7th October 2022. I sat in the Air de Jeux installed by Iván Argote at the occasion of the 2022 Prix Marcel Duchamp. This Air de Jeux was no common playground, it was made of pink carpeted fallen obelisks and columns on which people could sit and relax to look at the video work which was part of the installation. The first question I asked myself in the space was, do these people realise that they are sitting on ruins? Or is the pink carpet enough to dismiss these fallen monuments which become nothing more than the fun and pretty furniture of a gallery within the Centre Pompidou in Paris?
These humorous provocations are one of Iván Argote’s signature. Colombian artist born in Bogotá, Argote (1983) has been living in Paris since he studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in 2009. Growing up with politically committed parents and living in a revolutionary community, it seemed evident for Argote to put politics at the centre of his artistic practice. This started as soon as he became a graphic design student specialized in photography and new media at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá between 2004-2005.
With his practice, Argote “questions our intimate relationship with others, institutions, power and belief systems” but he also “proposes new symbolic uses of public space” . The public space is quite literally Argote’s playground: he intervenes on central plazas, public monuments and statues to produce a counter discourse to that offered by both history and the state. Indeed, these spaces are embodiments of the nation’s message, like «a metonym for the constellation of meanings invoked by empire, citizenship, and the colonial» (Walkowitz Knauer, 2009, p. 8), which make Argote’s interventions impactful.
On 16th June 2020, “Déboulonnons le récit officiel” (Topple down the official discourse) was written on the base of the public statue representing Joseph Gallieni (a French Marshall and administrator of the French colonies with a prominent role in Madagascar) located in Paris on Place Vauban in the wake of the protests that followed the death of George Floyd. Almost a year later, on 19th April 2021, Iván Argote, with the help of historian Françoise Vergès and journalist Pablo Pillaud-Vivien, orchestrated the ‘fake’ removal of the statue which people wanted removed, as was graffitied on its base. For this intervention, which Argote called Au Revoir (Joseph Gallieni, Paris), an anticipation film, a crane was hired by the team to remove the statue and put it back on its base multiple times in order to, “without violence […] take down the statues honoring this kind of military figures” . In the street, only a few people are taking interest in this fake removal. But when showed in the museum as part of Argote’s Air de Jeux installation, visitors are all gathering and captivated by the intervention.
The video makes people laugh; everybody is finally paying attention. While the public interventions generate some level of interest and questioning by passers-by, it seems like it is the exhibition of these interventions within the museum which give them permanence, but also a long-lasted reach and impact.
Certainly, a public museum is nowhere comparable to an outside public space because it is governed by the price of the entrance ticket, the art knowledge which seems to be expected from anyone entering the museum, and social codes. But while the public space is somewhat more democratic, it is clear that the museum perpetuates the interventions made by Iván Argote. Seeing the removal of a statue within the walls of a museum becomes purposeful and meaningful, rather than something which could be considered as planned maintenance, underserving of time and attention.
Examining several of Argote’s interventions in the public space and their later exhibition in the museum space, this paper studies the material, functional and symbolic aspects of these artworks which are constitutive of sites of memory and allow us to consider them as lieux de mémoire.
Between 2012-2013, Iván Argote created a series of photographs and films after public space interventions he perpetuated throughout the world in Bogotá, Los Angeles and Madrid. In each of these cities, Argote dressed up historical statues in traditional and colourful South American ponchos. Under Argote’s gaze and with his interventions, all these men and one woman became Turistas.
The sculptures Argote chose are Garcia I de Léon (870-914), Enrique II de Castilla (1334-1379) and Carlos I de España V de Alemania (1500-1558) which are in Parque del Retiro in Madrid, Queen Isabella (1451-1504) and Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) which are facing each other in the city of Bogotá, and King Carlos III (1716-1788) (Fig. 7) located in Los Angeles. The common denominator to each of these sculptures is that they represent a Spanish figure of South American colonisation.
