By Brian Morton
It occurred to me when news of Geronimo’s execution came through – that I had first become clearly aware of Osama bin Laden’s existence in the work of a Scottish artist. The then relatively obscure Saudi bad boy was the subject of a small bust by Kenny Hunter, bookended with a similar representation of Monica Lewinsky, to whom the term small bust applies more awkwardly.
The piece was called What Is History? I remember talking to Kenny Hunter for BBC Scotland about his interest in what might be called the aesthetics of historicism, in the ways a historical bust might be used to convey not so much the appearance of a certain person but the ideologies and values that person represented as a microcosm of a state or culture.
Hunter’s imagery, and needless to say the juxtaposition of terrorist and intern, was intended as an ironic commentary, but I’ve often wondered whether any of that edition of 100 found its way into the hands of an Islamist or an actual supporter of al-Qaeda. What such a person would have done with the Lewinsky half of the piece is anyone’s guess.
I never met bin Laden, though having spent the last eight years in a secluded white house and burned all my own rubbish, I have considerable fellow-feeling. I did, however, shake Monica Lewinsky by the hand. She was waiting to go on Women’s Hour, I to record an interview. She seemed plain and plump and pleasant, and of course nothing at all like either the persona created by Linda Tripp and Kenneth Starr, or the icon created by Kenny Hunter.
I think about Lewinsky often, and in a perfectly wholesome way. I was thinking about her the morning bin Laden was shot, but it was only then that I realised how much of my own personal culture has been dominated by the bust. Again, not in a Hugh Hefnerish way, but in the way proposed all those years ago by Kenny Hunter, in whose work the grand narratives of classical and imperial cultures are collapsed into a piece of kitsch.