John K. Grande—Néle, so great to have finally met you here in Burlington, Vermont, where you enacted one of your short-lived yet phenomenal Minimum Monument events. The “collective” of ice figures disappeared within forty-five minutes, but as an expression of universal complicity in today’s ecological crisis it’s a powerful metaphor. It must have been quite a shift from more traditional media in sculpture to ice in 2001! How was the transition received?
Néle Azevedo—Minimum Monument began in 2003 as the subject of research for my master’s thesis, “An Aesthetic Proposal of the Minimum Inserted as a Monument in the City.” The axis of poetic discussion and reflection is the intersection between local history and public monuments. The intervention of Minimum Monument in urban space uses the monument concept as the reference from which to discuss official celebration and inserts an ephemeral body into the city. I’ve found in the public monument the synthesis of my uneasiness: historical celebrations remote from ordinary people. I searched for reconciliation between the public and private spheres, the subjective self and the city. I proposed an anti-monument. So I subverted, one by one, the characteristics of the official monument. Instead of the grand scale widely used to express the ostentation of power, I proposed a minimal scale. Instead of the hero’s face, a tribute to the anonymous observers, the passersby, who identify with the process, in a kind of celebration of life, of the recognition of the tragic, of the heroic in each human trajectory. Instead of durable materials, I proposed ice sculptures that last about thirty minutes—they neither crystallize memory nor separate death from life. They have fluidity and movement and rescue the original function of monuments: to remind us that we die.
Minimum Monument can be understood as “presential” art—you need to be present at the time and place of the intervention. The experience of placing the ice sculptures and their melting process is public but at the same time personal, presential, not transferable. It carries on a poetic interruption of the daily routine of the city.
These ephemeral events decidedly embrace notions of civitas and of what public can be. They fulfil the real meaning of monumental, and you create tension by drawing a very public collective experience out of the act of art.
I think every action is political. In art, the choice of action, the theme, and the materials—all are political.
I believe that ecology is an ethical issue. We are together—animals, plants, and humans—and we should learn from each other and live without hierarchizing what is alive. Minimum Monument addresses two questions. First, the threats generated by climate change are urgent. This situation finally puts human beings in their place: their destiny becomes entangled with the planet’s fate, they don’t rule nature but are a constituent element of it. We are nature. This situation reveals the interdependence among all sorts of human beings, and it puts us all in the same condition and the same urgency. It demands a change in development paradigms adopted by governments of all political parties and nations in order to come up with a different development model. Second, it also proposes another way to celebrate the public memory on historic dates. For example, in Belfast, Northern Ireland (2012), Minimum Monument was called upon to honour the victims of the Titanic; in Birmingham, England (2014), Minimum Monument paid tribute to the centennial of the First World War, when five-thousand ice sculptures occupied the entire Chamberlain Square, to remember the anonymous victims of the war, who sacrificed their lives.
What is the connection climate change that your melting monument challenges you to undertake?
The relationship between Minimum Monument and sustainability/environment grew as the project kept appearing in various cities. Since 2009, with the intervention held in Berlin with support from the World Wildlife Fund, Minimum Monument has been presented as being directly linked to global warming: its affinity with the theme is clear, and I think it can also be read as a “living monument” to contemporary issues with far broader appeal than the contemporary art circuit, “a liquid monument for liquid times.”
Ironically, public monuments often promote hierarchy, not only among the people and subjects they address, but even among the artists who make them. How disturbing and unhappy a state of affairs! Your anti-monument creative axis recalls Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s pillar that disappeared into the ground as people’s names were added to the surface until it disappeared completely. Your anti-monuments challenge us, and ultimately affirm the value in life!
Yes, the logic of the monument is that “history is written by the victors,” as philosopher Walter Benjamin pointed out. In the 1990s, many artists contested this logic of the monument. I want to bring to light the ambiguity of the monument and give the public memory a new meaning—to include what is concealed in the official celebration of history.
Is art political by example or by the content that it suggests?
I think every action is political. In art, the choice of action, the theme, and the materials—all are political. You define where and how you speak to the world; this awareness of your place is completely political. On the other hand, artworks are not advertisements. They are the respective artist’s perception of the world; therefore, it is not their aim to increase awareness of this or that subject. Of course, the work may have an impact on society and it is good that it does, but that is different from targeted advertising. Art acts on sensibilities and can touch and transform those who have open pores to receive it.