Remembering to forget to remember
The recently released Christchurch City Recovery Plan establishes the development of earthquake memorial of local, national and international significance as one of its 'anchor projects'. With no timeframe set for its completion, the discussion around the project will be measured, and is bound to generate interest across the city and farther afield. We asked Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, London, and author of Monuments for the USA to add his voice to the conversation. Here, he looks at contemporary monumania worldwide, and asks what lessons we might learn from past failures.
IN 2003, THE SCANDINAVIAN ART DUO of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset opened what they described as a hospice or kennel for unpopular public sculptures. Located in a remote part of northern Germany, their sanctuary for exiled relics of public space consists of a parcel of land surrounded by a white fence and an illuminated sign that announces 'Park for Unwanted Sculptures'. It is basically a cemetery for monuments, a memorial park for memorials. And its very existence should serve as a cautionary tale for any civic group that is considering building a public commemorative structure.
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset Park für unerwünschte Skulpturen (Park for Unwanted Sculptures) 2003. Lawn, wooden fence, light box sign. Sculptures in
the park are: Uwe Schloen Neptun Bunker 2000; Horst Hellinger Röhrentorso 1988; Ludmilla Schalthoff Spiegelinstallation 2004; Gustav Reinhard o.T. 1983(?); Ulla
Nentwig Das steinerne Herz 2007; Vito Acconci Father's Garden 1986. Reproduced courtesy of the artists, Kunstverein Springhornhof
The impulse to respond to a major traumatic incident or disaster by commissioning a public monument has become a kneejerk reflex in almost every part of the world. Whether it is an earthquake in Sichuan, a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, or an act of terrorism in New York, the memorialists among us begin thinking about how best to commemorate it even as rescue teams are still finishing their work. Grief, of course, must find its outlets, and constructing physical symbols of remembrance and mourning can play a significant role in this process. But something in our contemporary monumania reeks of obsession. Despite all the evidence, it compulsively ignores that modern truism, formulated almost a century ago by Austrian novelist Robert Musil, that 'there is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument'. As we are constantly re-learning, memorials and monuments, for all their commemorative intent, are themselves all too easily forgotten; indeed, whatever public significance they may claim seems preordained to a relatively brief life. Sooner or later, our monuments end up as generic spatial markers in the bland geographies of our civic plazas and parks.
So who really wants another disaster memorial with a short shelf life? I suspect that many people in Christchurch have already asked this question. Yet today the idea of doing nothing in response to a destructive event like the 2011 earthquake may seem untenable; even tantamount to an admission of moral bankruptcy, something like withdrawing from a Geneva Convention of commemorative responsibility. There are several reasons for this state of affairs. Besides arguably assisting in the task of collective mourning, the making of memorials assuages our guilt as survivors, as well as our bad conscience at the prospect of someday forgetting those who died. One reason we continue to erect memorials, in other words, is to feel better about ourselves. On another level, the building of monuments has become an intensely competitive sphere of international cultural showmanship. In an era when star architects and world-renowned artists are regularly commissioned to create memorials that garner international headlines, doing nothing could seem like a massive failure of civic vision.
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