This paper focuses on the transformations that have been recorded, since the end of World War II, of different forms of memorialisation, that is the process of preserving memories of people or events. The reasons of this evolution lie in the change of objectives of distinctive models of memorialisation: shifting from the will to perpetuate the memory in aeternum to the need of processing a grief and promoting reconciliation. As time goes by, monuments and memorials seem to lose their effectiveness as they become empty simulacri, no longer capable of reactivating memories or staying alive, as Elena Pirazzoli has affirmed, among others.
The monument/memorial went into crisis when it began to be perceived as less relevant than the subject it commemorated. As a reaction to this crucial issue, there has been the attempt to transform the traditional model of monument into something more suited to present time, into more contemporary modes of commemorating. In essence, researchers have been trying to react to the crisis by elaborating new solutions capable of expanding the significance of monuments through memorials, museums, documentaries, and movies.(1)
Rather than representing a time of recovery and reactivation, rituals repeated on the occasion of anniversaries emphasise their failure. For this reason, and thanks to the initiatives promoted by several authors such as architects and artists, experimental explorations of new commemorative forms have started to appear in the last decade. An example of this new memorial typology is represented by counter-monuments (2), an artistic practice opposite to classical monuments and focused on specific key issues such as the role of visitors and their interaction with artistic actions. One of the most significant results, and probably one of the first of this kind, is The Monument Against Fascism in Hamburg (1986) by Esther and Jochen Gerz, planned to disappear in the ground where it was erected. The artists refer to this intervention in terms of ‘public authorships,’ meaning that the art practice is transformed into a shared process. They erected a lead-coated, 12 meter high stele on a pedestrian bridge over the Hamburg Harbour. At first sight, the object, which people commonly refer to as a ‘Monument against Fascism and War,’ recalls a traditional monument due to its column-like character. The artists invited passersby to write personal or political remarks on its surface: ‘Counter- and anti-monuments are always memorials, not in a celebrating or commemorative sense, but because they activate memory processes, which also include fractures, non-conventional conflicting points of view on the past or on the way of narrating it.’(3) The monument was lowered in the course of the following years and in 1993 it disappeared from the surface entirely; now it can only be seen through a window. According to Gerz, the monument cannot take away the responsibility of adult citizens to foster active, critical, and political awareness since, ‘in the long run, nothing can rise up against injustice in our stead,’ as one can read on the slab next to the sunken monument. The artists transformed this concept into a succinct image of a ‘disappearing monument.’ Counter-monuments represent ‘a new mnemonic practice rather than an innovative vehicle, focusing on meanings and concepts as well as on the effort that is necessary to make a “step further” in order to internalize the tragedies of the past, without rejecting or denying them’ (Borello 2004).(4) Other contemporary artists have been trying to address this point both critically and creatively since the 1990s by presenting concepts that aim to provide alternative ways of relating to history while strongly engaging people in a public space. Many of these approaches focus on the idea of dispensing with a traditional, grand type of monument, sprawling ‘remembrance prompts’ in public places instead, which are as inconspicuous as they are surprising. Among them the Stolpersteine (5) project by Gunter Demnig (1995),the Places of Remembrance (6) by Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock in Berlin (1993), and The Missing House (7) by Christian Boltanski in Berlin-Mitte (1990). In particular, in the mid-1990s, in the context of the 50th Anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps and the end of WW II, debates about how specific events should be commemorated were a leitmotiv. The discourse also raised the question of whether it is possible to conceive monuments that avoid suggesting a limited historical perspective and manage to achieve an accomplished, and possibly even ideologically biased, interpretation of history. Critics against traditional monuments are mostly based on the analysis of James Young who noticed that monuments rarely embody the complexity of historical events and are rather the expression of an already-established, one-dimensional interpretation process.