While all these statues are architectural landmarks and part and parcel of the landscape accessible to anybody visiting these cities, they are also, as most public monuments, part of a decor which is often forgotten or to which people are indifferent (Greani, 2017, p. 499). As mentioned by Tom Crewe, «it’s easy not to think about the statues whose existence we accept as the backdrop to our lives for no reason other than that they’re there» (2017). This idea of blending in the space they occupy is reinforced by the fact that some of these statues are sometimes not even known to the tourist industry (Henneberg, 2004, p. 49). By engaging with these statues, Argote makes them visible and stand out from other public statues, creating a discussion around who these people were and for what reason they are still commemorated in the form of statues in the 21st century. «Public spaces and artifacts, while uniquely visible, are also uniquely vulnerable. […] They are open to reinterpretation by the literate and the illiterate, the custodian and the vandal. […] It is precisely this multiplicity of intentions and reactions that makes public spaces and monuments an engaging source, offering clues that, when taken alone, many official or popular sources cannot» (Henneberg, 2004, p. 41).
Indeed, it is this very engagement that Argote sought to illustrate when he climbed on the pedestal of Enrique II’s (Madrid) or Queen Isabella’s (Bogotá) statues, not to vandalise them but to ‘contest these symbols of power’ (Gregos, 2016, p. 9). In an interview with Saam Niami, Argote explains how these situations have generated discussions with passers-by, or even with the police. In Madrid, the police let him put the ponchos over the statues and take some pictures before he finally packed up and left after a couple of minutes’ discussion on the relationship between Spain and Latin America (2020). Iván Argote’s aim is never to damage the public monument he is interacting with; he only wants to “play with things”. This playfulness and humour which is so characteristic of Argote’s work is particularly identifiable in Turistas through the use that he makes of ponchos.
One could ask, why ponchos? Ponchos are probably the most emblematic piece of clothing for the whole of South America. Originating from Chile and more precisely from Mapuche people and culture, the word poncho appeared in writing for the first time in the 17th century (Garavaglia, 2002, p. 186). According to Gösta Montell, the poncho we know nowadays is an evolution of the sleeveless shirt which was the most common piece of clothing before the arrival of the Spanish in South America (1925, p. 173). Not only were ponchos worn by peasants and were therefore typical of the working class, they also became a commodity between regions in South America and were used to barter Spanish goods (Montell, 1925, p. 183). Over time, as emblems of South America, ponchos have become some of the most cherished souvenir items bought by tourists when visiting the region. These statues of Spanish colonials, adorned with colourful and fun ponchos give a new dimension to these sculptures. It is that ‘friction’ element which allows for these public monuments to be read – and history with them – against the grain (Stoler, 2009).
While the name of Argote’s work is self-explanatory and transforms all these historical figures into Turistas ready and dressed up for their tour of South America, it also disturbs the different social classes and the representation of power by dressing up kings and queens as South American peasants. Because “monumental structures […] provide the palimpsest on which new rulers write their ideologies” (De Jong, 2008, p. 196), Iván Argote disrupts the European discourse through these interventions and makes a statement on colonisation: it is not only a period in history, but a multitude of public spaces which are embedded in public monuments standing as national memorials.
A common denominator to all the statues used as part of Turistas is that they are all placed on pedestals. This elevated position of the sculptures symbolically places them in divine or heroic positions, dominating and looking above, or, as it were looking down on passers-by (Gas Barrachina, 2020, p. 185). Of course, it is also a way to prevent easy access to the sculptures and vandalism that could be done to them (Stamp, 2005, p. 97). It is a stylistic convention used for almost any statue in the public space, as is the case for the next sculpture which Iván Argote got interested in, in Bogotá. In the Enrique Olaya Herrera National Park (named after a former Colombian journalist and politician, 1880-1937) stands a statue dedicated to Francisco de Orellana (1511-1546) “the discoverer of the Amazon”.
On 23rd January 2021 Iván Argote posted a video called Ultímos Recursos on his Instagram feed showing a film he made of the Bogotan Francisco de Orellana sculpture as he was throwing his shoe at it. The description of the post reads: “A video & invitation to reproduce. Here paying – again – a visit in Bogota to Francisco de Orellana’s monument, the guy who supposedly “discovered” the Amazon… Go hit all these dudes!”
With this statement (both written and in video), Argote reaffirms his political stance and engagement against colonisation and colonial powers whose signs, as is the case in many former colonial places, are still punctuating the city of Bogotá nowadays through the form of public monuments. Photographs of Argote’s intervention on the Orellana sculpture as well as video clips were created between 2012 and 2018 for the video project called La Estrategia which used «a research strategy for studying events that occurred within a community of idealists that existed in Bogotá in 1973» (Nora, 2012, p. 68) and which was exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2012. But the part I am particularly interested in is the intervention named Etcetera: Covering Francisco de Orellana, the So-called Discoverer of the Amazon, with Mirrors (2012-2018) and the related work Etcetera (2019) which is a smaller 3D reproduction sculpture of what is represented in the picture.
