THIS: Mandala Day
May 30, 2016
Triumph is temporary, but mourning is set in stone. We don’t want what we loved and lost to disappear in every way, so we carve temples, statues, urns to mark their place. The arches built to celebrate conquerors’ victories, the palaces raised to proclaim a civilization’s dominance at world’s fairs, were made not to last — paper, plaster; facades of empire, odes to disposability, a compact with what would surely come next.
This was the immortality of the State, as edifices were crumpled and spread out again; the individual could hope for a permanence in memory among others of their kind. Empires are built on a craving for what people think they missed; families are bonded together by what they feel they still have left. Hence, the soaring towers of kingdoms and the humble keepsakes of the commoner.
In modern times, monuments are meant to be the milestone of leaders who’ve gone on to heaven, but they are like a totem of what the rest of us feel we’re entitled to have while we’re still here. My parents would drive us from Philadelphia all the way to DC, to see the parthenons and sarcophagi of democracy — Lincoln’s effigy, Washington’s tower, John Kennedy’s eternal fire. Visiting soberly like an offering to an oracle, pleas to former kings to somehow grant us what we felt the current one wasn’t, on pilgrimages that were usually detours from some protest march or other.
These civic idols stayed standing in an era when many people turned away from traditional faith and the preservation of their own remains. Still today, we forego permanence in death (burial, family tombs) as an excess of the elite few in a world too crowded — but we do ask for a moment of presence first.
This is the age of attention — billions of identities brought into focus on social media in a way never possible before. We know that photos will fade and technologies will go extinct, but before that, we pause the frame — pictures on fences at the site of disasters and attacks; flowers laid at private homes of public people; dolls tied to lampposts on streetcorners, scarecrows against forgottenness, disintegrating over time but enjoying a longevity in our awareness that they didn’t reach in life; a chance to make peace by fading rather than a sudden fall.
Wars are fought over how wars are remembered, be it the concrete drama of conventional statuary or the abstract ambivalence of Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial; a dark mirror, a list of names for us to put a face to, at which we lay tokens and our reflection leaves with us.
As economies and environments and civilizations collapse, we seize the moment not at the future’s expense, but for the present’s own sake — the very ephemerality of an experience is what makes it valued. Something precious not because only a few can possess it, but because only you were there to see. Pop-up stores; temporary art installations on pending construction sites; the popularized image of cosmic wheels repeatedly painted in sand and swept away by Buddhist monks; the chalk drawings that once appeared on unsold, blank billboard spaces in the New York City subways; massive murals in colored post-its now capturing that city’s attention as the moment still escapes.
We understand that nothing lasts forever, but in these finite monuments we invoke what we can make possible in combination, and imagine, for each of us, a slate wiped clean.
Images (top to bottom): Weeping goddesses, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco; FDR Memorial, Washington, DC; 9/11 sidewalk shrine, NYC; Keith Haring, New York subway, early 1980s; giant mic-drop, Canal Street, NYC 2016
Special thanks: Valerie David
MORE POSTS by ADAM McGOVERN: OFF-TOPIC (2019–2021 monthly) | textshow (2018 quarterly) | PANEL ZERO (comics-related Q&As, 2018 monthly) | THIS: (2016–2017 weekly) | PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HELL, a 5-part series about characters in McGovern’s and Paolo Leandri’s comic Nightworld | Two IDORU JONES comics by McGovern and Paolo Leandri | BOWIEOLOGY: Celebrating 50 years of Bowie | ODD ABSURDUM: How Felix invented the 21st century self | CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM: C.L. Moore’s JIREL OF JOIRY stories | KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Data 70 | HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM: “Freedom” | KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Captain Camelot | KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Full Fathom Five | A 5-part series on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World mythos | Reviews of Annie Nocenti’s comics Katana, Catwoman, Klarion, and Green Arrow | The curated series FANCHILD | To see all of Adam’s posts, including HiLo Hero items on Lilli Carré, Judy Garland, Wally Wood, and others: CLICK HERE