Is raising a monument about recording conventional history? Or should monuments provoke ongoing reflection? Should memorial objects rely on traditional iconography? Should they be grandly monumental? Made of marble, concrete or bronze? Can a traditional monument induce individual commemoration? What do the ‘authentic places of the perpetrators’ mean in the context of new monuments such as the memorial sites in concentration camps and the Topography of Terroron the former site of the Gestapo’s headquarters in Berlin? (8)
Some recent examples show a new look at the past and the need to retell stories in new ways by engaging people to play an active role in the commemorative process. The following three strategies seem to be able to represent new models of commemoration. The first typology is represented by the ‘temporary monument’ such as an installation or a performance in a public space or a natural landscape that is able to re-enact, through evocative processes, the memory of a traumatic event for a limited time: a cathartic event that reactivates the collective memory, as in the case of RedRiver (9) in Sarajevo (2012) and TheFallen.(10) There are also new forms that feature more permanent characters related to landscape and urban interventions. The Lady DianaMemorial (11) in London (2004) or the Gardens of RighteousWorldwide,which are popping up around the world, are examples of permanent interventions in the landscape. These models retrieve a typology which had fallen in disuse, namely the Parks of Remembrance, the typical memorial gardens dedicated to the heroes of World War I. In this case, nature and landscape are employed to handle difficult heritage and memory; they have the delicate task to negotiate controversial issues by means of beauty and life. Eventually, the third typology directly effects the public space by engaging people, places, and memories. In Triangular Pink Pench(1989) by Corrado Levi (12) and The National 9/11 Memorial (2011), (13) the commemorative act is performed without contemplating and using the dramaturgy of the trauma as a communicative tool: it is about a different storytelling. These last examples share the same attempt to detach remembering — and therefore personal interpretations often influenced by moral beliefs — from traditional, grandiose monuments. Historical events should instead be anchored in everyday life, appealing to passersby who are challenged to think critically and take responsibility. Conflict heritage has become evident in recent history with regard to the political changes that have been occurring among European countries. In this context, it is pretty clear that the great challenge of 21st-century museography will be focused on regaining possession of both our tangible and intangible heritage in order to include the past in our lives and encourage intergenerational exchange. After the epoch of monuments and memorials, when memory was fixed in established forms, today a new time has come for actions to regain possession of places, memories, and stories, to help elaborating the trauma. Places, with or without war aftereffects, provide direct relation to memory like in the case of the emotions triggered when walking through a park. Lastly, since ‘Europeanness’ is the result of the encounter among many identities and cultures, this new perspective also recognises intercultural dialogue as a fundamental element that allows keeping alive Europe’s multifaceted identity. Hence, the research aims to go beyond local, regional or national interests since only by developing synergies on a European level we will be able to create a transnational network that has the potential to share narratives which are unified by a common, and at the same time distinguished, historical memory.
* This paper includes excerpts taken from the publication: Michela Bassanelli, Viviana Gravano, Giulia Grechi and Gennaro Postiglione (eds.), Beyond Memorialisation. Design for Conflict Heritage (Milano: Politecnico di Milano, 2014).
(1) Elena Pirazzoli is PhD in History of Art; her research field lies between Memorial Studies and Visual Studies, pointing attention to the theme of memorial sites and forms, interweaving an historical approach with the analysis of the artistic and architectural practices which act in relation both with the events’ traces and with the constitution of new signs for commemoration.
Elena Pirazzoli, A partire da ciò che resta. Forme memoriali dal 1945 alle macerie del Muro di Berlino (Reggio Emilia: Diabasis, 2010).
(2) The definition of this term was coined by James E. Young, professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Some important publications: “The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today” (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1992, pp. 267-296). Young is also the author of At Memory’s Edge: After-images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (Yale University Press, 2000), The Texture of Memory (Yale University Press, 1993) and Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust (Indiana University Press, 1988).