In this intervention, Iván Argote decided to enclose the Francisco de Orellana statue in a case made of mirrors. As mentioned by Helena Goscilo, «the mirror’s ability not only [is] to mediate, but also to provide visual access to that which cannot or […] should not be seen with one’s own eyes» (2010, p. 283). Through this means, Argote not only makes the Francisco de Orellana sculpture itself disappear, but what it represents. Interestingly it also reflects back the image of the place itself with the use of mirrors which reflect the surrounding environment of the park (trees, sky). These mirrors are also a way for the monument to «reflect back to the people – and thus codified – their own memorial projections and preoccupations» (Young, 2000, p. 139).
By boxing up Francisco de Orellana’s bust, Iván Argote creates a paradoxical “presence of absence” which intensifies the absence of the figure and therefore makes the idea of it be more present (Vanegas Carrasco, 2015, p. 391; Forsdick, 2012, p. 280). Stephen Hall and Li Li Ren take this idea even further by stating that «the elevated absence upset the order of history, which is manifested in the public space» (Dragset and Elmgreen, 2013, p. 26). Indeed, «modern interventions into the space cannot avoid a relationship with the existing monuments in the Square, as well as the Square itself» (Sumartojo, 2012, p. 68). Therefore, not only are Orellana’s actions being reminded by hiding his bust, but this intervention also acts as counterpoints to the historical narrative told by this sculpture still standing in Bogotá’s Parque Nacional.
Another parallel which can be created with Etcetera is seeing the Orellana pedestal as a fourth plinth which Argote has mounted with a case made of mirrors. Fourth plinths are empty pedestals which can usually be found in plazas or in public places which show a number of other public statues. There is a famous one in Trafalgar Square in London which has displayed multiple works made by contemporary artists. Parque del Retiro in Madrid also has one of these empty pedestals. Even though they are usually there as a result of a lack of money to build or replace a former sculpture, these empty plinths «remain powerfully symbolic» (Forsdick, 2012, p. 280), especially in the context of the ‘Topple Down’ statues movement. Furthermore, when considering that Argote is mounting an empty plinth with a contemporary piece of work or directly making the sculpture of Orellana disappear by enclosing so that it can be likened to a ‘sarcophagus’ (Çelik, 2020, p. 723), one can think that he “inflicts an injury on the integrity of the past” (Crewe, 2017) yet he «did not delete colonial memory […] but continued to trigger it in unpredictable ways» (Çelik, 2020, p. 716).
From the street to the museum
This play with ‘presence of absence’ in Etcetera happened during Argote’s intervention in Bogotá but was perpetuated with its installation within the French National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Centre Pompidou in Paris which acquired the work in the same year. «When we view art in a museum, it is an individual decision whether or not we engage with a particular work. Art in the public space […] directly invades people’s lives and environments. […] Art in the public space is thus a much more democratic and simultaneously vulnerable art form than that shown behind the protection of museum walls» (Küppers In Dragset and Elmgreen, 2013, p. 16).
Experienced in the context of the exhibition Global(e) Resistance (2020-2021) at the Centre Pompidou, the engagement and response that Argote was trying to create through his interventions could be felt in the museum versions of Turista and Etcetera, all the more so as the exhibition it belonged to was framed and presented as an act of resistance. According to Fulya Erdemci, «an exhibition context does not function as a tool for immediate change, but as a process that stimulates new ideas, and possibly also creates new subjectivities» (Erdemci In Dragset and Elmgreen, 2013, p. 184). Indeed, viewing the photograph and the 3D modelling of Etcetera after reading the labels, it is obvious that more here is at stake than a mere pillar with mirrors in its upper part.
After looking at their reflection in the mirrors, and possibly taking selfies, visitors might wonder whether Iván Argote’s playfulness got him as far as putting a Francisco de Orellana bust beneath the mirrors. While exhibiting Etcetera in Paris is almost like a geographical displacement of the Orellana sculpture itself, one could argue that it is also a better way to ‘exhibit’ this sculpture because of the possibility for written context on labels (Drayton, 2012, p. 659) about Orellana’s own actions in relation to South America. With this installation and the direct reproduction of both public monuments and frozen-in-time-Argote’s-intervention moments, «the museum [becomes] a site of remembrance and recognition» (Forsdick, 2012, p. 288) yet still «belong[s] to the present» (Drayton, 2019, p. 665). It is because it is a contemporary space which puts the current debates in perspective with the artists’ works that this exhibition is efficient and can convey some sort of playfulness about how to act around the works but also generate a decolonial dialogue.
