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Issue 17 June-August 1994 RSS

The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History

The Jewish Museum, New York, USA

This is a significant, if modest, exhibition on the problems that attend visual attempts to represent the Holocaust and the role politics plays in the production and maintenance of historical memories. Unlike the West’s traditional usage of monumentality, commemorations of the Holocaust can’t be easily situated within an understanding of heroism and triumph. How does a society, or an artist, monumentalise horror and injustice? During a year when two museums devoted to the Holocaust have opened in the United States, when numerous cities in Germany and other parts of Europe are actively commissioning World War Two memorials, and when Schindler’s List is Hollywood’s Academy Award favourite, ‘The Art of Memory’ questions what we remember when we consider the Holocaust. And what we forget.

Through architectural models, photo-documentation, and extensive historical notes, the exhibition surveys memorials in Europe, Israel and the United States. These materials, assembled by guest curator James E. Young, indicate that the difficulties faced by those who attempt to represent the Holocaust haven’t significantly changed over the last 50 years. In 1957, for instance, an association of survivors, the International Auschwitz Committee, announced a competition to select a monument appropriate for the end of the Auschwitz-Birkenau railroad tracks. The jury, chaired by Henry Moore, received 426 proposals and rejected all of them. Interestingly, Moore couched his own disappointment relating to the submissions within a wistful homage to art’s particularly exalted place. ‘It is my conviction,’ he announced, ‘that a very great sculptor - a new Michelangelo or a new Rodin - might have achieved this. The odds against such a design turning up among the many maquettes submitted were always enormous. And none did.’ After another round of submissions and the eventual authorisation of three groups to produce a collaborative structure, nothing was ever built. Instead, ten years later, under the Soviet stewardship of the Polish government, a monument was dedicated that prioritised the extermination of Communist and Socialist political prisoners and greatly exaggerated the overall number of deaths at the camp. In 1990, after Poland ceased to be Communist, the inscriptions were officially recognised as erroneous and removed from the plaques, which still remain blank today.

Two themes of the Auschwitz competition narrative continue to inform the planning and construction of official monuments to the Holocaust. First, the seemingly insurmountable burden of representation such a memorial carries and secondly, the political interference contemporary governments exert on official commemorations of the past. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most emotionally moving monuments presented in this show were not government coordinated. Personal snapshots of home-made monuments, some fabricated from twigs and others from stones, produced in Latvia, Odessa and other execution sites left unofficially memorialised are powerful because they are so unequivocally wrought from feelings unconnected to governmental self interest.

Still, some of the commissioned memorials are as impressive as art as they are politically, especially Hans Haacke’s And You Were Victorious After All (1988), in Graz, Austria; and Esther and Jochen Gerz’s Monument Against Fascism (1986), for a suburb of Hamburg, Germany. A temporary installation, Haacke’s project recreated a Nazi victory column that had been erected over a public statue in 1938, when Hitler honoured Graz as an early Nazi stronghold, calling it the ‘City of the People’s Insurrection.’ Haacke’s memorial, produced on the original site, included an additional text which commemorated those killed locally by the Nazis. Nearby, 16 posters inscribed with ‘Graz - City of the People’s Insurrection’ featured facsimiles of pro-Aryan and anti-Semitic documents Haacke culled from local newspaper reports, want ads, and university course listings printed in 1938. The documents were pasted in the centre of a swastika on each poster. The subject of much public discussion, Haacke’s piece was firebombed by neo-Nazis a week before it was to come down.

The project of Esther and Jochen Gerz invited residents and visitors to Hamburg’s Harburg to sign their names to a twelve-metre lead column as a call to ‘remain vigilant.’ As each one and a half metre surface of the four-sided column was covered, it was lowered into the ground; in 1993, the column disappeared completely. As the artists’ sign, written in seven languages, explained: ‘In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.’

These and other monuments, including the Holocaust museums, are presented and discussed. While political expediency and governmental control are frequently alluded to and, especially when Communist regimes are the focus, directly revealed, the exhibition seems to play it soft with its own home front. The fact that the Los Angeles museum borders on kitsch, or that the one in Washington, DC seems intent on establishing the United States as the saviour of European Jewry (a curious claim given the number dead), are issues ‘The Art of Memory’ evades. And I still want to know why four selected contemporary artists - Richard Serra, Ellsworth Kelly, Joel Schapiro, and Sol LeWitt - adorn The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington: are we expected to think, as Henry Moore did, that Modern Art can save us?

Laura Cottingham

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First published in
Issue 17, June-August 1994

by Laura Cottingham

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