Truman: The Most Hated Statue in Greece

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Greek Civil War in October 1949. The conflict between monarchists and communists erupted soon after the end of the country’s occupation during World War II left a power vacuum at the heart of the birthplace of democracy. Although Stalin chose not to support the insurgents, the conflict is considered to be the first proxy war of the Cold War, with the monarchists backed by Britain and the United States, while the communists were mainly supported by Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The Truman Doctrine, named after US President Harry Truman, was instrumental in releasing billions in US government funds to support the monarchists and to provide equal economic and military support to Turkey, which was also at risk of entering the Soviet sphere. The strategy proved effective and a subsequent victory for the Kingdom of Greece suppressed the spread of communism in Southern Europe.

Yet the disagreement that gave rise to the conflict has continued to fester, exacerbated by the Greek military coup d’état in 1967 which heralded seven years of rule by a far-right junta who imprisoned or exiled thousands of suspects communists and political opponents. US support for the junta, deeply unpopular among the Greeks but an expedient anti-communist ally for the West, led to growing anti-Americanism during the dictatorship. This only increased when the US failed to support Greece in halting the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. In the Greek capital, anger against US ‘imperialism’ has repeatedly found a target in one unfortunate work of art.

Earlier this year, Greek communists were arrested for an attack on a 12-foot bronze statue of Truman, erected near the US Embassy in 1963 by the conservative US-based American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). Set up without the consent of the Athens city authorities, the statue has been controversial from the start. In 2018, activists protesting US-led airstrikes in Syria used a metal grinder to cut off its feet and ropes in an attempt to topple it to the ground, before they were repelled by riot police with tear gas.

 But this is just the latest attack the statue has withstood. Over the last 55 years, it has being bombed four times – on one occasion causing the death of a nearby policeman, attacked with a chainsaw and successfully toppled on at least five occasions. In more imaginative protests, the statue has been doused in pink and red paint (perhaps a nod to David Černý’s Pink Tank in Prague) and wrapped up in packaging paper marking it for return delivery to the United States. When a bomb in 1986 tore the statue apart, an exasperated Mayor of Athens suggested replacing Truman with a statue of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps hoping that the American Civil War hero would prove less aggravating. But the AHEPA insisted on bringing Truman back from the dead.

Recounting the misfortunes that have befallen the statue, in a country famous for its sculpture, some commentators have asked if it has become ‘the most hated’ in Athens. Even those Greeks who are ambivalent to the statue have wondered why it is there, when some of the country’s greatest politicians, leaders and intellectuals have not received similar recognition, and there is not even a Truman statue on display in the president’s own hometown. But with the sculpture once again patched up and receiving a vocal defense from the US Ambassador to Greece, it doesn’t look like Truman will be leaving his podium any time soon.

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When the Berlin Wall Came Down… in Iceland

Since the night the wall came down – in November 1989 – pieces of the Berlin Wall have travelled far and wide. Over forty countries now host sections of the wall, from Italy and the Vatican to Singapore and South Africa. Along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, several sections face out onto the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in an installation arranged by the nearby Wende Museum of the Cold War; while Jamaica received a portion in 2010 as a gift to record-breaking sprinter Usain Bolt; and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California holds a piece of the wall given to the former US President the year after it was dismantled.

In October 2015, Iceland became the latest country to welcome a segment of the Berlin Wall. To mark the 25th anniversary of German reunification in 1990, this concrete block was gifted to Reykjavík by the City of Berlin. The Icelandic capital was chosen due to its role in a pivotal moment of the Cold War. In October 1986, the Reykjavík Summit between Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made important progress in building trust between the rival nations. Even though the summit was curtailed prior to any formal agreement, the politicians’ discussions were the basic for a denuclearisation treaty the following year.

