Continuing our series “Responding to Tragedy” in which we explore various artistic approaches to rebuilding memory, we look this week at memorials and monuments.
In communities that have experienced terror and destruction, it is almost impossible to build tangible sites that will adequately depict this loss. How can this feeling of absence be evoked? Who is the intended audience? Families of the victims? Tourists? Should sites of tragedy be reconstructed or left in ruins? These are the difficult questions one must ask when dealing with memorials and monuments. Here are a few examples of how different communities and artists have responded to these questions.
Stari Most Bridge (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
The original Stari Most Bridge was built in 1566 by an Ottoman architect. During the Croat-Bosniak war in 1933, the bridge was destroyed due to its Muslim heritage. In 1995, after the ratification of the Dayton Peace Accords in Paris and the end of the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, rebuilding efforts began on the bridge. With support from the World Bank and other international organizations, the bridge was rebuilt based on the original plans and implementing traditional Ottoman construction techniques. In 2004, the new replica was finally complete. The World Bank stated that the reconstruction of the bridge was intended to, “improve the climate for reconciliation among the peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina through recognition and rehabilitation of their common cultural heritage in Mostar” (Project Appraisal Document on a Proposed Credit in the Amount of SDR 3.0 million). While this bridge can be seen as a fierce symbol of reunion, it can also be viewed as an airbrushing of old tensions.
Horst Hoheisel’s Aschrott Fountain (Germany)
In 1908, a grand pyramid fountain was built in the city of Kassel, Germany and was funded by a Jewish entrepreneur named Sigmund Aschrott. This fountain was then determined to be the “Jew’s Fountain” by the Nazis and was subsequently destroyed in 1939. After the war, the city of Kassel invited artists to submit designs to memorialize this fountain. The winning design was Horst Hoheisel’s inverted fountain. Hoheisel decided that the best method of depicting absence was to recreate it. Therefore, he built a perfectly inverted version of the old fountain sunken beneath the ground. Hoheisel commented that he designed the fountain this way, “as an open question, to penetrate the consciousness of the Kassel citizens so that such things never happen again.” Rather than create a perfect reconstruction that would encourage citizens to move on and erase the past, this inversion serves as a physical depiction of the absence and injury left by the Holocaust.
Mandalay Palace (Burma)
The Mandalay Palace was built in the mid-19th century as the primary residency of King Mindon. It was taken over in 1885 as a British fort during the Third Anglo-Burmese War. The palace was then destroyed during World War II by allied bombing. The palace was rebuilt in the 1990s by the national government; however, instead of staying completely faithful to the original architecture, the palace was rebuilt using modern materials such as concrete and corrugated iron. This type of memorial reflects a combination of honoring historical significance while implementing modern techniques to represent a new stage of the narrative.
Plaszow Concentration Camp (Poland)
Another method of memorializing tragedy is simply to leave the site of terror as it is. This is the case for the Plaszow Concentration Camp, which can be referred to as a “non-site of memory” (Roma Sendyka). The Plaszow camp was originally established in 1942 as a forced labor camp for Jews. When the Soviet army was approaching the camp in 1944, the Germans attempted to dismantle the camp and remove any trace of its existence. Today, the area consists mostly of an empty terrain with sparse grassy fields and wooded hills. There are a few memorials scattered throughout the camp, including one large memorial to all the victims, but the area is mostly empty. This camp serves as a reminder of an attempt at the erasure of atrocity. However, the memories of what happened on the land can never truly be erased, as visitors to the site have noticed, “Something isn’t quite right, but we don’t know what it is that is wrong” (Andrew Charlesworth). The place itself holds memory and its bare surface will always invite constant questioning and investigation.