America Celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy With Awkward, Ugly Rock

Forty-three years after his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr., has taken his place on the National Mall: the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C., was unveiled to the press today, in advance of its official dedication next week. It captures the great civil rights martyr just as he was in life: Trapped in a big white rock, like Han Solo frozen in carbonite, with some other rocks piled up behind him.

The memorial was authorized by Congress 15 years ago and weathered its share of funding crises and controversies on the way to reality: It was sculpted by a Chinese artist out of Chinese granite, involved ludicrous royalty payments to King's money-grubbing descendants, and depicts what some have criticized as an overly "confrontational" king.

But now that it's finally here, we can set the nitpicking aside and concentrate on the fact that it's unpleasant to look at and conceptually incoherent. Basically, the thing is a big rock with the middle sliced out and slid forward. Into that middle slice, a lazily unfinished visage of King has been sculpted, with his legs and back blending into undifferentiated rock like he's the victim of a transporter mishap on Star Trek. The tableau is inspired by a quote from the "I Have a Dream" speech: "With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." So King is trapped in the stone of hope, apparently, even though he talked about hewing said stone, which would mean he is hewing himself? And then the big white rocks behind him are mountains of despair, which are strange things to memorialize in stone.

When sculptor Lei Yixin was selected for the memorial, some people objected on account of the fact that Yixin had sculpted dozens of busts of Mao Tse-Tung, a brutal tyrant whose collectivist values didn't quite align with King's. That objection seemed strange at the time, because it's not like a dead liberal hero's memory can catch Communist cooties from a sculptor. And yet! This is a constructivist MLK, all hard edges and superhuman features and bulging arms. Swap out his head for Stalin's and the statue wouldn't look out of the ordinary in Moscow, 1952.

Whatever happened to statues? Just a nice statue? Is there some sort of arms race with memorials to make each one more complicated and high-concept than the next? Were the designers worried that everyone in Monument Theory class would laugh at them?

[Photo via Getty Images]