The 3.7-metre high section of wall was transported from the Neu West Berlin gallery, weighing 4 tonnes. The gallery boasts the largest holding of remnants from the wall and has actively sought to send them out around the world, to keep the lessons of the Berlin Wall alive for future generations and people from many different countries. However, since American street artist Keith Haring painted on the wall under the media glare in 1986, the Berlin Wall has become equally famous for its art as its atrocities. With demand for painted sections of the wall exceeding availability, the Neu West Berlin gallery has resorted to commissioning young German artists to apply new painting to original wall segments. For Reykjavík, the City of Berlin chose a design by Jakob Wagner of the LuxPopArt Group.

 Wagner’s design, repeated on both sides of the wall, is entitled ‘Mao I’ and shows a figure inspired by the mysterious monolithic heads of Easter Island – an apt reference point for its placement on an empty strip of land overlooking the sea. Wagner’s figures appear in fluorescent pink, orange, yellow, blue and green, a nod to the vividness of the figures created since 1984 by Thierry Noir, the first artist to paint on the wallThese bright colours are greatly at odds with the muted, windswept landscape outside Höfði House, where Reagan and Gorbachev met and where the Berlin Wall segment found a new home. A landscape so windswept, in fact, that the wall would prove little match for the elements.

Only a year and a half after the Berlin Wall arrived in Iceland, the paint had begun to flake off both sides of the wall, until the conservation team at the Reykjavík Art Museum assessed that the damage was irreversible. Wagner’s painting had to be completely stripped from the wall and the artist was despatched to repaint it in August 2017 – choosing to make some changes to the design and to give one side of the wall a new colour scheme. This time, a primer was applied underneath the paint, and a thick layer of varnish was added to provide extra protection.

The news that the painting had been “destroyed by the unforgiving Icelandic weather” was met with a certain amount of national pride in the local press, no doubt enhanced by the wall’s reputation of hardiness and impenetrability. It remains to be seen how the repainted section will fare. In the meantime, you can own your own miniature version of the Reykjavík wall – under the collective title of Kings of Freedom, ‘Mao I’ and other designs by Wagner and original Berlin Wall artists, including Thierry Noir, are available as 1:25 collectibles in German porcelain through the VisibleWall website.

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Found Art of the Yom Kippur War

For three weeks in October 1973, Egypt and Syria spearheaded military action against Israel, aimed at reoccupying territory lost during the Six-Day War of 1967. The Yom Kippur War soon escalated from a regional squabble to a potentially catastrophic moment in the Cold War, as the United States’ support of Israel brought it into a confrontation with the USSR, which was supplying arms to the united Arab states. After initial Arab gains were repelled by a successful Israeli counter-attack, a ceasefire was brought into effect. The Yom Kippur War paved the way for improved diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt from the late 1970s, which in turn increased tension with Arab neighbours and damaged Egypt’s relationship with the Soviet Union. At a victory parade in Cairo, marking the 8th anniversary of the war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by jihadis who resented his peace treaty with Israel, a sign of the country’s growing struggles between secularism and Islamism that continue to this day.

In the thick of the battle, as the Israeli forces pushed further into Egypt, a young soldier found himself wandering among deserted houses along the banks of the Sweet Water Canal. In one home he discovered an abandoned desk, proudly displaying poignant reminders of the person who once lived there: two small pencil drawings with scenes of the local area; a little toy donkey; and a small coffee cup and saucer. Despite the strict rules against looting by Israeli military personnel, the soldier was so captivated by the objects that he put them in his pocket, as souvenirs of his experience and to protect them from destruction.

Years later, the soldier had become a painter and professor at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Israel’s national art school. During a tutorial with an MFA student, Hili Greenfeld, he was reminded of his Yom Kippur War trophies. The story he told Greenfeld and the objects he showed her would spark in her the idea for the installation project The Sweet Water Canal, which was first exhibited in 2017.