(3) Giulia Grechi, “Counter-Monument and Anti-Monument: The Absolute Impatience of a Desire of Memory.”, in Re-enacting the past.Museography for Conflict Heritage, ed. Michela Bassanelli and Gennaro Postiglione (Siracusa: LetteraVentidue, 2013), 320-337.
(4) Luca Borello, “Per una eterodossia della memoria: i contromonumenti nell’ex Germania Ovest,” 2004, accessed January 10, 2014, http://www.alteracultura.org/old/outputris.php?ID=270
(5) Started in 1995, the work is an open process, consisting of re-placing with bronze stones typical urban paving: the new objects are placed just in front of doorways of places where people deported and never returned, used to live. Nowadays, there are several thousands of these objects spread around Europe. Paving stones bearing the names of people who were deported during the Nazi era are laid in front of buildings where they lived to recall their fate.
(6) A project with a similar basic intention was realised by the two Berlin artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock in 1993 in Berlin’s ‘Bavarian Quarter’ in Schöneberg as a monument against anti-Semitism. Stih and Schnock had 80 coloured double signs put up at the roadside. At first sight, they look like ordinary advertisements. Only when one takes a closer look does it become apparent that there are pictograms on the front of the signs that refer to texts on the back, taken from Nazi decrees and laws that successively excluded Jewish citizens. The concept brings together a pictogram of a bench, for example, with the text of a decree which only allowed Jewish citizens to use benches specifically labelled as being for their use.
(7) The Missing house is a project by the french artist Christian Boltanski, which he realised in Berlin-Mitte in 1990. Boltanski’s work focuses on an empty site in Grosse Hamburger Strasse left by a house destroyed in the war. The area had a large proportion of Jewish residents until the 1930s. The artist carried out archive research on the building’s former residents and discovered that the Jewish inhabitants had been expelled or deported by the Nazis. Plaques were attached to the fire wall of the adjacent building bearing their names, occupations and the dates they lived in the house. The gap left by the destroyed house is thus linked with references to its former residents, who are thus no longer anonymous.
(8) Paul Sigel, “Debates on appropriate forms of remembrance,” accessed January 10, 2014, http://www.goethe.de/kue/arc/dos/dos/zdk/en944169.htm.
(9) In the city of Sarajevo to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the siege of the capital when it was built a temporary installation in the main street of the city. The 11.541 empty chairs correspond to the exact number of victims of the attack on the Bosnian capital, they were neatly arranged in the road with the help of the population. A collective celebration that re-enacts the memory and enters in a strong way in the urban everyday life.
(10) In Normandy, along the beach of the landing, in relation to the international day of peace (September the 21st, 2013), a couple of English artists has realised an installation, drawing on the beach, also in this case with the help of people, the silhouettes of 9.000 men in position of death. The project, called ‘The Fallen’ is a tribute to the civilians, to the german forces and allied forces who have lost their lives during the Operation Neptune, which took place on 6 June 1944.
(11) This project, although not related to a conflict memory, represents an interesting way to convert the memorial space into a place accessible, not rhetorical and welcoming everyday life. The memorial by Gustafson Porter concerns the construction of a very accessible place, dominated by a free use of the space and the fountain by the passer. The visitors do not consider it not as a place of commemoration but a place of interaction, where drama and life can exchange continuously the role.
(12) It was realised in 1989 by the Italian artist and architect Corrado Levi to remember the homosexuals victims in Nazi concentration camps. Set in a public space in the city of Turin, the object becomes part of everyday urban life while at the same time friendly acting also as a commemorative monument.
(13) The National Memorial to Ground Zero by Michael Arad and Peter Walker represents a possibility to work with the traces and the strong memory inside the city. Visitors will leave the everyday life and enter into a special public area defined by a dense forest of 416 oak trees and by two fountains following the perimeter of the old towers. Using a language similar to Michael Heizer’s North, East, South, West, the voids render absence visible. In this way, the overwhelming losses of September 11th are given permanent presence but while a new public space is donated to the big and dense metropolis.