Monday, July 19, 2010

II. The Goddess as Sign and Object

In my last post I talked a bit about the context of the 'Goddess of Democracy' statue, and introduced a few questions that it provoked in me. In this post, I'll give a bit more context as well as interpreting the statue in terms of its meaning as an icon, index, and symbol. I'll also talk about what we might learn from its particular materiality.

Interpreting the statue as a sign doesn't seem particularly difficult. As it is meant as an explicit means of communication, it is much less ambiguous than a typical archaeological artifact uncovered (re-covered?) via excavation. None-the-less, some things may be more obvious than others...

As I stated last time, the statue is a likeness of the Goddess of Democracy statue from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which itself echoed not only the Statue of Liberty (the first thing that is likely to spring to mind for an American) but also a variety of European national personifications from Mother Russia, Britannia, (the professor) and Marianne back to Athena herself. A bit too much might be read in to that, but I personally don't doubt that using all of these icons of idealized femininity in these different contexts has evoked in many a male brain the desire to protect and honor what is symbolized, whether it be a polity or a concept.

What strikes me about this particular likeness is not the similarity to the Tiananmen goddess, but the difference of pose. The Tiananmen goddess held her torch aloft with both hands. The Hong Kong goddess holds it aloft only with her right hand, while the left clasps a book or tablet. With this change, the goddess' pose is much more similar to the Statue of Liberty than the Tiananmen goddess. Why is this?

One possible answer may be the ambivalence Hong Kong people have towards the mainland. They want to use the goddess to connect their struggle with that of the Tiananmen protestors, but they also feel they are different in some essential fashion. A few weeks back, I had the pleasure to attend a thesis presentation by CUHK master's student Christine Yau. The topic of the talk was the stereotyping and scapegoating of mainlanders by Hong Kongers. She hypothesized that these stereotypes reflect and are exacerbated by the anxiety Hong Kongers feel about their changing relationship with the mainland. Is the placement of the statue an index of this anxiety? Is the difference of pose a tactic of simultaneous association and distancing?

Finally, the statue explicitly symbolizes three concepts: liberty, democracy, and justice (themselves of ambiguous meaning). I'll return to this as well as the questions I have posed here in my next post, but as an archaeologist I am interested in what the specific materiality of this statue can tell us.

Upon first glace, the statue looks quite majestic. It is only when one gets up close one sees the statue is basically chinsy. The bronze is painted on a plastic frame that is by an order of magnitude more flimsy than a fiberglass Ronald McDonald statue. This seemed strange to me and in need of explanation. Surely democratic activists would want to use as durable a medium as possible?

I believe there are a number of explanations for this choice of material. First, it is light. The statue is able to be moved around, it can be carried during a march, and brought to different locations. In this sense the statue is meant to cause trouble, to be a prop at a moveable site of protest. But that doesn't explain its 'abandonment' on the CUHK campus. To understand that, I suggest we need to think about maintenance and iconoclasm.

This thing must be maintained. By dropping it off on campus, democratic activists have caused a continual problem for the university administration, and have made a mockery of CUHK's claims of political neutrality. It, in effect, forces a choice: the university must either now take active steps to prevent the eventual and inevitable destruction of the statue, or resign itself to the equally inevitable recriminations that would follow a neglectful treatment. This past weekend, the first steps were taken to prevent the statue from blowing over during typhoon season.

I believe this is the point of its fragile materiality, and a meaning that could not be understood by only interpreting the statue as an arbitrary sign as is so common in discursive analysis. Destruction of the statue will provide a new occasion for protest. Maintenance of the statue will put the university in an uncomfortable position vis-a-vis the government. The administration has been (for now) outmaneuvered and cannot win.

In my third and final post on the goddess, I'll discuss Reunification Day and the discourse on democracy. I'll explore more deeply the symbolic aspect of both the 'goddess' and the concept of 'democracy' itself. What do these things mean to different people with conflicting attitudes and interests? What can it tell us about the various hopes and fears for Hong Kong's future?

Friday, July 16, 2010

archaeology at the world trade center site

Reuters reports more discoveries at the World Trade Center site. The news focus is on the remains of the hull of an eighteenth century ship, probably used as landfill at the site. However, one of the archaeologists working there, Michael Pappalardo of AKRF, told reporters that 'the discovery was indeed a good find, but added "we've found bottles and dishes, and that's exciting too."' (Reuters).
Picture from NY Times City Room blog

This struck me as emblematic of archaeology's difficulties in getting our subject across to the public - we find these wonderful bottles and dishes that tell us all sorts of interesting things about past lifeways, but the media only want to hear about the big boat...


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

NY waterfront

The New York Times reports on some urban archaeology downtown at the World Trade Center site. Visible right now is the late 19th century stone waterfront running up to 59th street. Strange to imagine that the Hudson river used to flow along here before Battery Park city was constructed...

image: David W. Dunlap/The New York Times

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Goddess of Democracy

I. A Brief History of the Present

On the 4th of June, the night after my arrival at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a second, more visible visitor arrived on campus. Earlier that night, a variety of democracy activists and other dissident groups gathered in Victoria Park for the 21st consecutive year to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre. This year featured a new guest: an approximately 15' tall, plastic iteration of the Goddess of Democracy statue, recalling the foam and paper-mache version created by students during the Tiananmen protests.

Following the remembrance ceremony at Victoria Park, a group of activists, including CUHK students, delivered the statue to the entrance of campus. Logistically, this might be compared to having a rally at Coney Island and then transporting its centerpiece to Columbia's campus. This act was perpetrated in spite of the disapproval of university authorities (who recanted once it became a fait accompli).

Now, a full month later, the statue still stands in front of the University Train Station, surrounded by little more than some traffic cones, crime-scene tape, and (occasionally replaced) wilted flowers. The plastic edges of the mural accompanying the statue are beginning to fray. The stickers reading "Liberty, Democracy, Justice" on the Goddess' book are held on by nothing but scotch tape, and sometimes flap in the wind. Often, students and other vistors pose with the statue for pictures; most merely rush by without a glace. No one took notice when this foreigner casually stepped over the crime-scene barrier to knock on the statue, discovering its hollow and plastic nature. An ambiguous gift indeed! This unasked for goddess and its current liminal status have now become a site of contention between groups with differing interests and beliefs. This contention is exacerbated by its fragile materiality, and the question of its final disposition.

Why is the statue here, of all places? Why now? What is its context? What does it mean to people here, and how is it being used in a continuous game of power over Hong Kong's political future? Over the next few weeks, I'll share some thoughts about how this particular object connects with wider currents moving through the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Next time, I'll talk about the statue as both object and sign, and might even muse about iconoclasm a bit. Till then, I hope those of you in "Mer'ka" enjoy some barbeque, beer, and fireworks tonight.