Within the gallery space, Greenfeld created the world she imagined to be inhabited by the mystery Egyptian artist, based on their drawings and her research of the architecture and decorative traditions of the area around the Sweet Water Canal. The visitor first encounters the four objects taken by the soldier, in a display case modelled on those used by the British Museum to present the largest collection of Egyptian objects outside Egypt. Upon hearing the story of the objects’ journey to Israel, Greenfeld recognised a parallel between the soldier’s professed desire to save them from destruction, and the justification frequently given for both colonial-era looting and the present-day refusal of Western museums to return antiquities. In The Sweet Water Canal, the modest keepsakes are presented as if they are priceless artefacts, plundered from a distant land and displayed securely in one of these museums. Within a glass case, the objects are instantly imbued with special significance and therefore appear desirable.

 The distinctive window frame and other architectural details within the drawings are recreated in two wooden doors, which lead onto a small room. In the middle of the room stands a desk with a chair pulled out at an angle – as though recently vacated and awaiting the return of the artist. But the desk stands on a plinth – once more an indicator of significance within a museum setting, and transforming the anonymous artist into a person of great importance. On the desk, and on shelves and a shrine that adorn the room, Greenfeld has placed objects she created, inspired by motifs within the found objects and based on Ancient Egypt souvenir items on sale in the British Museum shop. Unlike the original looted objects, Greenfeld’s items are displayed unprotected on the shelves, indicating a lower value even while they entice and tempt the visitor to pick them up and perhaps to carry them away as a souvenir. By maintaining the anonymity of both the Egyptian artist and the Israeli soldier, Greenfeld allows the visitor to take on the guise of either individual, to protect or to plunder.

While challenging the visitor to question their response to the objects, The Sweet Water Canal installation also memorialises Greenfeld’s personal reaction to the story. Upon seeing the objects for the first time, she was struck by the lack of cultural links between Israel and Egypt, despite their proximity. As a student, Greenfeld was being encouraged to look to Europe and America, even while Western art history claims Ancient Egyptian art as its starting point. In the excellent introductory essay, the exhibition’s curator, Hadas Glazer, explained: “The Israeli gaze, which looks to the West, engenders blindness to the wealth in Arab cultures, and a false self-perception of a Western island in the Middle East.” By creating a dialogue with the anonymous Egyptian artist, Greenfeld shows her yearning for closer ties with her neighbours in the region – a personal response that mirrors the eventual outcome of the Yom Kippur War.

You can find out more about The Sweet Water Canal and see additional photographs of the installation on Hili Greenfeld’s website.

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All images courtesy Hili Greenfeld.

The Not-so-Secret Art of the CIA

Taryn Simon, ‘The Central Intelligence Agency, Art, CIA Original Headquarters Building, Langley, Virginia’, 2003/2007.

The above photograph, by American artist Taryn Simon, appears innocuous, even banal, at first. It shows two modern paintings hanging on bare white walls, cordoned off by limp rope barriers, while harsh fluorescent ceiling lights cause their reflection to bounce off the glossy laminate floor. But the photograph instantly appears more enticing and enigmatic when one reads the caption, indicating that it was taken at the headquarters of the US Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. Simon’s photograph is part of her 2007 series, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, presenting viewpoints that are largely inaccessible to the general public. It is therefore ironic that the photograph would itself provoke a decade of investigation and debate into the limits of government transparency.

Intrigued by the photograph when she first saw it in 2008, Portland-based artist Johanna Barron was inspired to discover more about the CIA’s collection of abstract paintings. However, she could find little available information, save for a single page on the CIA website, without any images, and some passing details in a book about the agency. Although the absence of information was perhaps unsurprising for a cash-strapped federally-funded institution, Barron decided to delve further by submitting a series of FOIA requests. This would be the first step in a complex artistic project that would occupy Barron for years to come.

