Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Unlikely Renaissance of Socialist Realism

Shown above is the new bronze "African Renaissance" statue in Dakar, Senegal, built by a North Korean company at the commission of the Senegalese government (pic snagged from the NYT). It shows the perfect heterosexual couple posed dramatically with their child pointing the way forward to the future. It's taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York. I understand all the criticism that has been made of this sculpture: the expense, the culturally tone-deaf depiction for a mostly Muslim country, the indulgence of North Korea's outdated socialist-realist aesthetic, and more importantly to me its somewhat sexist and heterosexist implication (as if); but I have to say this statue really works for me. Works of art like this are meant to be a sort of inspirational cartoon, and I find the sweeping heroic tableau visually exciting and dramatic. Check out the Renaissance Africaine website for a flash montage of close-ups and a beautifully-filmed propaganda video in French.

This is a model of the centerpiece statue for the Martin Luther King National Memorial being built in Washington DC. It was designed by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, and has predictably attracted its share of criticism. Like the African Renaissance statue, its socialist realist pedigree is clear, and, like the African Renaissance statue, I love it.

Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial was revolutionary; it's beautiful and impactful. But I think it has engendered a whole new generation of cliches as memorials embrace abstraction and endless lists of sacred names. Frankly what I love about socialist realist statuary is its almost religious manipulation of symbol and motion. The metaphors slap you in the face, sure, but they generate the requisite awe, reverence and uplift.

It's surprising to see such a widely reviled aesthetic being resurrected in two such unlikely locations, but it sure makes me want to add both of the statues to my must-see list.

(see my previous post on the huge Ernst Thaelmann statue in Berlin)

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