08 May 2005

Modern icons (1)

I intend to use this posting as a precursor to a longer and more detailed webpage. To accompany this post I intend to upload some photographs of modern icons.
In a computer-related context, the term icon has largely come to mean a cartoon-like picture. In a classical sense, it seems to me, that an icon is both a shorthand for something, and also a memory prompt for a category of experiences. I guess that classical icons work on both a publicly shared and a private level.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Statue of Liberty in New York City are equally iconic, albeit regarding slightly different sets of experiences. Both are monuments that have come to symbolise both their location and some important aspect of social identity. The Eiffel Tower stands proudly for French engineering prowess and for the energy of nineteenth century France. It is a national symbol that was captured by a military enemy, and now represents the liberation of Paris from Nazi domination. It has become a symbolic mannequin to be clothed in the current Parisian and French national celebrations. The Statue of Liberty stands proudly for New York City as a tourist destination (contrast this with the New York City of Midnight Cowboy, and Bringing out the Dead); for new opportunities in a new world (see the opening credits of the Mike Nichols movie Working Girl); freedom from the oppression of racist and fascist Europe; a symbol of the US to be protected from terrorist attack.
The clock tower (housing Big Ben) in the Palace of Westminster represents London (as a tourist destination and cultural capital), the UK government (both as a seat of democracy, and as a repository of power with colonial resonances and domination over provincial UK), Britain as a tourist destination. Interestingly, Nelson's Column, in Trafalgar Square, carries a similar iconic load, but familiarity with it declines rapidly outside the south east of England. In contrast, the Millennium Wheel (London Eye) on the south bank of the River Thames in London is gradually achieving iconic status, and its recreational nature may carry the weight of tourist meaning more easily than 'Big Ben'.
[Addendum] Some weeks after first posting this, I came across a short article on the BBC News website about the status of the Millennium Wheel. The article (The history of the London Eye by Alexis Akwagyiram) goes at least some way to concurring with some of my thoughts expressed here.
Standing in the heart of the city, the Brandenburg Gate is an icon of Berlin. To a lesser extent it is also an icon of the German people, although this honour is shared with the Reichstag. Standing between the former East Berlin and West Berlin, the gate also points to the former existence of socialist East Germany, and to the contrasting vibrancy of the capitalist enclave of West Berlin, and to the Iron Curtain. The Brandenburg Gate has come to represent a German nation unified, and freed from communist occupation. However, whilst I am willing to extend that sense of liberation from communist occupation to occupation by the Nazi regime, I am unsure about the extent to which the gate was used as a national icon by the Nazis. In contrast, there is no ambiguity about the Eiffel Tower in Paris: Nazi occupation followed by French liberation.
The desert pyramids are an icon of Egypt. Images of the pyramids are used to encourage tourism by pointing to past Egyptian civilisation and historical culture. Contemporary Egypt is impoverished, resulting in some unpleasant political undercurrents that have made tourists into targets.

I wonder how iconic The Angel of the North has become. It is a massive sculpture by the British sculptor Anthony Gormley, and stands on high ground at the southern edge of Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, overlooking the A1 (the road that links London to Edinburgh). Some people from the North East England have taken it to heart, and for them it has come to stand for their identity as Geordies. However, for many people in the North East, it is far too modern, and far too high cultured. Moreover, its 'Tyneside' location is taken as exclusive by many people of Wearside (Makkems) and Teesside.

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