Johanna Barron with selections from her recreation of the Melzac Collection held by the CIA, 2015. Photo (c) James Rexroad. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

As any researcher who has gone through the arduous process of locating and accessing archival documents can tell you, asking overworked librarians to find material on your behalf rarely delivers results. Barron would have a similar response to her FOIA requests. Her appeals for photographs of the collection and acquisition records, including information about tax breaks for donors and funding for purchases, were repeatedly denied on the grounds that documents relating to the paintings were not “government records” and therefore not covered by FOIA regulations. Once again, a lack of readily-available information that elsewhere would have likely been explained by a processing mix-up or scarce resources, here took on an air of mystery, with the CIA appearing evasive. Barron’s quest for information only accelerated, as she commented: “I felt this increasing need to try to uncover details that seemed to be kept secret for no logical reason”. Eventually, in 2014, Barron received almost 100 pages of heavily-redacted documentation, that allowed her to piece together more details about the collection.

The abstract paintings that had caught Barron’s eye were part a small group loaned to the CIA by Vincent Melzac, a larger-than-life art collector and former director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. From 1968, Melzac shared with the agency a series of paintings by artists affiliated with the Washington Color School. Twenty years later, the CIA purchased eleven of the works, although after Melzac’s death in 1989, his estate also agreed to continue loaning additional canvases. Barron used this new-found information to create 3/4 scale reproductions of some of the 29 paintings, which she first exhibited in 2015 under the title Acres of Walls. Appearing alongside the redacted documents and details of her interactions with the CIA, Barron presented the installation as a commentary on the limits of government transparency and the absurdity of secrecy for the sake of secrecy.

Barron’s tale of intrigue was readily picked up by the cultural press, with art writers easily believing that the intelligence community was intentionally hiding paintings from the prying public. Artnet asked “Why Won’t the CIA Reveal the Paintings in Its Secret Art Collection?“; CNN demanded “Why won’t the CIA reveal what’s in its art collection?“; Hyperallergic mused “Why Does the CIA Keep Its Art Collection Secret?“; while the Smithsonian Magazine announced “The CIA Won’t Reveal What’s in its Secret Art Collection“! However, the following year, one of the writers whose interest had been piqued by Barron’s project decided to take the investigation further – turning the story on its head.

Gene Davis, ‘Black Rhythm’, 1964. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

Alerted by DC-based artist Barbara Januszkiewicz that the CIA art collection might not be as secret as it at first appeared, Carey Dunne, a reporter for Hyperallergic, contacted the agency’s Public Affairs office. She was surprised to find that before long, arrangements were made for her to visit Langley and that she was permitted to make public details of her tour of the art collection, including photographs. Alongside a wide array of art dotted throughout the CIA headquarters, including representational paintings celebrating the agency’s achievements and official portraits of past CIA directors, the abstract paintings from Melzac’s collection took pride of place.

Mundane reasons given for this collection included brightening up the building with art that matched the date of the architecture (construction on the Old Headquarters Building was completed in 1961) and related to Langley’s location in the Washington metropolitan area. However, Dunne uncovered a fascinating aspect to the CIA’s collection of abstract art – that it was also used for training purposes. As Carolyn Reams, former director of the CIA Museum, explained, agents are asked to analyse the paintings to develop their problem-solving skills: “Say you’ve got to analyze this big, heavy duty ISIL problem over here — maybe if you come look at the painting, it’ll help you think about how to solve the ISIL problem creatively.” It is perhaps for that reason that the abstract paintings included in the collection are rarely random or lacking in content, but are largely constructed from patterns and recognisable shapes.

Robert Newmann, ‘Arrows’, 1968. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

Hyperallergic also suggested that the art collection might have been chosen by the CIA in a nod to the agency’s covert support for Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War. The story Dunne refers to, which has been fuelled by sensationalist articles in the New Yorker and the Independent, is yet another oversimplification and mythologisation of a more complex but less glamorous tale linking art and espionage – and further evidence of the will to sustain a narrative of CIA secrecy that provoked both Johanna Barron’s project and the subsequent press coverage.

