By Elisa Wouk Almino
The Abraham Lincoln statue in Union Square Park, cast in 1868 shortly after Lincoln’s death, stands today in the company of other markers of American victory—the Independence Flagpole, the George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette statues. With one leg positioned forward and heavy drapery about him, Abraham Lincoln embodies the ideals of classical sculpture. His larger-than-life bronze form evokes the force of the president’s convictions and magnanimity, and originally engraved on the stone plinth beneath him were the words from his second inaugural address: “…with malice toward none; charity toward all.” The idea of Lincoln himself has hardened and remained in the American memory just as this: an oft unquestioned monument.
The man speaks with his hands on his chest, on Lincoln’s chest, as he reflects on his days fighting in the Iraq war.
This year, every night in late November at around six, a video was projected onto Lincoln’s body, and for a moment we beheld him bleached in bright white, in the form of an apparition. Then flash: the film exposed another face, another set of hands superimposed upon the sculpture’s body; new people inhabiting the form—colored and glowing, they move and speak. “Before war there’s a certain drum beat within what society says and does to get you to go.” The man speaks with his hands on his chest, on Lincoln’s chest, as he reflects on his days fighting in the Iraq war. He concludes, the “beat is just noise.”
Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, a project by Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, projects videos of veterans on the Lincoln statue, giving voice to their traumas while invoking Lincoln’s role in a bloody civil war. The veterans’ stories, channeled through large black speakers, are interspersed with moments of silence. With each pause, the faces and hands disappear—the figures fade and gleam like the pulse of a heartbeat. In these interims, we reencounter the bare and gray Abraham Lincoln, and he becomes a part of the war narrative of our time—a ghostly presence, symbolic of another war and veteran population. The veterans, appearing and reappearing in the night in bioluminescent colors and intangible form, are the blood Lincoln shed in war: the haunted image that challenges the greatness he represents. One of the veterans turns his back to us in silence, clasping his hands together, while at the same time, the stone Lincoln still faces forward. The gesture is one of rejection and perhaps even shame. The veteran’s fingers gently rub against one another. Other veterans’ hands perfectly align with Lincoln’s, with one hand on the chest and the other to the side, in the stance of a hero.
The installation recalls Wodiczko’s Hiroshima Projection (1999), which projected the hands of Hiroshima victims onto the Atomic Dome on August 7th and 8th (the days after the bomb was dropped in 1945). Audio accounts of the attack accompanied the images, of the hands, which moved as they would in conversation and fit to the scale of the dome so that it became anthropomorphized.
In both projects, the viewer engages in an act of veneration. The hands’ immense scale against the Atomic Dome inspire awe and respect, whereas the veterans projected onto Lincoln require the viewer to pause and look upward. Raised on a plinth, they speak to us from the place of the podium. They are not looking directly at us, but rather above and beyond us, and we are urged to pay our respects.
In a recent panel at NYU, Wodiczko posited that Lincoln was himself a war veteran who, at the end of his life, suffered deeply from depression. Lincoln, who has been “silent since the nineteenth century,” according to the artist, is now allowed to speak through the veterans. Wodiczko acknowledges the inherent conflict in a person who at once “united the nation” and was “responsible for the war,” though it seems it was not Wodiczko’s intention to underscore Lincoln’s culpability. After all, war was never Lincoln’s mission. In his second inaugural address, he said: “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the Nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”
As Lincoln dreams, we witness his repressed self, the veteran who also orchestrated a war.
The viewer may choose to interpret the artwork as a mode of healing for Lincoln, though it also reveals his responsibility for others’ pain. In both cases, the monument is no longer completely stable or suspended in time. For the statue, when it stands alone, encourages only one view of Lincoln. Wodiczko has likened the ideal and immutable rhetoric of the monument to what Walter Benjamin called the “history of the victors.” This means that we trace historical events from the perspective of those who succeeded, over that of those who suffered. Benjamin called for a representation of what monuments tend to ignore: the “history of the vanquished.” Wodiczko, sharing this aim, does not reject the notion of a monument, but rather wishes to alter its perspective. As Wodiczko sees it, Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection creates a monument where the victor and the vanquished coexist, where the victor (Lincoln) is also vanquished.
The veterans included in the installation are represented as if on another plane of existence, neither awake nor asleep, but in the realm of the dream, of the subconscious. Wodiczko has called his projections “psychoanalyses:” the projections can only be done at night “because the statues are dreaming.” When you dream, the unconscious, or repressed, surfaces. As Lincoln dreams, we witness his repressed self, the veteran who also orchestrated a war. “War,” art historian Rosalyn Deutsche observed at the NYU panel, “is hidden in our subconscious.”
To paraphrase Wodiczko, in order for the veterans to animate Lincoln, they must first animate themselves. Psychoanalysis is thus performed on the veterans: many express facing their traumas through “horrifying” dreams, or through lack of sleep for weeks at a time. The experience of war itself is also presented as so incomprehensible as to be dreamlike. A projected veteran takes his fingers to his lips and lets out three loud whistles that echo into blocks beyond the north end of the park. In a demanding, frustrated tone, he communicates directly with the viewers: “Wake up people. Help veterans. Do something for the veterans.” We, too, have been asleep.
Carl Cannon—the same man who tells us to “wake up”—spoke at the NYU panel, claiming, “People look at art because they want to see the beautiful in something. There ain’t nothing beautiful in war.” I would argue that the visual choices are just as political as they are beautiful. In comparing the project to “movie magic,” he asserts: “They’re going to remember what you did. But who’s going to remember the veterans?” Sure, there will always be the superficial viewer who comments on the “acid trip” quality of the statue. But many people do stop and feel an emotional impact of the project.
Wodiczko has said “there is nothing more disruptive and astonishing in a monument than a sign of life,” because then the monument becomes subject to death. It seems that Wodiczko brings Lincoln to life to invoke the death of war. War has taken on the quality of a monument, as an accepted fixture in our lives. Abraham Lincoln, Wodiczko implies, not only challenges the Lincoln monument, but also works to “dismantle…the culture of war.” In order to do so, he believes, we have to “[reconstruct] our culture,” which is a project that art has the power to take on.
Elisa Wouk Almino is an intern at n+1. She is a Barnard College graduate and freelance writer living in Brooklyn.