Drawing Blood: A Monumental Conundrum

Bucharest’s Memorial of Rebirth and the enduring tension between vandalism and art.

Memorialul Renaşterii, March 2017 © Neal Gruer

Memorialul Renaşterii

Unveiled in 2005, Memorialul Renaşterii commemorates those who died during the 1989 overthrow of Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Standing 25 metres tall on Piața Revoluției (Revolution Square), its main feature is a narrow, white, marble “Pyramid of Success” (Piramida Izbânzii); piercing through a large, embellished, bronze ellipsoid. At its base, a group of abstract figures face Zidul Amintirii (The Wall of Remembrance), which memorialises 1,058 names in brass. The wall is split into two parts by Calea Biruinței (The Road to Victory) — a path of oak logs leading towards the monument. Notably, the entire piece is positioned directly in front of the imposing former headquarters of the Romanian Communist Party.

Memorialul Renaşterii, October 2020 © Neal Gruer

Blood from a Stone

…Until March 2012, when an anonymous act of adventurous vandalism emphatically changed its appearance for the best part of a decade. Under cover of darkness, a modest amount of red paint somehow found its way onto the underside of the bronze globule, causing the monument to “bleed”. Positioned with remarkable accuracy around 20 metres high, how it got there is anyone’s guess, but that it remained there for over 8 years raises just as many questions.

Monument to the Soviet Army (Паметник на Съветската армия), Sophia, Bulgaria, 2011
Memorialul Renaşterii, October 2020 © Neal Gruer
2018 © Pro TV

Vandalism Wasn’t Built in a Day

Humans have been vandalising since time immemorial, but the term stems back to the unruly Germanic Vandal tribe, who successfully captured Rome for a fortnight in 455 CE. While pillaging the city they destroyed works of art, monuments, statues, and other relics. The Romans, in their cultural enlightenment, were so appalled, the Vandals’ barbaric reputation stuck. Even so, the term Vandalisme wasn’t coined until 1794, when Bishop Grégoire wrote of his upset at the damage to ancient inscriptions after the French Revolution. The Parisien later stated in his memoirs that, “Je créai le mot pour tuer la chose” (I created the word to kill the thing). Evidently, he failed on the latter count — both the word and “the thing” have stubbornly survived.

Blurred Lines

Motivations aside, as an act of vandalism, graffiti — the category into which Bucharest’s splash of red paint would fall — is probably the most prevalent. Practiced since cavemen marked walls with rudimentary shapes, the invention of aerosol spray paint in 1949 made drawing on urban spaces a modern pastime. With such a convenient tool to hand, from the 1960s onwards, graffiti caught the creative imagination. Alongside the burgeoning, anti-establishment musical movements of punk and hip-hop, ripe blank walls — seen as symbols of tyrannous social control — were colourfully reclaimed by gutsy, young, guerrilla painters.

Validated Vandalism

Banksy started out as a vandal like any other, illegally spray-painting witty designs onto other people’s property. But such is his escalation in notoriety, great consternation now follows any damage to his unsolicited works. His recent Valentine’s Day piece (stencilled on the side of a Bristolian house) was swiftly defaced, causing the BBC to carry the headline Banksy Mural Vandalised, without irony. Other of his works have frequently been “destroyed” by local councils, sometimes through policy, sometimes accidentally, sometimes by a confused combination of the two — most recently on the London Underground. Sometimes, Banksy’s work has even been destroyed by Banksy himself — most spectacularly when he remotely shredded a print of “Girl with Balloon” moments after it sold at auction for over £1 million. Immediately, art dealers claimed the act had doubled the value of the semi-lacerated piece — some incredibly valuable vandalism.

By Banksy, London 2008

Monumental Questions

Back to Bucharest, where the questions surrounding Memorialul Renaşterii and its evaporated haemorrhage remain: where did the most concerning act of vandalism occur? Across its chequered history, which public act was the most socially deviant? Conceptual vandalism, given the monument was commissioned by the very man who allegedly caused the deaths it seeks to mourn? Fiscal vandalism, by the amount spent on such a controversial project? Aesthetic vandalism, in its divisive design and placement? Ideological vandalism, by the person who tossed the paint? Civic vandalism, in the City’s failure to remove the paint for close to a decade? Or cultural vandalism, by finally cleaning it off after it had become an iconic element of Bucharest’s visual landscape and collective consciousness?

Scottish-Ghanaian writer, photographer and former lawyer; currently based in Bucharest, Romania.

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