Yet if the CIA did maintain some secrecy around its art collection, it may have been for good reason. While researching her article, Dunne contacted Robert Newmann, the last living artist featured in the agency’s collection of abstract painting. Newmann revealed that the artists themselves were not informed by Melzac of the loan of their works to the CIA, and Newmann only discovered this fact in 2012, when Warner Brothers requested his permission to feature the painting Arrows in the Hollywood blockbuster Argo, which was filmed on site at Langley. “Personally, I would never have sold a painting to the CIA,” Newmann said. “We [Washington Color School artists] were all left-of-center and the CIA’s contribution to the [Vietnam] War turned all of us off.”

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The Art of Revolutionary Ethiopia

The arrest of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia on 12 September 1974 marked the end of almost a thousand years of rule by the Solomonic dynasty, a royal family claiming descent from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Haile Selassie’s deposition has been described as the culmination of a “creeping coup”, following a decade of protests against the Emperor, often led by students. While Haile Selassie was a controversial leader, who lived a lavish lifestyle while rural communities were ravaged by famine, he nonetheless achieved messianic status outside of Ethiopia. Since the 1930s, followers of the Jamaican Rastafari movement have honoured him as the Second Coming of Christ.

Art students also played an important role in the creeping coup. In the 1960s, artistic debates in the capital of Addis Ababa mirrored those in the West. While some experimented with abstraction, others believed that representational art was vital to inform and inspire a largely illiterate population. Due to traditional links between Russia and Ethiopia that dated back to the Tsarist period, some Ethiopian art students travelled to Moscow and St Petersburg to train in Socialist Realism. Returning home, they were inspired to use their art for the social good, as the country entered a period of severe famine in the early 1970s, while rumours abounded that the Emperor was preventing starving peasants from entering the major cities, to maintain the illusion of wealth and modernity.

Eshetu Tiruneh, ‘Victims of Famine’, 1974. National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

For his graduation painting at the Fine Arts School in Addis Ababa, Eshetu Tiruneh created a mural that called attention to his destitute countrymen. Based on his sketches of those gathering on the city’s outskirts, Victims of Famine shows emaciated families dressed in rags, supporting children and the elderly, too weak to walk along a barren, dusty road. Other figures in the scene have succumbed to hunger and are mourned by skeletal family members. The painting depicts a relentless move forward, in search of aid that would not appear.

Eshetu Tiruneh’s mural would be widely reproduced and ignite further unrest and fury against the Emperor. Painted in 1974, in the months preceding the coup, it also foreshadowed the broadcast in Addis Ababa of a documentary about the famine by UK journalist Jonathan Dimbleby. The night before Haile Selassie’s arrest, a doctored version of the documentary, juxtaposing scenes of starvation with the Emperor’s ostentatious displays of wealth, finally provoked action to overthrow him.

The aftermath of the coup d’état in Ethiopia followed a similar pattern to many other African, Middle Eastern and Latin American uprisings of the 1960s and ’70s, in response to the pressures of the Cold War, the break down of colonial power and the rise of socialist ideology that advocated rule by the people. The Solomonic dynasty was replaced by a strict military dictatorship known as the Derg. Over the next two decades, the abolition of the feudal system, land reforms and improvements in literacy and education were undermined by the ruthless suppression of suspected dissidents, many thousands of whom were executed without trial.

Getachew Yosef, ‘Revolutionary Motherland or Death’, 1979/1980. National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. Courtesy Kate Cowcher.

After taking control, the Derg recognised the value of revolutionary art and the same artists who had campaigned against the Emperor was called on to create propagandistic images in support of the junta, visually representing the new state’s Marxist ideology. The Derg established a Ministry of Culture, which attempted to impose Socialist Realism on Ethiopian artists, just as this artistic doctrine was in decline in its country of origin. Many Ethiopian artists were trained by the Soviets in the 1970s and ’80s, while also taking cues from Chinese poster art of the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile, the country’s nascent abstract movement was dismissed as decadent and bourgeois.

British art historian Kate Cowcher has spent the last few years investigating the visual culture of revolutionary Ethiopia, to reveal images as a vital component in political change. You can get a deeper insight into this fascinating period of art in Africa by watching her talk, Land to the Tiller! Art and the Makings of an Ethiopian October, presented in 2014 at Calvert 22 in London.

