times, that’s also partly because we have grown shy of large-scale monuments in the West, preferring the ephemeral and down-to-earth to the fixed and imposing. We wince with embarrassment at the statues of Great Victorian Men in London’s Trafalgar Square, and applaud the ironic, pop-up sculptures commissioned for the Fourth Plinth beside them. For us, grand statues are things that topple with discredited regimes – think of Saddam in 2003 or those recently felled Lenins in Ukraine. We flatter ourselves that we are living in a post-monumental age.
But in the world beyond the West, monuments never really went away. In the 1990s, the successor states to the USSR lost no time in putting up new types of gigantic edifice to replace the old, such as the Bayterek Tower in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, or the Neutrality Monument in Ashgabat, a gold-plated statue of Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov that rotated to continually face the sun. In 2010 a vast equestrian statue of Genghis Khan was raised in Mongolia and a hulking, North Korean-built African Renaissance Monument was unveiled in Dakar. All ten of the world’s tallest statues, mostly Buddhas in China and the Far East, were put up recently, in the 1990s or 2000s, while the Statue of Unity, a 597-foot likeness of the Indian independence leader Vallabhbhai Patel currently under construction in Gujarat, will become the world’s tallest statue when it is finished in 2018. Big may not be clever or subtle, but outside the West it shows no sign of going out of fashion.
And who’s to say it won’t catch on here again? As it happens, one of the sole voices calling for “Birth of a New World” to come to mainland America in the 1990s was none other than Donald Trump. “This man is major and legit,” he said of Tsereteli to the New Yorker in 1997. Trump is not known for his forays into the art world, but you can see why a man who built what was once the tallest tower in Manhattan and named it after himself would make an exception for Tsereteli’s brash and grandiose work. Surely President Trump would seek to usher in a new era of monumentality to help make America great again? And if so, far from being an out-of-date folie de grandeur, the Columbus statue, standing at last on American territory, will set the bronze standard for what’s to come: the birth of a new world, indeed.