Zombie monument: Public art and performing the present

Gurney, K.

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Gurney, K. (2018). Zombie monument: Public art and performing the present. Cities, 77, 33-38.

Performativity , Public Art , South Africa , Third Space , Urban Commons

Art in public space in South Africa is increasingly a more visible locus of sociopolitical resistance and recalibration of the public sphere. This article focuses upon an emblematic example: the sculpture of a former colonialist, removed from its public university site in Cape Town following sustained protests. Since April 2015, the empty plinth of Cecil John Rhodes has become a site of re-imagination – from graffiti interventions to performance and installation art. While the plinth continually morphs in symbolism and significance, its ousted artwork waits at an undisclosed location for its fate to be decided. This interregnum represents a liminal condition that theorists call ‘third space’, extended in this research towards a fourth dimension of performativity. The physical disappearance of the artwork has triggered a second life, its apogee a national protest movement with global resonance. Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall are student-led calls for university decolonisation and free education arguably best understood as provocation around systemic issues in society. As this deeper work ensues amid fractious contestations, the artwork's re-animation of the public sphere is clear. Its leftover plinth is political, making visible other kinds of structural voids. It is also poetic: a zombie monument demonstrating through its reinventions public space as common space – contested, negotiated and performed in the daily creation of city futures.

Main finding
This article draws from a series of performative, artistic interventions, upon the former site of a statue of a white supremacist, to demonstrate how public space serves as a site of contestation and bring to the fore conversation about race, power, and erased histories in post-apartheid South Africa. Drawing from ideas developed in previous research about public space as 1) a common space that is always contested and negotiated and 2) an ephemeral space; the author found that the void of the statue’s plinth served to “recalibrate” the public space such that is was capable of rendering new imaginaries of what could be through disruptive interventions that challenged the status quo.

Description of method used in the article
As a primary method the author used participant observation in the form of iterative observation techniques during multiple site visits. She borrowed, from Anthropological research, the idea of ‘follow the thing’ to study the art interventions occurring at the former statue’s plinth.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Participant Observation
Physical types
Geographic locations