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Khrushchev in America and the Graphic Arts Workshop

On 15 September 1959, Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States. Over the course of 12 days, he travelled from Washington, DC to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose (to witness the birth of the computer age at IBM’s headquarters), Des Moines and Coon Rapids in Iowa, and Pittsburgh, ending his whistle-stop tour in a summit with President Eisenhower at Camp David. The visit followed hot on the heels of a summer of friendly competition between the two superpowers, where art became a major talking point at the Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York and the American National Exhibition in Moscow.

Coming soon after his infamous showdown with then-Vice President Richard Nixon in the “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow, Khrushchev appeared keen to use the visit as a chance to reclaim Soviet dominance in all fields. He made an opening volley soon after his arrival, greeting Eisenhower in the Oval Office with a replica of Lunik II. This space probe – the first man-made object on the moon – had successfully landed just one day earlier, symbolising the Soviets’ early lead in the Space Race.

Khrushchev then proceeded to express displeasure at much of what he saw in the United States: complaining that the pigs were too fat and the turkeys too small at a farm in Maryland; remarking upon his first glimpse of the Empire State Building that “if you’ve seen one skyscraper, you’ve seen them all”; and – despite enjoying a close-up of Shirley MacLaine’s legs – bemoaning with characteristic Soviet prudishness the bare flesh and innuendo on a Hollywood film set. His ire reached fever pitch when he discovered that Disneyland had been taken off his itinerary because of security concerns. Shaking his fist in front of a gala audience that included Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, Khrushchev vented, “Do you have rocket launching pads there? … What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera or plague there? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me? And I say I would very much like to go and see Disneyland. For me such a situation is inconceivable.”

However, Khrushchev finally found something that pleased him at an Iowan meat-packing factory. Upon trying his first hot dog, the Soviet leader declared, “We have beaten you to the moon, but you have beaten us in sausage making.”

Upon leaving New York, Khrushchev had noted his regret that he had yet to meet “the producers of its wealth” – ordinary American workers. He would finally have a chance to come into contact with more ideologically appealing citizens in San Francisco, where he met union members and swapped caps with a dock worker. It is likely at one of these events that Khrushchev received three social realist prints by American artists affiliated with the Graphic Arts Workshop (GAW), a radical printmaking cooperative. Formed as an offshoot of the defunct California Labor School, GAW had a history of producing posters for Communist front groups and painting murals around San Francisco, on themes such as African American, Jewish and Mexican history, the role of women in the labour movement, and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

In keeping with Khrushchev’s appeal to see the “real” America, artists Richard Correll and Stanley Koppel gifted the Soviet premier artworks on the theme of blue-collar workers; while GAW chairman Irving Fromer presented the Soviet leader with a more controversial view, in a lithograph depicting child labour in the cotton fields. The prints are now held in the collections of Brown University, where Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, worked for many years and gifted his papers, including some of his father’s memorabilia.

 

While the Graphic Arts Workshop may not be well-known in the United States, during the late 1950s, the studio was feted in the USSR. The quixotic San Francisco sculptor, Beniamino Bufano, had taken a collection of prints by GAW members on his “one-man peace mission” to Moscow in 1957, where they were soon exhibited at the Moscow Artists’ Union and the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The GAW prints would also be included in a larger exhibition of American realist art at the Pushkin Museum in late 1959, rapidly assembled by Soviet officials nervous at the attention paid to US modern art by the crowds at the American National Exhibition that summer.

For those keen find out more about Khrushchev’s tour of America, PBS has put together a handy overview of his itinerary, as a complement to their film, Cold War Roadshow. You can also find out more about the surviving Graphic Arts Workshop at their website.

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Images: Khrushchev meets Shirley MacLaine on his visit to Hollywood. Bettmann / CORBIS; Richard Correll, Railroaders, 1959; Irving Fromer, Child Picking Cotton, 1959; Stanley Koppel, Men Drinking at a Bar, 1959. Courtesy Brown University.

