In 1958, Henry Moore presided an international jury that was to select a monument for the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The jury chose The Road by Oskar Hansen, a radical monument. An asphalt road one kilometre long and 70 metres wide was to run through the whole camp diagonally, and the remains of barracks and crematoria would be left to decay naturally, overgrown by wild plants. But this revolutionary anti-monument was never built, rejected by the former prisoners, who couldn’t find themselves or their experience in this project and chose a more figurative monument containing the names of the deceased. 
In 1981, a new sculpture in the form of a 120 ft long curved, steel wall was erected on the plaza of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in lower Manhattan, commissioned by the US General Services. The sculpture drew criticism from neigboring government employees as soon as it was installed: by slicing the plaza in half, Titled Arc was an obstacle for anyone who wished to traverse it in a straight line. That was Serra’s goal, arguing that “Step by step, the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes”. After a public Hearing in 1985, Tilted Arc was finally cut back into three pieces and sent to a storage yard in Brooklyn.
If these two examples show one thing, it is that public art, and monuments as its subset, are complex. If you live or work in a city, chances are that you pass monuments on a daily basis: statues, memorials of war or markers of achievements. But do you notice these structures? Do they blend into the architecture of the city, or do you see them as artworks? Are they accomplishing what they promise? Do they honor the past or do they evolve with time? And what would it mean to encounter a fictional monument, one that will never be built?
The High Line Network Joint Art Initiative, with its focus on industrial reuse areas, proves to be an ideal platform to explore the subject of monuments. “Imagine a monument for today, for your city, for your country, for your community. As monuments […] are torn down every day, what will go up in their stead on these empty pedestals and plinths, or in the open sky above urban square and urban plaza?” This was the prompt given to twenty-five artists from five cities, who were selected by a jury of art professionals to design ‘new monuments for new cities’.
The exhibition that resulted, New Monuments for New Cities, started in Houston, after which it will travel to Austin, Chicago and Toronto, ending at New York’s High Line this October. I visit Houston’s recently regenerated city park, Buffalo Bayou, on an un-typically cold day. Twenty-five posters the size of billboards are displayed double-sided on thirteen light boxes, which are in turn mounted on pedestals. There are the five posters from the selected Houston artists, as well as the others from the remaining cities. There is something ancient-looking about the positioning, watched over by Henry Moore’s Large Spindle sculpture, as if Moore is presiding a second competition.
One work immediately catches my eye. A woman is holding a little boy, their faces touching. It is a black-and-white photograph crossed by a single line of text in a warm maroon color, reading: ‘a part’. The body language of the woman and child conveys closeness, but the image appears fragmented, consisting of black and white pixels. On closer look, I can make out a tiny subscript. “A four year old reunites with his mother, El Paso, July 26, 2018’ (and a photo credit to John Raedle/ Getty). This is a picture taken directly from a newspaper.
The artwork delivers a punch to my stomach: fleeting newspaper image reconfigured into a solid, monumental presence. “We are talking about things that have really broken hearts in our community: the separation of women and children”, one of the artists, Jimmy Castillo, explains to me at the opening of the exhibition. “We are at a point where we can allow immigrant families to grow ‘apart’ or become ‘a part’ of us.” He and the second artist, Delilah Montoya, are part of the Sin Huellas collective, an art/activist collective composed with the aim of revealing issues of borders and migration.
In another poster, Mary’s Naturally, the pink outlines of a building are visible behind a pink triangle, which is – as I learn from the artists, Nick Vaughn & Jake Margolin – the symbol of queer activism. A combination of an archive photograph, a screenprint and a digital design, the pigment seems to be pushed inward to form the triangle. The work is a tribute to the past, in the artists words, “to Houston’s iconic queer gay bar with the same name but also to the Houstonians killed by AIDS.” To me, it seems like a bold vision of future our city too, one where there will always be public spaces for everyone.
Not all the works are political. Artist Philip Pyle II has taken a model of Houston’s iconic Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman and added golden wire rims, a nod to our car culture. The remaining two Houston posters do not appear to be directly linked to our city. Jamal Cyrus’ work, in his words, ‘a monument to science’, shows a pyramid of life, starting with insects and crustaceans and ending with a human figure. Cyrus has inserted a Khokhoi woman to counter the white male that dominated in his own science books. Regina Agu’s contribution is a collage of elements of different buildings, strangely angled and blending into each other. It is like a meta-commentary, as if to state the impossibility of having one monument, because monuments, like history, are fluid and relational.
In all five works, and in many of the non-Houston works too, I detect a spontaneous, almost irreverent quality. The artworks of New Monuments for New Cities are most and foremost ideas, meant to generate discussion and questions. I realize that what makes this exhibition so refreshing is that here is a new type of monument: the conceptual monument, only existing as ‘design for’ even though it is temporarily presented as a structure in the landscape. The usual constraints of public art and monuments are absent here: there is no need for consensus, no dialogue with city planners, no consultation with members from the local community, or petitions from passers-by. There are no lengthy and difficult discussions with historians or survivors of war.
I look again at the mother and child, the pixelated image – not fixed, still becoming. And then I see it: this is a monument of hope. Hope that Houston will be celebrated for its motley of nationalities and cultures, a city where everyone can be ‘a part’. This city, built on swamps, ever expanding, hard to contain. Come to think of it, the poster would be a fitting monument for all of America, a nation of immigrants, fragmented and uncertain, but also strong and caring. A nation of independence and divide, but also of community.
But never mind. America is already building a national monument. It is a permanent one, a gigantic monument, on a scale you have never seen before. It is a monument and a memorial all at once, although there is no sign of a war. It is minimalist, made of concrete and steel, stark and solid like a Richard Serra sculpture. Except this one isn’t playful, and there was no consultation with the local community, or with the national one. There are no faces of people on this monument; only stone, stretching for miles and miles over the empty planes along our Southern border. Sadly, this wall is designed to keep people ‘apart’.
New Monuments for New Cities will be at Houston’s Buffalo Bayou until 30th April 2019, after which it will travel to Austin, Chicago, Toronto and New York. Entrance by Allen Parkway at Gilette Street .
With thanks to Laura August for editorial input
 Katarzyuna Murawska-Muthesius, ‘Oskar Hansen, Henry Moore and the Auschwitz Memorial Debates in Poladn, 1958-59, pp. 193-211 in Figuration/ Abstraction: strategies for public sculpture in Europe 1945-1968, ed. Charlotte Benson, Aldershot, Hants, Ashgate, 2004
 How Richard Serra changed the Discourse about Public Art in the 20th Century, Artsy Editors, May 2, 2016