What is a memorial?
Representation, Remembrance and the Memorial draws inspiration from recent public memorials designed by artists across the world to commemorate histories of atrocities, genocide and state violence.
Many of these memorials can be considered “counter-monuments”, a term coined by the scholar James Young to describe how Holocaust memorials do not use traditional forms such as the obelisk or figurative statue but emphasise negative spaces and voids.
The upright forms of traditional monuments claim a dominating presence in public space to directly represent triumph. Generally, these monuments symbolise nationalist myths that exclude the histories and memories of marginalised people. For example, in Australia, the larger-than-life bronze statue of Captain Cook, that stands upon an impressive granite column in Sydney’s Hyde Park, celebrates the British expedition to Australia as an optimistic story of discovery. This meaning excludes the histories of war and invasion of Aboriginal lands that followed Cook’s arrival in 1770.
In the late twentieth century, progressive memorial design has shifted towards using forms and creating spaces where multiple memories can be articulated and where marginalised histories can be acknowledged. Artists are at the forefront of these developments experimenting with new visual languages that can address the incomprehensibility of traumatic events and engage viewers in a critical encounter with difficult histories.
Key examples of Holocaust counter-monuments include the Monument Against Fascism in Hamburg, Germany, by Jochen Gertz and Esther Shalev-Gerz and the Ashchrott-Brunnen Monument in Kassel, Germany, by Horst Hoheisel. Other artists using new visual languages in memorial works include Jenny Holzer’s Lustmord series (1993-95) that addresses histories of sexual violence, Kara Walker confronts the memories of slavery in America, Christian Boltanski’s works which use clothing, photographs, shadows and other materials, and Fernando Traverso’s Bicis public memorial in, Rosario Argentina, that features images of bicycles stencilled onto public buildings to stand for the disappeared. In Australia, a number of artists have worked with the colonial records to bring visibility to histories of massacre including Judy Watson and Julie Gough.
Case Study: Rachel Whiteread's Holocaust Memorial
In Vienna’s Judenplatz, a town square and former centre of Viennese Jewish life in the Middle Ages, stands Rachel Whiteread’s monument in honour of the Austrian victims of the Holocaust. Completed in 2000, this large concrete sculpture takes the form of an inverted library.
Whiteread has developed a sculptural technique of casting in plaster or concrete the negative space inside objects and rooms. For example, the 1990 work Ghost is a cast of a lounge room found in a Victorian terraced house. Turning air into mass the artist reveals architectural details but also traces of human life, dents in the wall and worn surfaces, to make artworks that memorialise past lives.
The Nameless Library is similar appearing as the interior cast of a room lined with rows of books. Yet this memorial was made not from an actual room but from a fabricated model that matches the scale and format of domestic libraries found in the adjacent buildings of the town square. Thus the work relates to its environment feeling somewhat familiar but there are many obstacles to an easy or comfortable reception.
In this memorial, books reference Jewish identity as ‘People of the Book’. The loss of Jewish lives is represented in the repetition of books across the rectangular surfaces of the sculpture. The uniformity of colour and size suggests that the memorial holds endless copies of the same edition symbolising the vast number of victims. The books are presented in rows with their spines facing inwards so the titles are unknown. This arrangement alludes to those stories that can’t be told about the Holocaust, those experiences that remain unfathomable.
The emphasis on a void of meaning is emphasized again in the use of negative casts. The doors to this imaginary library are cast with the panels inside out, and have no doorknobs or handles indicating inaccessibility. The roof is also a negative cast made from a ceiling decorated with a central rose and the books stand on shelves that have been extracted.
The tension between the monolithic form that this sculpture takes and its insistence on concealment and voids makes it a powerful memorial. The work creates a confusing space. People park their bikes against it, thinking it an unusual or closed building, but people also lay flowers at its steps. Like a tomb it is a physical marker to lives lost but it also makes present the in-between spaces, the crevices and cracks, where secrets are hidden and subjects are concealed, as was literally the case for Jewish people during the second world war.