A Cold War Air Tragedy in Art

 The horrifying painted image that exploded from the front cover of Time magazine on 12 September 1983 brought to public realisation one of the single greatest tragedies of the Cold War – the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL007) on the first of that month.

The civilian flight from New York City to Seoul, via Anchorage, was approaching its final destination when it was intercepted by Soviet military aircraft over the Sea of Japan. The pilots had mistakenly strayed into Soviet airspace and fighter jets were scrambled to encounter what was suspected to be a US spy plane. The Soviet Air Forces made the grave decision to destroy the plane with air-to-air missiles. All 269 people aboard were killed, including 105 Korean passengers and crew, 62 Americans, 28 Japanese, and others from a total of 16 different countries.

Two weeks later, the Soviets located the airplane wreckage and flight recorders on the bottom of the sea, although this would not become public knowledge for many years. Initially the government of Yuri Andropov denied his country’s involvement in the incident. Once evidence forced Andropov to admit that the Soviet Air Forces had indeed downed the plane, he maintained that it had been a “sophisticated provocation masterminded by the US special services with the use of a South Korean plane”. The Soviet government continued to conceal evidence from the International Civil Aviation Organization investigating the flight. The full story would only come to light after the dissolution of the USSR, when in 1992 Russia finally released the cockpit voice recorder transcript. On the 30th anniversary of the incident, CNN published a compelling account of this episode.

On 1 September every year, relatives of the deceased gather to remember those killed in the tragedy at the KAL Memorial Tower at National Mang-Hyang Cemetery in Cheonan, South Korea. The cemetery was constructed in 1976 and is devoted to Korean nationals who have died in foreign countries. The towering central monument stands above a shrine, its bisected form resembling the wings of an airplane and connecting the earth and sky. Relief sculptures are carved on either side of the shrine, while two dramatic freestanding group sculptures recall the lives lost.

On the left hand side, the neoclassical statue is formed of fifteen women entwined in their grief. While thirteen of the mourners are shown stooped and with heads bowed, one holding a wreath and an older woman embracing a young girl, two figures at the front of the group enact formal funereal rites: one standing and holding to her chest what appears to be an urn; and one kneeling with a flaming torch. The sculpture on the right hand side instead shows an image of resurgence. The people have arisen, and a group of young men and women are shown on their feet with arms raised, carrying banners forward in a show of determination. Little information about the monument is available in English language, including details of the architect and sculptor, yet it is worthy of wider attention as one of the most poignant and effective monuments to the Cold War.

Two further monuments to the tragedy stand on islands to the north and south of the crash site. In the city of Wakkanai, on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, a 90-foot tower marks the spot when some of the victims’ bodies and belongings were washed ashore after the crash. The tower is constructed from 269 white stones, each representing one of the deceased. Meanwhile, on the island of Sakahlin, a distant outpost at the edge of Russia’s territory, a small cemetery marker pays tribute to the victims.

The sorry tale of KAL007 was brought back to international attention in July 2014, when in a tragic repeat of history, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was downed over eastern Ukraine. Despite obstruction from the Russian-backed insurgents in the region, overwhelming evidence has led the international investigators to conclude that the airliner was downed by a Russia-supplied Buk surface-to-air missile, by pro-Russian fighters who likely misidentified the commercial plane as a military aircraft. In a repetition of the 1983 incident, the Kremlin has blocked the investigation, fuelled conspiracy theories that the flight was instead brought down by a Ukraininan military jet, and so far no one has been held accountable for the deaths of the 283 passengers and 15 crew.

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Images: Top three – KAL Memorial Tower, National Mang-Hyang Cemetery, South Korea. Courtesy KAL 007 Famlies and Friends Facebook page. Bottom – Monument to Korean Airlines Flight 007, Hokkaido, Japan. Courtesy shirokazan on flickr.