Multicultural Man Builds the World

Multicultural Man Builds the World,  Sarajevo, Perilli (1997). Photograph by  Folkestone Jack .

Multicultural Man Builds the World, Sarajevo, Perilli (1997). Photograph by Folkestone Jack.

The birds are doves, I think, though they may be pigeons.

The sculpture sits on Trg Oslobođenje – Libertion Squarein the centre of Sarajevo. It consists of a naked male figure reaching toward the sky, pulling the meridians of the earth together. Around him, friendly doves help by lifting further meridians into place. Or, as I said, they might be pigeons. My confusion comes from the fact that there are many pigeons in Trg Oslobođenje, and they often sit on the sculpture. They are the same colour as the bronze birds, and it is sometimes hard to tell which birds are animate, and which metaphorical.

This confuses the eager interpreter. If they are doves, the metaphor is clear; they symbolise peace, albeit in a heavy-handed, Old-Testamenty kind of way. If they are pigeons, what then? It would change the meaning of the sculpture enormously. Why would an artist use pigeons? Do they represent the everyday, the weak and sick, the dependent, the homeless? The work would be much more ambiguous, and much more interesting.

Obviously, unfortunately, they are doves. But this strange double-take extends beyond the just the birds – it applies to the entire sculpture. It embodies two contrary attitudes simultaneously – it is at once an outright rejection of intolerance, and yet strangely reminiscent of fascism.

“Nothing is as invisible as a monument” Robert Musil famously said in 1927. His point was that within a few hours of their inauguration, public statues cease to be noticed, and thus often say less about the people who pass them each day than about the pretensions of their government. The ideology in this case is made abundantly, blunderingly clear by the name of the sculpture, Multicultural Man Builds the World, which is also helpfully written on its plinth. The work of Francesco Perilli, it is one of four identical monuments – the first was installed in Toronto in 1985, the second here in Sarajevo in 1997, followed by Changchun (China) in 2002, and then East London (South Africa) in 2006. A fifth was planned, such that each continent would possess a Multicultural Man, but the sculpture planned for Whittlesea (Australia) was never realised due to the economic consequences of the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake.

Multicultural Man Builds the World,  East London (RSA), Perilli (2006). Photograph from  Re-Imagining East London .

Multicultural Man Builds the World, East London (RSA), Perilli (2006). Photograph from Re-Imagining East London.

The sculpture fits neatly into the projected ideology of post-war Bosnia. It celebrates Sarajevo as a haven of peaceful multiculturalism, a city where the constituent peoples of Bosnia (Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs) and many others (Jews, atheists, diplomats) reside in mutual love and affection. This is a narrative repeated in endless tourist brochures, which proclaim the city the Bridge Between West and East, the Meeting Place of Cultures, the Jerusalem of Europe.

And yet, it is not clear how multicultural the Sarajevo of today actually is. All indications seem to be that the city, 49% Bosniak before the war, is now almost exclusively populated by that ethnicity. No-one is yet sure, because the results of the 2013 census have mysteriously failed to appear, with rumours they have been held back by the government. The same government, in fact, that is now paralysed by the competing claims of ethnic political parties.

This is well illustrated by the controversy precipitated by the sculpture. In the words of Perilli himself, shortly after it was erected its

“good intentions come up against unforeseeable and unanticipated facts of reality. You know that, even given all of its symbolic meanings, the centrality of the monument pivots on a figure … you are equally well aware, however, that Islamic culture does not allow anthropomorphic representation … Well. These were the reasons that led a fringe group of fundamentalists to protest vividly and zealously. I was actually accused of “idolatry” (I have newspapers here that are evidence of it). To begin with that group symbolically covered the sculpture’s genitals; it then threatened to tear it down and destroy it. Threats that for a long time led the authorities of Sarajevo to have the monument guarded, night and day, by the police. Meanwhile Paul Watson, in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, observed that the Symbol, created with the aim of celebrating tolerance, was paradoxically in danger of reopening old wounds as a result of intolerance. As you may imagine, this was not part of my intent”.

And so, as the sculpture slowly crumbles, so does the hope of ethnic harmony. Nevertheless, multiculturalism remains the paradigm, both in post-war Bosnia and across post-war Europe. After a century of ethnic cleansing and nationalism, a consensus seems to have been reached, one glaringly illustrated in Multicultural Man Builds the World. And so the statue stands as a rejection of the ethnic essentialism of both WW2 and the Bosnian conflict it is, in short, anti-fascist.

Or is it? In looking at the statue today – the first time I have properly done so – my confusion with the pigeons was mirrored on a deeper level. Whilst the statue stands against fascism, it also repeats an important trope of authoritarian sculpture.

Oh dear. I am not saying that Perilli is a fascist, nor that the statue is a nationalist call to arms.

But it does have some strange features. Among these is that fact that the sculpture is explicitly not a description of the world as it is today. Rather, we are presented with a utopian vision. Multicultural Man does not exist, at least yet. Similarly, his function – to build the world – seems a little problematic, given that the world evidently already exists.

Griffin’s 1991 book The Nature of Fascism defines the ideology “in a single binomial term, albeit an initially cryptic one: ‘palingenetic ultra-nationalism’”. Palingenesis denotes rebirth, in this case of a new, pure nation. The revolution that will bring this about is itself presaged by another rebirth – that of the ‘new man’ who embodies the “qualities of the redeemed nation” and who is able to heroically overcome present oppression.

You see my point. The world which Multicultural Man is constructing is a new reality, a utopian vision of tolerance and peace. He himself does not exist, but like the enlightened peasant shorn of all false consciousness, or the racially pure Aryan, he is always a generation away. He is a projection of a human without prejudice, colour-blind and infinitely tolerant. An Ubermensch, if you will, but an inversion of Nietzsche’s conception, because the world which this man inhabits has no hierarchy. He is not the outcome of Nietzsche’s aristocratic reawakening, but rather represents the scabby meek who are yet to inherit the earth. To overuse a metaphor, he is the pigeon, not the dove.

Of course, the ideals embodied in the sculpture are not fascist, for the simple reason that it is not nationalistic. It stands for tolerance and liberalism. The problem, though, is that it does so in a language completely unsuited to these ideologies – multiculturalism is a process, and not a messianic event. It does not require the birth of a new man, the construction of a new world, but rather an appreciation of the men and worlds we already possess. Unfortunately, these quiet, complex processes do not make good monuments.