Furthermore, underneath this memorial lie significant historical remains which also amplify the themes of loss and concealment. Just before this memorial was built archaeological excavations revealed the ruins of a synagogue underneath the memorial site. It was burnt in a pogrom in 15th century bringing a violent end to the Jewish identity of the square.
Whiteread’s intriguing and architecturally cohesive structure demonstrates how the presence of art as monument in a public space can activate remembrance. This is the potential of a memorial that is not in the guise of a traditional war monument.
Carley, Rachel. “Silent Witness: Rachel Whiteread’s Nameless Library.” IDEA Journal (2010): 24-39.
Traumascapes “describe places across the world marked by traumatic legacies of violence, suffering and loss, [where] the past is never quite over… Full of visual and sensory triggers, capable of eliciting a whole palette of emotions, traumascapes catalyse and shape remembering and reliving of traumatic events.”
Maria Tumarkin, Traumascapes (Melbourne University Press, 2005).
Since the late twentieth century, sites of atrocities, genocide and state violence across the world have received increased attention and activity. It has become important to mark these sites with memorials, whether ceremonial, makeshift or permanent. The memorial forms, which feature at these sites, encourage a reckoning with the ongoing impacts, the unfinished business, of these events. Often these memorial forms or practices incorporate the material remains and include communities of survivors and the descendants of survivors and perpetrators.
Myall Creek Memorial, Bingara, Australia
The bronze plaque on the Myall Creek massacre memorial stone reads:
"In memory of the Wirrayaraay people who were murdered on the slopes of this ridge in an unprovoked but premeditated act in the late afternoon of 10 June, 1838.
Erected on 10 June 2000 by a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians in an act of reconciliation, and in acknowledgement of the truth of our shared history.
We remember them. Ngiyana winangay ganunga."
For more information about this important memory site and the annual ceremony visit www.myallcreek.info .
Memorial stupa, Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, Cambodia
Built in 1988, this memorial is a seventeen story glass stupa, (30 metres high), and is situated on one of the “killing fields” were mass graves were found after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Half of the graves have been exhumed and the skulls, over 8,000 have been entombed in the memorial, arranged by sex and age. The lowest level contains clothing from victims found at the site and scattered on the floor of the stupa are rusted hammers, saws, shears, hoes and leg chains. At the site, there remains disinterred mass graves, and bones and clothing scatter the ground’s surface, which is delineated with pit, and mound forms of the mass graves.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Oświęcim, Poland
“If at the time of liberation we had been asked: ‘What would you like to do with these infected barracks, these wire fences, these rows of toilets, these ovens, these gallows?’, I think that most of us would have answered: ‘Get rid of everything, raze it to the ground…’ [but] we would have been wrong. These are not mistakes to efface. With the passing of years and decades, their remains do not lose any of their significance as a Warning Monument; rather, they gain meaning.”
Primo Levi (1985)
The Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, opened in 1967 at the site of a former Nazi concentration camp where more than one million people lost their lives. It takes the visitor to the actual site of genocide with physical evidence of the holding and death place of the victims, remnants of clothes, and photographic documentation. This site is one of the most viscerally powerful memorials to commemorate the Holocaust as it includes the photographed faces of the thousands murdered staring back at the viewer.
District Six Museum, Cape Town, South Africa
"The Museum represents a living memorial and is more than just a static display. Through this space we have created an arena, which enables us to reaffirm our identity, celebrate our heritage and confront the complexities of our history."
This museum opened in 1994, at the site of district six, a neighbourhood of 60,000 residents who were forcibly removed and homes demolished during the Apartheid, when it was designated a “white” suburb.
For an analysis see Martin Hall, ‘Cape Town’s District Six and the Archaeology of Memory’ in Robert Layton, Peter G Stone and Julian Thomas (eds), Destructions and Conservation of Cultural Property, (London and New York: Routledge, 2001).
