Counter-Monuments - Criticising Traditional Monuments
It alluded to an artistic criticism of monuments, which was a conscious departure from the traditional iconography of monuments, or rather, which took it to absurd lengths. By staging the “disappearance” of monuments, the idea was to raise an awareness of the fact that while monuments do highlight historical connections, they can never replace public and individual responsibility for critical recollection and responsible remembrance.
Criticising traditional monumentsOne of Young's basic ideas, which he used to substantiate these alternative concepts of monuments was the theory of the “historical revisionist potential” of many traditional monuments. This provocative idea was based on the observation that many monuments are less prompts to thinking about complex historical situations than an expression of a finished and sometimes one-dimensional interpretation process. Young's ideas are a reflection of major issues addressed in the contemporary debate on monuments, and thus of the quality of public historical awareness.
The debate about the Neue WacheA good example of how this debate flared up is the reestablishment of the Neue Wache in Berlin as a national monument. The building, built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1816, was originally used as a royal guard house and served as a war memorial from 1931 onwards, during the Weimar Republic. During the GDR era, the Neue Wache was converted into an anti-Fascist monument. In 1993, the building was once again redesigned, largely influenced by the then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and reinaugurated as a “Monument to the Victims of War and Tyranny”. The vague references to “war” and “tyranny” were seen by many critics as tending towards sweeping generalisation and as failing to make a clear, succinct statement. Then there was the disputed erection of a statue showing a mother with her dead son, based on a work by Käthe Kollwitz. While the monument's overall character was emotionally appealing, it, too, was hardly a historical statement. Instead of making a clear distinction between perpetrators and victims and between cause and effect, the aim here was to give expression to universal grief and reconciliation. Strong criticism by many politicians and monument experts led to additional plaques referring to different groups of victims subsequently being put up at the entrance.
Alternative concepts for monumentsThe example of the Neue Wache highlights criticism of what many monuments express. The debate also provoked the question of whether it is possible to develop concepts for monuments which can avoid the danger of having a limited historical perspective and can achieve more than merely express a finished and possibly even ideologically biased interpretation of history. Thus, criticism of the traditional monument and the attempt to provide alternatives are also the subject of the work of a number of artists who have attracted attention for their striking concepts over the last 20 years.
The monument as an empty space – the work of Horst Hoheisel and Jochen Gerz/Esther Shalev-GerzOne of the most remarkable artists in this respect is Horst Hoheisel. His “negative form monument” in Kassel was conceived in 1987 as a monument for “Aschrott's Fountain”, condemned by the Nazis as “Jew's Fountain” and demolished. The original construction was funded by the German-Jewish company Sigmund Aschrott and was built in 1908 as a neo-gothic pyramid fountain. Hoheisel took up the idea of this pyramid shape again in his work, but sank it down like a funnel so that the construction was hardly visible on the square's surface. “The visitor is the monument,” was Hoheisel's comment on his “negative” image of the destroyed building, whereby the artist not only takes a traditional concept of monuments to absurd lengths, but also points to citizens' everyday historical responsibility and ability to reflect.
Another equally effective example is a work by the artist couple Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz. In 1986, they erected a 12-meter-high stele with a lead coating on a pedestrian bridge in Hamburg-Harburg. The object, referred to as a “Monument against Fascism and War”, is at first sight distantly reminiscent of a traditional monument on account of its column-like character. However, the artists invited passers-by to write personal or political remarks on the surface. The monument was successively lowered in the course of the following years, and in 1993 it disappeared from the surface entirely and can now only be seen through a window. The monument, says Gerz, cannot take away the responsibility of adult citizens to foster an active and critical political awareness, since “in the long run, nothing can rise up against injustice in our stead,” as can be read on a slab next to the sunken monument. The artists used this concept to create a succinct image of the “disappearing monument”.
The empty spaces of these negative form monuments by Hoheisel and Gerz not only refer to historical breaks and losses, but also delegate the task of remembering and taking morally-founded action straight back to the visitor.
is a historian specialising in the history of art and architecture
Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion
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