The spacious gallery room on PICA’s second floor is bathed in orange light which only on my second watch of Amrita Hepi’s video installation Monumental do I realise comes from the tinted window as well as the screen that commands the room.
The big fungal-looking statue that I skirted past in the hallway outside appears on the screen up on a pedestal amidst what the explanatory text calls a “continual sunrise…or is it a sunset?” Six dancers arrange themselves artfully in layers underneath the titular monument, moving between regal poses in synchronicity but eventually breaking up into high-energy, erratic dances, some together, some apart, all under the towering figure that bathes them in its eternal orange light.
Monumental by Amrita Hepi Photography by Bo Wong
The dances are interspersed with grainy video clips of synchronised swimmers turning somersaults in a pair with their ankles clasped around each other’s necks, or fanning out in a circle, indistinguishable from each other as they open up like a flower, or an explosion.
News clips of statues being removed and pulled down interject into the other videos. A confederate soldier in the US is hoisted away on a crane, and the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, falls into the harbour, toppled by many hands.
I remember that.
The removal of the Colston Statue
During the 2020 lockdown I was a two-hour drive away from Bristol isolating at my grandmother’s house just over the border of Cornwall. We watched the bronze statue fall over and over again on the news cycle that week, alternatively condemned as disgraceful vandalism and praised as a step towards reparation and recognising Britain’s harmful colonial past. My grandmother tutted as the graffiti-spattered bronze body splashed into the water for the tenth time.
“You don’t approve?” I asked her, conscious that an argument would sour the atmosphere in our locked-down house for the next few days.
“I don’t approve of vandalism,” she responded tersely.
“But they’ve tried to get it removed officially for years and it never happened. Do you think it’s right that we have a statue commemorating a slave trader?”
“No, of course not, it’s disgusting. But it doesn’t mean they have to destroy things. Are you putting the kettle on?” That was my cue to let it go. I am sure my grandmother is not alone in this response. She disapproves of the destruction of public statues that commemorate people who bought and sold other people without really engaging with the reasons why. Of course, my family is white, middle-class, and British as far back as memory serves so it is easy for us, and her, to see protests and social activism as a luxury – a way to fill one’s leisure time – rather than the only way to change a system that is actively oppressing your family and community.
My grandmother agrees that the treatment of minorities, especially people of colour, needs to change but she still holds onto traditional patriarchal notions of decorum and social order that reject disruption of the status quo. To her, making a scene is the ultimate crime. She would have tutted and averted her eyes if confronted with the anger directed towards Hepi’s colonial figure.
Back in the room of the perpetual sunrise/sunset the dancers become aggressive in their dance moves towards the statue, shouting at it, holding each other back.
Eventually their hands go up to it, rocking it off its pedestal in a mirror of Colston’s dive into the Bristol Harbour, and eventually they topple it to the floor with a silent but resonating crash. The ensuing destruction of the statue and the anger directed at its severed limbs reminds me of Albert Bandura’s bobo doll experiment from the 1960s. I had only been introduced to the experiment a few days before visiting PICA so the grainy images of children using their spindly arms to beat up a three-foot-tall blow up doll that keeps bouncing back at them was fresh in my mind.
Bandura’s experiment explored the effect of modelling on children’s learning by showing one group of children a video of an adult acting aggressively towards the doll, and another group a video of an adult playing calmly with the doll. Those who were shown the aggressive video copied the model and attacked it, while those who had been shown the calm video similarly played nicely with the doll. The experiment was ground-breaking because it came at a time when it was “widely believed that seeing others vent aggression drained the viewer’s aggressive drive. As you can see, exposure to aggressive modelling is hardly cathartic” (Everywhere Psychology, 2012). Hepi’s video of dancers throwing the statue’s limbs against the floor and shouting into its face echo this response, and highlight the cyclical nature of learned behaviours.
Monumental by Amrita Hepi Photography by Bo Wong
What was aggression for Bandura is revolution for the dancers: unlearning the subjugation they have seen in their own models and creating a new model of aggression that leads to freedom. At least for a while, until the end of Hepi’s video when the destruction runs backwards until the monument is standing in the orange light once again, and the video starts over. Anador Walsh in her accompanying essay ‘Performing Protest’ describes this as “an act of self-reflexivity that speaks to the need for monuments to be continually revised in line with shifts in context” (2021). Bandura’s experiment showed that accepted behaviour and reactions change based on what we see others doing, and thus explains the disapproval my grandmother felt for the ‘vandals’ removing and defacing statues. No one in her community had ever questioned the existence of these monuments that prop up a colonial past, so she modelled her behaviour on everyone else who simply ignored the ugly reminders of a history they would rather forget. To my generation, though, and to children watching the news with their parents, or perhaps walking past the now empty, still graffitied, plinth, these protestors have modelled a new behaviour. One of violence, sure, of vandalism, but also of resistance, of standing up to power and questioning the structures that treat certain people as worth less. Hepi models this in her video, placing the monument in a perpetual state of change, either a sunrise or sunset depending on how you look at it. The statue, unlike the sun shimmering behind it, does not move or end; it requires us as viewers to continually revise its role, and decide when the sun has set on its time on the pedestal. Above the wreckage of the monument the dancers elevate themselves on its vacated plinth, one supported on the shoulders of others, cutting a striking silhouette against the warm orange that gives me a feeling of hope.
Upon finally leaving the flickering orange room with its orchestral soundtrack I come face-to-face with the monument from the video, miraculously restored. It stands a foot taller than me and to look into its face I have to get very close and stand tall, chin titled upwards. It has no distinctive expression or identity marker. The explanatory text identifies the figure as Captain Cook, but I see it as a more generalised representative of oppressive powers and the atrocities they sanction and cover up. It looks down at me blankly, benignly, unconcerned by my presence. Like most statues it is unaffected by observers, and my ingrained horror of touching art gallery exhibits prevents me from even tapping its bulbous body with my finger nail. But I have the advantage of consciousness, of empathy, and of learning. I know what happens on the screen around the corner, just out of sight, and I know that it can happen again. When enough of us work together.
Monumental Amrita Hepi is on now until April 24 at PICA
Everywhere Psychology. (2012, August 29). Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmBqwWlJg8U.
Walsh, A. (2021). Performing Protest. PICA. Retrieved from: https://pica.org.au/whats-on/monumentalamrita-hepi/.