Sanctuary: Tombs of the Outcasts
Sanctuary: Tombs of the Outcasts was an exhibition by Brook Andrew at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne in 2015. The exhibition was the museum's contribution to marking the Anzac centenary, the 100th anniversary of Australia's involvement in the First World War. A rich archive of objects, documents and photographs from the University of Melbourne's cultural collections and the artist's personal collection was the raw material for many of the works in Sanctuary. By juxtaposing these documents and artefacts the exhibition traced Australia's involvement in wars including the military contributions to the First and Second Wars but also the under-acknowledged service of Indigenous people and the status of Australia as a sanctuary for those fleeing war zones. The investigation of war went further still with the inclusion of historical materials that provide insight into colonial violence and histories of slavery beyond Australian shores.
In the exhibition catalogue, Elina Spilia described this installation as providing "a space to reflect on war and conflict, both past and present. The exhibition invites us to fold our personal histories into encounters with items drawn from various ... cultural collections... Andrew's intention is to open a critical discourse with war and its complex relationships with historiography, politics and violence, and with acts of remembrance, commemoration and bearing witness...
Andrew's Santuary: Tombs of the Outcasts is a place of refuge for... lost histories, historical trauma and forgotten people. As in earlier work, Andrew seeks to give voice to the dead, particularly those who are trapped like ghosts in archives and historical records."
Elina Spilia, "Relics and Ghosts" in Brook Andrew, Sanctuary: Tombs of the Outcasts, (Melbourne: The Ian Potter Museum of Art, 2015).
For more information on Brook Andrew's artworks visit www.brookandrew.com .
Ile de France
A film by Shiraz Bayjoo made in 2015.
Film, performance, poetry, dance and other forms of creative practices have also been used by artists to reflect on the process of memorialising important historical trauma sites. The Mauritian artist Shiraz Bayjoo creates films that represent complex sites of historical significance.
"The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is “knowing thyself ” as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an in unity of traces without leaving an inventory." 1
The film Ile de France is a non-narrative film, focusing on objects, architecture and environments that act as historical images or documents revealing encounters between Mauritius and its colonial past. Until the 17th century, Mauritius was an uninhabited island. Its people can be traced almost exclusively to the exploits of European colonists. During French then British colonial rule, Mauritius was pivotal to the slave trade as a strategic trading port, bringing Chinese and Arab merchants and tracking slaves from India, East Africa and Madagascar.
The film opens with a scene of rugged coastlines giving way to grassy banks moving through to images of the rainforest; these time-based landscapes are suggestive of early colonists. We enter the ruins of the first Dutch settlement, the stonewall ruins are covered with graffiti, the inscribed names of the subsequent French colonists who eventually made Mauritius their home, and so begins the story of Ile de France. The ocean however remains the constant, the real owner of these isles; there is a sense that this history is only a footnote in a greater story.
Several ruins are referenced within the film, from sugar plantations, to the water mill of an early gunpowder factory, overrun with vegetation and the vines from Banyan trees. Here the tentacles of the industrial revolution reach out; we start to unravel the purpose of the colony, the ambitions of empire.
The colonial architecture is further explored through the fading wooden houses of Port Louis. We are presented with sounds and scenes of these merchant houses, moving along the textures of their surfaces, aged in the tropics, with objects evocative of the different lives that have possessed these spaces.
Shadows move across interiors adorned with religious motifs and objects from Muslim and Indian traders that took possession of the former colonial mansions from the late 19th century onwards. Mauritius, an important stopover in the eastern slave trade, also came to be known as the “Maroon republic” because of the large number of escaped slaves who lived on Le Morne Mountain.
This film is a testament to the powers of globalisation and the impact of colonial rule. Ile de France becomes part of the archive, where through contemporary society a more complex layering of cultural takeovers and integrations have occurred and remain visible today.
"Throughout its history of human habitation, Mauritius has been a profoundly cosmopolitan place (reminding us that globalization has a long history)." 2
1 Antonio Gramsci, e Prison Notebooks: Selections, International Publishers, New York, 1971
2 Creating the Creole Island: Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Mauritius, Megan Vaughan, Duke 2005
This short segment is from the film Ile de France, 2015 by Shiraz Bayjoo.
For more information on Shiraz Bayjoo artworks visit http://shirazbayjoo.com/