Rubén Ortiz Torres, Dead Heads, 2023, in collaboration with LACMA × Snapchat: Monumental Perspectives, © Rubén Ortiz Torres, image courtesy of Snap Inc.

Rubén Ortiz Torres's Dead Heads Envisions a New Kind of Monument

February 16, 2024

LACMA × Snapchat: Monumental Perspectives is a multi-year initiative that brings together celebrated artists and leading technologists to create augmented reality monuments exploring histories of Los Angeles communities. In consultation with community leaders and historians, the initiative’s third and final collection of artists, Victoria Fu, Yassi Mazandi, Rashaad Newsome, Rubén Ortiz Torres, and Alison Saar, have used the lens of collective ancestral memory to examine the individual and communal legacies we leave today and have created works designed to be experienced at locations across Los Angeles with Snapchat’s camera.

Below, Rubén Ortiz Torres tells us more about his inspiration for the project Dead Heads, which responds to a site in Lincoln Heights where a number of sculptures have been stolen from their plinths, and uses these empty plinths to envision a new form of memorialization.

Somehow a world pandemic became the time to question the purpose and the subjects represented in monuments with problematic connotations. In the Southeast of the United States, statues of the questionable heroes of the Confederacy who fought to keep Black people in slavery were vandalized with graffiti or removed. In California, sculptures of the missionary Fray Junipero Serra were taken down by Indigenous and racial justice protestors. In New Mexico, representations of the Juan de Oñate were toppled and had a leg amputated. (The conquistador carried out a massacre of the Acoma people, the survivors of which were enslaved or, in the case of 24 young men, had a foot cut off as a warning to other rebellious pueblos.) On the East Coast and elsewhere, people threw red paint on effigies of Christopher Columbus, who enslaved and kidnapped Indigenous people and supervised the selling of Indigenous girls into sexual slavery. In Mexico City, monuments to Columbus, as well as to Mexican Independence, were covered in graffiti by feminists in response to historic abuses. The Mexican government ended up removing a big bronze statue of Columbus by French sculptor Charles Henri Joseph Cordier, known for his polychrome orientalist and colonialist 19th-century sculptures, and artist Pedro Reyes attempted to substitute it with his carved stone rendition of a stylized Native Mexican woman. Reyes is neither Indigenous nor a woman, so the city government ended up making an enlarged reproduction of a recently discovered pre-Columbian carved figure of a woman. Episodes like these have all served to question the hero status of problematic historical figures and what their likenesses represent in public spaces. 

Monuments in Los Angeles were also recently removed without many people noticing. Twenty busts cast in bronze disappeared from their pedestals in the East Los Angeles plaza known as El Parque de México, which is surrounded by North Mission Road, North Main Street, and Valley Boulevard and is part of Lincoln Park, close to Plaza de la Raza. Though we know where the busts once stood, the scene marked by the empty pedestals that now stand as series of repetitive, minimalist geometric boxes, we do not know exactly when, much less who the culprit was or why they did it. Not only were the statues removed from the the pedestals, but the bronze plaques that had the names of the Mexican heroes that were represented and the bronze bell that belonged to a large arch next to them are also missing. Two statues remain as silent witnesses: Benito Juarez, the Indigenous Mexican president from Oaxaca, and Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the rebellious forefather who ignited the Independence of Mexico with the Cry of Dolores. 

El Parque de México dates back to 1976, when Councilmember Art Snyder secured funds to separate the railroad tracks that demarcated the edge of Lincoln Heights. After the Chicano Civil Rights movement, people recognized a need to improve the conditions of the marginalized communities of the area, and the Mexican government, local organizations, and individuals donated the statues in an attempt to build transnational good will. The firm Barrio Planners designed El Parque de México (and later Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights and the Whittier Boulevard arch in East Los Angeles). These statues, along with the local succulent plants, the strong sunlight, and the rhythm of the city, almost made it feel like being in Mexico. Some of the sculptures were even made by well-known Mexican artists such as Francisco Zúñiga and my father’s godfather, Ignacio Asúnsolo. 

A few years ago, artist Oscar Magallanes, whose studio is in the neighborhood, noticed when some of the busts started to go missing. He decided to act as a private investigator in his own Chicano noir novel, asking around in Plaza de la Raza, but nobody seemed to know anything. Could it have been a French person who took General Ignacio Zaragoza in revenge for the defeat of the Cinco de Mayo battle? Was it someone still offended by the invasion of Columbus, New Mexico, (the only foreign incursion of American soil in modern times) who took Pancho Villa? Perhaps it was someone who dislikes poetry who took Ramón Lopez Velarde. Maybe it was a disgruntled investor of an oil company who took Lázaro Cárdenas, who nationalized the oil industry. Did the theft of Doña Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez have to do with misogyny, or was she taken by a Spanish royalist protesting Mexican Independence? Someone’s heroes are always someone else’s bandits.  

However, it’s possible there’s another answer. After the economic crisis of 2008, the value of metals increased, and people started robbing copper pipes from houses and other pieces of metal. Most likely, the reason did not have anything to do with politics or iconoclasm, but with the pure cost of bronze. At some point, all the busts disappeared, and it seems that Benito Juarez and Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla were left just because they are too heavy to be easily carried and too large to fit in a pickup truck.  

The disappearance of these monuments was certainly not as explicit a political gesture as the decapitation of Columbus, the amputation of the leg of Juan de Oñate, or the graffitiing and eventual removal of  the sculpture of General Lee. However, the result is an implicit one, highlighting the city’s disregard for its Mexican history. Where are Phillip Marlowe, Héctor Belascoarán, Rafe Buenrostro, Sonny Baca, or Rick Deckard when we need them?

It seems it will be impossible to recover the lost monuments, and there is no guarantee new ones would last. Perhaps the permanence of physical monuments needs to be reconsidered, and ephemeral site-specific works might make more sense. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s partnership with Snapchat uses augmented reality to rethink the purpose of monuments in Los Angeles, without the pitfalls of a physical artwork. Using this technology, I wanted to bring back the stolen monuments and mix them in with others from different times and places, including representations of viewers questioning what monuments should be, what they should represent, and what belongs in public space to reflect our complex realities and histories. Apparently, the recent discussions of the stolen monuments are leading to a renewed attention to El Parque de México, and will hopefully lead to some new art in this public space—beyond the virtual. 

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