Thursday, 4 December 2008

Holocaust memorials and aesthetics of site-specificity

Recent Holocaust memorial commissions granted to artists presuppose that aesthetic theories applied to a public setting can further the memory of the Holocaust. True, critical inquiry is intrinsic to the production and reception of art. However, my hypothesis is that memorial projects conceived as public art may suffer from the simple relocation of ideas formed in artistic institutions that fail to recognise the complexities of collective memory. Recent memorials to the Holocaust increasingly place an emphasis on site and on the observer, brought to the fore through aesthetic ideas of minimalism, site-specificity and conceptual art, yet aesthetic concerns may in fact hinder the furthering of memory. Memorials in Germany have sought to debilitate easy and self-justifying narratives. The counter-monument, Young argues, is emblematic of post-modern distrust for grand narratives. However, this distrust directly affects contemporary aesthetics of memorial making. Jochen and Esther Shalev-Gerz ‘Monument against Fascism’, Harburg and Rachel Whiteread, with her Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, work within aesthetic contexts of the conceptual and the self-destructive that I would argue were unsuccessfully adapted to the reality of memorialising the Holocaust. The value and meaning of Public Art is forever the subject of debate. Nonetheless, the basic aim of every memorial is to communicate with a remembering public. Can memorials in their embodiment of aesthetic theories present a space for critical inquiry into Holocaust remembrance that is understood by a wider public?

First and foremost, monumental architecture is in fact wrongly perceived to be fixed in time and space. With the passage of time, monuments disappear in the cityscape, like all symbols, dependent on a given set of meanings, the monument or memorial is susceptible to changes in historical narratives. Paradoxically, it the very permanence of national values that memorials are thought to embody, whereas impermanence is the fate of the public monument. The memorials impermanence is often obscured by the fact that though sharing the heroic and self-aggrandizing aspect of many traditional monuments, memorials are in fact the expression of a desire to forget. In the name of History, the memorial sanctifies, it becomes the vessel for public grief and/or the bearer of national guilt. The memorial makes present what is absent (the dead) so as to better make absent what is present (grief and guilt). Nonetheless, the focal point for commemorative rituals, the memorial makes public once again the memory it upholds momentarily unearthing that which is buried in the national consciousness. The very need for these commemorative rituals is proof of the disappearing act expected of the memorial. A disappearing act that the Gerz’ only reiterate in conceptual terms. The traditional memorial is not, as it is held to be, omnipresent and omnipotent, but itself self-effacing. In this light, the self-effacing counter-memorial is in fact nonsensical.
Absence and negative space is used in memorial making in answer to mistrust for the aesthetic that is so deeply anchored within our collective imaging and imagining of the Holocaust. Allan Kaplan writes of ‘aesthetic pollution’ to demonstrate how, in heritage of such notions, monumental sites of memory, resist an aesthetic interpretation, hindering their collective function (Kaplan: 2007). However, as Ladd and Kaplan demonstrate, monumental architecture associated so closely to fascism in the common mind, is in fact a myriadic product of a modernist aesthetic, in part even opposed to fascist principles, groomed to embody fascist politics by means of cultural trappings. The architecture of the Nazi period, once festooned with the aesthetics of dramatic and self-aggrandizing ceremonial rituals, became retrospectively a haunting symbol of the fascist Idea. It is rather the absence of debate surrounding collective memory, than monumental architecture in itself that is symbolic of autocratic cultural systems such as fascism.