Reflecting on Turistas and Etcetera in all their forms (both interventions and artworks held in French public collections), I would argue that we can consider them as lieux de mémoire. According to Pierre Nora’s theory, “three dimensions of [lieux de mémoire] can be distinguished: material, functional and symbolic” (Erll, 2011, p. 24). Turistas and Etcetera as both interventions and material objects fulfil the ‘material dimension’ explained by Nora as something which ‘literally (breaks) a temporal continuity’ (Nora cited In Ibid).
These works also have a functional dimension because they “fulfil a function in society” (Ibid): like history books, these works which are now part of the Centre Pompidou’s collection can be ‘read’ and serve as lieux de mémoire, not only to remember Argote’s interventions but also to recall the history of the Spanish colonisation in South America. Finally, for a lieux de mémoire to be valid it needs to have a symbolic meaning. In this case, I would argue that both the museum and the original intervention location generate a ritual which is of visiting these spaces when possible, or making these colonial figures accountable for their actions perpetuated throughout history. As Iván Argote would say, “Go hit all these dudes” and make them accountable, this is the only way for these works to be lieux de mémoire, and for decolonisation to be more than just a fashionable term.
«The transfer of an object seen in life to a plate or film is preserved for as long as the image so created can be fixed. […] In general, within the Aristotelian tradition, if objects are made to stand for memory, their decay or destruction (as in the act of iconoclasm) is taken to imply forgetting» (Forty, 2001, pp. 3-4). Adrian Forty’s statement explains that the process of creating a form of memory, or even a legacy to the interventions of Iván Argote, happens through the materialisation into tangible objects such as photographs, sculptures or even films. Moreover, Argote’s interventions perpetuated on all these public monuments, even though ephemeral, have an agency that lasts in time and within the sculptures «beyond their aesthetics» (De Jong, 2009, p. 196).
To some extent, one could argue that these interventions with long-lasting effect went through a process of museumification which, even more so than the agency attached to the objects, allows for a tangible continuation in the process of the interventions carried on the original sculpture. When seeing the prints of the Turistas photographs on the white walls of the Centre Pompidou, visitors experience the ‘same’ event, or at least the same result as the one carried on site by Argote. The same is true for the Etcetera sculpture and photograph also exhibited in the museum. While we can certainly agree that there is a form of continuity between these works, the change in medium, scale and environments impact the visitors’ engagement with the works. The downsizing of these sculptures to museum dimensions unquestionably tames the reaction and experience of a real-life intervention.
Taking a humoristic approach to discuss serious and politically charged topics such as colonisation, Argote takes a different approach from what might be expected of an artist by society. Wouldn’t it be easier to just ‘topple down’ these statues? Forty describes this act of «destruction [as] the most conventional way of hoping to achieve forgetting» (Forty, 2001, p. 10). Argote says he is not a fan of vandalism and believes in the power of being subversive by directly making fun of history. The diversity of works made by the Colombian-Parisian-resident artist Iván Argote leads us to consider his work to act as iconoclasm, but through distortion and temporary modification rather than permanent erasure.
 Information from Argote’s biography LINK
 Ivan Argote, Au Revoir (Joseph Gallieni, Paris), an anticipation film LINK.
 Iván Argote, France 24 Interview, 18th February 2014: From Pashing Poles to Modifying Monuments: The Colombian Artist Iván Argote – Encore ! LINK
 The pedestal states: Colombia, Al Descubridor del Amazonas, Francisco de Orellana.
 Ivan Argote “Últimos Recursos” (Last Resources) LINK
 Ivan Argote “Últimos Recursos” (Last Resources) LINK
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Clémentine Debrosse is a CHASE-funded PhD student at the Sainsbury Research Unit for the
Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (SRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich (UK) working on a project titled ‘Archival Future: Indigenous Artistic Collaborations with(in) the Contemporary Museum of Ethnography in Europe’. She is co-founder and writer for the blog and association CASOAR which was the recipient of the 2022 young researchers INHALab residency at the French National Institute for Art History in Paris.