Hans van Houwelingen: National Monument to the Guest Worker

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The 'Construction' by Naum Gabo in Rotterdam stands next to the Bijenkorf and dates from 1957. Floor Tinga wrote about Gabo's work that he ‘purposefully designed a ‘meaningless' abstract work that people could give meaning to themselves. However, a relationship between the local population and the monument didn't work out. In popular parlance it was soon tellingly nicknamed "The Thing" or "The train accident". Next to this, the constructivist sculpture, once a gift to the director of the Bijenkorf, is in a deplorable condition. The situation is so serious that the 27 meters high statue almost threatens to fall.'

The relationship of Hans van Houwelingen to this monument requires some explanation. In 2009, Van Houwelingen and the writer Mohammed Benzakour received a commission from the Centrum Beeldende Kunst (CBK) Rotterdam, to design a new monument for the first generation of guest workers.

Benzakour wrote a poem in honour of the guest workers and Van Houwelingen and Benzakour proposed that as a Memorial to the immigrant worker, the waning sculpture by Gabo would be restored by guest workers.

Van Houwelingen wrote the following about his proposal in the publication 'Undone' (expected late October 2011):

"Skilled people, contemporary specialized guest workers, who will restore the sculpture and return it to peak condition. They will approach the reconstruction of the city as a mirror image. This time the monument will itself be reconstructed; the sculpture itself will rise again from the rubble and its ruinous state. Contemporary guest workers work, so to speak, in the reverse direction, backwards in time, into history, returning the sculpture to its former glorifying state. That is the moment at which the descendants reach out a hand to their fathers, in a timeless labour contract: that is the moment at which the monument to the guest worker will exist."

This proposal for a new National Monument to the Guest Worker zooms in on the political motives and implications of a monument paying tribute to the social role of immigrant workers after World War II. The monumental status of the sculpture dislocates from one historical narrative of war and reconstruction, into another narrative beginning with expatriation, post-war cultural and social mutations, and leading all the way to globalization and the current dilemmas of multiculturalism.

The project has not (yet) been realized and has a turbulent history. Leefbaar Rotterdam, for example, in reaction to the plans for a National Monument to the Guest Worker, called in 2008 in a local newspaper for a monument for the Chased-Off Citizen of Rotterdam.

Jonas Staal writes about the current state of the monument in the publication 'Undone':

"In February 2010, Van Houwelingen's clients unanimously approved of his submission, but withdrew the commission by the end of the same year. His proposal to have guest workers restore the constructivist sculpture made in 1957 by Naum Gabo standing in front of the Bijenkorf in the city center, which is currently in a deplorable physical condition, in order officially to declare it the National Monument to the Guest Worker, was deemed too controversial."