A memorial’s meaning does not lie within a sculptural or architectural aesthetic but should be determined by collective understanding and experience that is open to criticism. Place as defined by De Certeau, is dependent on a self-fulfilling system of rule and habit. The idea of Space, on the other hand, acknowledges the possibility of transitive and fragmentary definitions of a given place. Why is De Certeau’s definition of space so relevant? When considering memory, place is given a further temporal dimension that is necessarily transient. Sites of memory, are temporally and culturally conditioned, dependent on a complex web of projected memories. Memorials that do not encourage a perpetual experience of memory risk being autocratic or disappearing into the urban backdrop just as effectively as the traditional memorials they seek to counter. Memory thus needs to be imagined or performed rather than read.
The Harburg memorial, by allowing the public to inscribe their names and thoughts on its surface actively included the public in the act of remembrance. However, the act of writing became retrospectively an act of atonement as the inscriptions disappeared with the memorial The crux of the Gerz's conception for the Harburg memorial lay in the wish to have the burden of memory rest on the shoulders of the local population. The memorial does successfully resist memory to simply be contained within itself. However, as the column finally disappeared within its shaft it will not take long for the memory of its presence to fade. As we have seen, commemorative rituals testify to the fact that with time, memorials become gradually invisible. It is illusory to believe that without constant reminding, a particular mnemonic group will choose to uphold a problematic memory. Again, the Harburg memorial fails in communicating with its remembering public. Here, lies a common problem of public art. To what extent are the concepts central to the work understood by the public? Western art traditionally speaks to a restricted community of aficionados, anchored as it is in the notion of the avant-garde just as Whiteread’s memorial remains very elusive. It makes subtle play of the absence of memory, emphasised by creating a cast, a negative rendition of the forgotten entity. The memorial is thus an index of the absent many, and, conceptually, pre-empts and thus problematises collective amnesia. However, ‘Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial’ is meaningful only in the wider context of Whiteread’s work and is thus only truly understandable to those in the know. Memorials should allow for different understandings that are at once coexistent and diverging, at the juncture of private and public. Collective memory does not amount to the sum of myriad individual experiences but exists at the confluence of shared memories, whilst remembering remains personal and subjective. (Mitzal. 2003).

Influenced by minimalism, which encouraged the beholder to become aware of the conditions of viewing an art work, site-specific art calls upon a self-reflexive and transitive experience of space. Site-specific sculpture, as pioneered by such key figures as Richard Serra, is emblematic of a reaction against omnipresent and dictatorial cultural institutions. By placing the emphasis on site, mode of production and reception, artists rejected previously held opinions on the nature of sculpturality, negated the work’s commercial value, and, more relevant to this discussion, made the viewer central to its understanding. Peter Einsenman’s contentious Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, takes the form of a sea of concrete blocks, seemingly sinking into an undulating ground and through which the viewer is to walk around aimlessly. Peter Eisenman draws on a decontructivist approach to space, a signature of his work (Kaplan) to produce empathy by means of a visceral understanding.
Audiences unschooled in the history of art turn to everyday life experiences as reference point to understand an art work. By calling on feelings of loss and displacement felt through the body, the memorial thus seeks to bridge private and collective memory of the Holocaust. The memorial has it is true changed considerably since the original design, however, concept fails to provide content. The beholder is never disorientated, the city consistently appearing over the concrete columns. The site of the memorial itself here fails Eisenman’s wish to deconstruct the memorial space. Shunned by Berliners, the main reason for the Berlin memorial’s failure in being part of local collective memory, I believe, lies in the nature of the commission. Situated amongst other monuments, in a district that is a ‘Schaufenster’ for the city, it is evident that this memorial was intended for cultural tourists.

High concept memorials, though appealing to critics and commissioning bodies, do not necessarily encourage public debate. However, without pandering to the emotive, memorials can reveal how the viewer is implicated, rather than being purely informative, which would render Holocaust victims mere ciphers of a reiterated narrative. Horst Hoheisel’s Aschrott Brunnen Monument, Kassel, 1997 also plays with representing absence through a self-effacing monument. Hoheisel inverted and re-constructed, underground, the Aschrott fountain. Where the Harburg monument is physically finite in time, however, the Aschrott Brunnen confronts the viewer with the continuous experience of an allusive sound of running water in the depth of the sunken and overturned fountain. The fact that this sound is allusive, encourages critical inquiry that is imagined and felt through the senses. A web of memories of the Holocaust emerge, allowed space for critical inquiry that is imagined. Felt through the senses, understanding is not dependent on elusive concepts. By focusing on experience that is both imagined and felt within the body, the memorial is able to communicate with a wider public.

1 comment:

Sandra said...

Read it and told you my opinion personally. Great idea to create this blog. I will try to contribute!