Reflections on Big Headed Presidents...
Photos and words by Patrick Joust
I first read about the 15 foot high busts that made up the ill-fated Presidents Park outside Williamsburg, Virginia even before there was a park. This was over 13 years ago and the statues, created by David Adickes, struggled to find a permanent home and were traveling throughout the U.S. on the back of trucks. It was a mental image that stuck with me. When they did find a place to rest, I continued to follow the story of this bizarre roadside attraction, a somewhat more bombastic version of the usual kitsch found in and around America’s historical sites. When I heard that the park was closing, because of an inability to garner enough sustained support to pay its bills, I continued to be interested, particularly when I learned that the statues from the failed park were being moved to a farm outside Williamsburg, saved by the contractor who was given the task of demolishing them (who was also kind enough to allow me to take pictures of the statues on his property). When I read this article about their current condition, I did a little sleuthing, figured out where exactly they were and decided to hit the road with my wife and son to take my own pictures of the site.
I'm not usually someone who goes to “urban explorer” friendly attractions like old hospitals, abandoned factories, amusement parks, etc., but this place was different. I’ve always been interested in history, particularly how it is interpreted and how that interpretation influences the way we approach our lives and politics. It's not hard to make the connection between seeing these statues and seeing the decaying monuments of the former Soviet Union and other “Eastern Bloc" countries. There's an impressive scene in Theo Angelopoulos's Ulyssess' Gaze, that shows a broken up statue of Lenin being carried on a barge headed for an ignoble fate. This is the kind of thing we don't see as much in the United States: a decontextualization of what we’d most often take for granted. While the statues were not much more than a novel interest in their intended state, seen this way, they move beyond kitsch and actually become art.
The similarities to the fallen iconography of the Eastern Bloc notwithstanding, for me the statues don't so much represent the idea of an America in decline, but a representation, turned on its head, of the standard and lazy approach we often take towards our history. The kind of history that’s most often disseminated in the classroom and to the public. The kind that doesn’t require much in the way of critical thinking. It might seem to be a stretch, but for me these statues, in their crumbling state, are a reminder of the harm we do when we simplify and obfuscate the many narratives of our past. Like so many of the public displays imposed on the masses in the former Soviet Union, I feel like these statues demonstrate how the efforts to smooth over history’s less attractive or popular moments just don’t work. Even when it seems to be succeeding it doesn’t, because the bigger the representation, the more blatant and obvious the lie becomes. Even if it’s not acknowledged, everyone kind of knows that this is an ersatz version of history. While it might not be completely taken seriously, because it’s what we see most, it becomes the default representation and obscures the important narratives that might help us to understand the past and how it relates to us today. We end up ingesting a national mythology, missing the real stories, erasing history.
So my take on the state of the statues might be different than most. I find their current condition fitting and poignant. My view of history is better informed by the Howard Zinn approach rather than as a series of events propelled by "great" men. I’m very tired of the ill-informed reverence we give our "founding fathers" for instance. Twelve of these presidents, now lined up together in a field, owned other human beings. The genocide perpetrated against Native Americans is another obvious sin of our past in which many of these men played a role. So many others were just the willing tools of the wealthy. These facts are all central to our history, but too often glossed over. The symbolism of seeing these giant busts, built to be revered, but now full of holes, decaying in a torn up field, is pretty compelling, whatever your interpretation.
I don’t want to seem too extreme by painting all of the presidents with the same brush and abandoning nuance. Obviously Lincoln and the Roosevelts and others had real positive impacts. Even the best among these men lived complicated lives, with some actions that were heroic and others horrific. One of the challenges an honest appraisal of our past requires is that we try and balance these things. In a way we should get comfortable with being uncomfortable with our history.
Having said all that, there's something refreshing about seeing these representations of the presidents like this, in stark contrast to the sainthood we bestow upon them, especially the ones whose actual lives are so distant from us. We do a disservice to the memory of those we engender with such reverence, while doing much worse for the neglected and ignored in our nation's history. The simple narrative that these statues hoped to portray now says something very different, though it’s not the same to everyone. That’s a lot of what makes them so interesting. Their forlorn state immediately sparks questions. I don't normally like to lead others’ interpretations of my photography, but my thoughts are strong enough that it’s hard not to share some of what I’m feeling.
Even though I’m happy with the pictures I was able to capture, this site is all about place rather than anything especially artful going on with the photos. They’re pretty straightforward. Anyone could take interesting pictures here. While the rows of decaying gray presidents under a gloomy sky are compelling enough, it was the one image I took of my son, walking around the statues, that I like the most. I liked how, from my then two year old's perspective, these statues were just a bunch of big heads, without context, without a sense of reverence, without the overbearing hold on our public history. Without anything, good or bad, just a collection of curiosities. A novelty. A folly. A place to play and explore. Fodder for something new.