I have been writing the series “Stories Behind”, which tells the stories behind statues on the streets, for a while. I have written stories behind animal statues (Tombili, El Gato y el El Caballo), statues for community leaders (Mary Barbour), statues that became symbols of cities (The Duke with a Cone). All of these stories have twists and turns, things you won’t expect to happen, things that are fascinating, interesting, hilarious, outrageous or plain ridiculous. But, the latest turn in the story behind the Engel statue in Manchester made me write its whole story.
Almost two weeks ago, we woke up to an unexpected invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. Although there were reports about this as a possibility, it sounded unreal, but happened. The war has been escalating since then by leaving thousands of refugees, death and atrocities behind.
Many try to help the people of Ukraine by sending humanitarian aid, opening their homes to refugees or demanding the countries imposing sanctions against Russia. Lots of solidarity in action in a very short period of time. The good face of humanity shows itself in the middle of this horrendous war.
Meanwhile, some seem confused about how to show their solidarity effectively with the people of Ukraine. This piece is not about showing the ways how to do it. It would be disrespectful to instruct such ways, as everyone tries to find one by themselves. But, one thing seems quite odd among all these ways that people try to show solidarity: the mainstream artworld’s response. The artworld is used to performative gestures and actions, and seems struggling to find ways for how to show true solidarity. For example, people questioned the actions such as taking down films from Russia from the Glasgow Film Festival programme (with a statement acknowledging this is nothing to the film-makers point of view).
Performative protests and acts of solidarity may be important in the society of the spectacle we live in. These may be effective as well to disrupt or stop violence. But, the criticism was that some of the performative acts that took place in the last weeks were remotely relevant to or helpful for supporting the people of Ukraine against the violence they have been facing.
The Mill broke the news about the Engels statue in Manchester amid these debates:
People were confused with the news with the questions in mind regarding the relevance of this. One Twitter user even explored Engel’s likely response to this:
HOME released a statement explaining their position as it’s not removing the statue, but explaining why and how it ended up in Manchester:
So, what was the story behind the Engels statue from Ukraine that ended up in Manchester? Why does the statement refer Phil Collins in all of these? What is the connection between Engels and Manchester?
Well, the story goes way back to the 1800s!
Engels lived and worked in Manchester during the years of industrial revolution. It was the time the working and living conditions in England were extremely exploitative and quite frankly horrid. Many know Engels through his impact on socialist thinking. Engels wrote quite a few important books including The Condition of Working Class in England in the late 1800s.
The Condition of the Working Class is the best-known work of Engels, and in many ways still the best study of the working class in Victorian England. It was also Engels’s first book, written during his stay in Manchester from 1842 to 1844. Manchester was then at the very heart of the Industrial Revolution and Engels compiled his study from his own observations and detailed contemporary reports. The fluency of his writing, the personal nature of his insights, and his talent for mordant satire combine to make this account of the life of the victims of early industrial change into a classic – a historical study that parallels and complements the fictional works of the time by such writers as Gaskell and Dickens. What Cobbett had done for agricultural poverty in his Rural Rides, Engels did – and more – in this work on the plight of the industrial workers in the England of the early 1840s.Penguin Classics
This solely is an important contribution to the people’s history in Manchester, and makes Engels a prominent figure in the history of the city. A BBC Legacies piece explains in a nutshell life of Engels in Manchester as a thinker and involuntary business person as well as how living in Manchester shaped his thinking.
Engels was deeply influenced by his first stay in Manchester. The social and political struggles taking place impressed him. Manchester was a focal point of the Chartists movement, the developing trade unions and cooperative societies, as it was for the factory agitations such as the campaigns to end child labour and to introduce a ten-hour day. He noted how politically active and well read a great number of the Manchester working class were.BBC Legacies
But, how come a Soviet-era statue of Engels from Ukraine arrived in Manchester?
That’s when HOME and Phil Collins take the stage. Phil Collins is an artist mostly known with his video art on various social issues. Some of his work explores the transformation after the fall of Easters block.
After the collapse of Soviet Union, the statues which were associated with the previous regime were removed from the cities. Some were disposed of, others were left around. Collins looked for a statue among those for two years, as part of the efforts to find a suitable Engels statue for Manchester, funded by the Manchester City Council. He found a suitable one in a village in Ukraine.
Finally one was discovered in the village of Mala Pereshchepina, in a district formerly named after Engels in the Poltava region of eastern Ukraine. It had been deposed from its central position in the village, cut in half at the waist, dumped in an agricultural compound and covered over with large raffia bags. It had the traces of pale-blue and yellow paint on its legs, the Ukrainian national colours.Guardian
The journey of the statue from the village of Mala Pereshchepina to Manchester was filmed throughout. They even stopped in Barmen, Germany, where Engels was born. As the final stop of this journey, the statue was erected in Manchester at the Manchester International Festival in 2017.
The festival’s artistic director, John McGrath, said he expected the statue’s new location to “invite people to think and ignite debate.”The New York Times
Collins explains why to bring an Engels statue to Manchester, which sums up the story behind the statue in Manchester:
“Manchester is a meeting point. It represents both the birth of capitalism and the factory system and the magic of capitalism, the magic of surplus value. But Manchester is also a site of resistance to that – of the Chartists and the 1842 general strike and the suffragettes and the Vegetarian Society,” he says. It’s this latter, radical side of the city that can’t be found, says Collins, among its memorials and statues and street names. The sculpture of Engels will subtly shift the balance.Guardian