Visitors to Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn on Monday morning may have noticed something out of the ordinary as they passed the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument—a four-foot tall bust of Edward Snowden sat on top of one of the columns.
The controversial whistleblower's bust was fused onto the top of one of the four seven-foot tall Doric columns that surround the massive 149-foot column that is the centerpiece of the memorial. The unauthorized statue was put into place covertly overnight by an anonymous group of artists. By choosing to place the bust on an existing monument the artists guaranteed two things—that the display would attract attention and that it's existence would be fleeting. Sure enough, by early afternoon both things had occurred as the statue was a major trending topic on social media and the New York Parks Department had removed the statue.
By design most traditional art (and tattoo art certainly falls into this category) is intended to stand the test of time. When an artist spends hours on a sculpture, painting or full back tattoo the idea is that it will last for decades if not longer. The artist expects that over this long period of time the piece will be experienced by people and, hopefully, the art will gain cultural significance.
Considering the piece's very short shelf life and the enormous amount of effort required to create it—the anonymous artists told Animal New York the bust took about six months to complete and thousands of dollars to create—the statement made by the piece needed to be immediate and powerful. One surefire way to do this is by drumming up some controversy, and these anonymous artists certainly did that.
Even as his name has faded a bit, Snowden is an incredibly polarizing figure. By leaking an enormous amount of classified documents detailing surveillance programs used by the National Security Agency Snowden made himself a target to those who thought that he committed treason and a hero to those who saw his actions as noble. Thus it is impossible to even mention his name without it leading to some form of debate. One would assume that if the bust was left at a bus stop that it would still garner attention but it is the appropriation of the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument that made the piece newsworthy.
In an official statement given to Animal New York the artists explained the reason that they chose this particular monument as the venue for the Snowden bust.
"Fort Greene’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is a memorial to American POWs who lost their lives during the Revolutionary War," the statement reads. "We have updated this monument to highlight those who sacrifice their safety in the fight against modern-day tyrannies."
Through the choice of venue the artists are attempting to equate the level of sacrifice Snowden made by leaking classified information to the deaths of over 11,000 prisoners of war during the Revolutionary War; essentially they are saying that Snowden is a martyr for freedom. This is a suggestion that is sure to rankle some feathers even among those who support Snowden. The main problem with trying to assert that Snowden is a martyr is that he simply cannot be one—by definition a martyr must be dead.
The suggestion that Snowden is a martyr in the same way that those honored by the memorial can be construed as offensive. Living in exile in Russia as Snowden currently is and dying on a brutal prison ship and having one's body dumped into the water to be forgotten are not really comparable circumstances. While the artists were attempting to elevate the significance of Snowden they (perhaps inadvertently) ended up making light of the sacrifices of the soldiers the monument was built to honor.
Another interesting effect of using an existing memorial as the venue for the installation is that it has turned attention to a little known memorial. One can guess that most people never had any idea that there even was a Prison Ship Martyrs' monument let alone the fact that more American soldiers died on prison boats docked off of New York City than died in combat during the Revolutionary War. I learned that last fact by doing research into the memorial once I heard about the Snowden statue and I strongly doubt that I was the only one to do so. Thus a temporary piece of art ends up shining the light on a oft forgotten piece of art that has existed for decades and our story has come full circle.
While it was only known to the public for a few ephemeral hours the Edward Snowden bust placed in Fort Greene Park left a lasting impression behind. By opening up discussions about the politics of the piece's subject, the controversial choice to place the statue upon a war memorial and the effects of temporary art versus more lasting forms the Snowden bust will not soon be forgotten. Even if it is currently stashed in a New York Parks Department warehouse somewhere.