New writing for
Public Art: Memory and Tradition
byGemma Tipton

Mounuments and Memorials; Cultural Tourism; Equestrian Statues; The O' Connell Monument, Dublin;  The Spire; Minimalism; Jochen Gerz, Monument Against Facism, Hamburg; Rachel Whiteread's Nameless Library, Vienna, Austria; Theodore Adorno; Robert Emmet.

Part 1 – Memorials in Context

Historically, the majority of sculpture in the public realm has been created for memorial purposes, yet what should a memorial look like? As the perception of war becomes more ugly than heroic, and society more aware of the failings and lies of its leaders, can we continue to commemorate them with objects of beauty? And how should we relate to the memorials of the past? Monuments have their historical roots in triumph, in emphasising and underlining victory. The vocabulary of traditional monuments is addressed to glory and the nobility of sacrifice in conflict. Immense pillars, men on massive horses, noble warriors and magnificent marble arches have become the symbolic language of memorials that amplify battle and death, stating in stone and bronze the tone for the glorious future that such battles and deaths are to bring. Through the war memorial, those who died come to embody the noble virtues that surround an idealised notion of war, paying homage to nationhood, but remaining far from the realities of the field. War is virtuous and heroic; death is a passage to immortality.

Memorials also exist through a desire to create some meaning in death, to get sense from the senseless. Just as we give flowers as something to do, an expression of support when words are not enough, in a practical way the commissioning and making of a memorial is a cathartic process. Following the phase of intense and often incapacitating anger, it becomes a validation and an activity that lends the bereaved a feeling of purpose, which is a vital part in the process of grieving. Memorials are later reactivated by days of ritual and group processes such as the laying of wreaths and the observance of silences, extending and emphasising this social role.

As time passes, memorials take on the additional function of doing society's remembering for it, particularly potent for as long as the events or people they recollect remain important.  Sometimes their original meanings and purposes are virtually forgotten and the memorial provides little more than an abstract sense of the past. The Monument in London, designed by Christopher Wren, and erected in thanksgiving for the end of the Great Fire of London (1666), also lends its name to a street (Monument Street) and an Underground station, yet few associate it with the Fire as they pass by it, or through the station, each day. Inevitably, memorials to the dead are there for the living. In addition to providing a testament to victory, memorials also fulfil the social function of providing a focus for memories; they act as a point of reminder to future generations of past events, physical markers even while society may have forgotten.

Created by group subscriptions, memorials such as the Memorial Halls that were built in villages around England after the First World War, collectivised grief, pulling people together as a response to tragedy and loss. These Memorial Halls are also significant in that they were less driven by ideas of vanity and glorification, instead serving a practical purpose for the communities in which they were built. In this sense they find more in common with the Memorial Foundation, the charity or fund set up in honour of a person or people, than the more abstract function of the pillar, arch or statue. Abstract those functions may be, yet monument-memorials are nonetheless highly political. They not only provide a focus for memories, but in so doing subtly alter the way memory then develops, ennobling tragedy and turning wasteful death into martyrdom. In the case of war, the outcome of the conflict alters the nature of the sorrow that is being expressed, the type of monument that is erected, and even the site on which it will stand. The selection of who to memorialise (individual leaders, foot soldiers, unknown soldiers) also dictates our attitudes towards the conflict, to those involved in it, and to those who ordered and orchestrated it. Memorials replace memories of the past with a present day object and with the politics of the present day. In selecting the form of the memorial, contemporary readings are applied to past events, and ‘politically correct’ interpretations sometimes placed on them.

In parallel to the political and the social, memorials have also come, in some instances, to take on the role of cultural icon and tourist attraction. Nelson’s Column in London, the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Great Pyramid at Giza all feature in guide book itineraries. While these great monuments were all designed to signal to the public the importance of those being memorialised and to enshrine their memories in stone, they have all come to take on a new economic role within the tourist industry, a role that now tends to outstrip their initial primary function. This process has become more self-conscious in recent years. Often the two roles are conflated, and sometimes reversed in order of importance. The official website of Lower Manhattan in New York announces that “When it is completed in a few years, the WTC memorial is expected to immediately become the top tourist attraction in Lower Manhattan, drawing millions of visitors annually.”  This is a place seemingly seeking to define itself by its loss. It would also seem that this cultural tourism agenda was key to the commissioning of the Famine Memorial on Custom House Quay in Dublin (presented by Norma Smurfit and created by Rowan Gillespie).

Increasingly we have had to realise that our traditional models of memorials are not enough. The symbolism of the General-On-A-Horse is no longer legible to a contemporary audience. In this genre of statuary the position of the horse has significance. If rearing up the rider died in battle, if depicted with one hoof raised the rider was wounded on the field, and if standing foursquare the rider did not die as a result of war. Once significant as a medium for encoded information in a pre-mass media, mass information era, such symbolism is now irrelevant. How many would instantly recognise the four angels at the foot of the Daniel O’Connell monument (at the bottom of Dublin’s O’Connell Street) as representing the four provinces of Ireland? The O’Connell statue also illustrates the role of the artist as designer-fabricator rather than ideologue in the tradition of memorials. Its sculptor John Henry Foley also created the statue of Prince Albert for the Albert Memorial in London. Foley himself is commemorated by a street name in Dublin’s North Inner City.

Dublin’s statuary is interesting in that it contains very few vestiges of the symbols of Colonial rule. Some countries, notably Russia, dealt with changes in power by consigning statues of former, ousted or disgraced rulers to sculpture parks where they may still be seen, rather than seeking to destroy all memory of them. The Republic of Ireland managed the transition of symbols (from Colonial to self-rule) by officially ignoring the issue, while the IRA (among others) destroyed them. King George II, sited in St Stephen’s Green, was blown up in 1937, as was William of Orange on College Green in 1946, Lord Gough in Phoenix Park in 1957, and Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street in 1966. Queen Victoria, placed more safely in the grounds of Leinster House was put into storage, then shipped to Australia in the 1980s, but only her husband Prince Albert still remains, half hidden, at Leinster House.

Two other Colonial monuments have been largely forgotten, though they are everyday sights around Dublin. The main entrance to St Stephen’s Green is the Fusilier’s Arch, erected to the memory of the two hundred and twelve soldiers of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died in the Boer War (1899-1902). Known to Republicans as ‘Traitor’s Gate’, most Dubliners pass by without considering its commemorative significance. Similarly the obelisk in Phoenix Park is recognised as a marker on the horizon, in the same vein as the Spire on O’Connell Street (it is the tallest obelisk in Europe), but seldom related to the Duke of Wellington, in whose memory it was built. Given that these two structures remain, it would seem that the non-figurative was less offensive to militant republicanism.

Figurative memorials from past centuries do have a role in contemporary cities however, although it is one not envisaged by their creators. They speak, as Shelly eloquently recognised in his poem Ozymandias, of the levelling passage of time over kingdoms, rulers, power and human vanity.  To remove such statues is to remove the evidence of the passage of history and run the risk of creating a present with no sense of past or future, anchored in a ‘now’ that has neither learned the lessons of history, nor understood its own place in what is to come.

Memory is held in the fabric of cities, and is created in different ways. From the names of streets and train stations, to half hidden shrines and plaques on the walls of buildings and park benches, we colonize our environment with mementoes to the past. This happens in a range of ways. The bullet holes in the façade of Dublin’s GPO remain a reminder to Easter Monday 1916. Meanwhile the bombastic magnitude of the Wellington Memorial can be contrasted with the small plaque on Thomas Street marking the site of the death of Robert Emmet. Its text speaks of Emmet’s ‘death’ rather than his execution, making the plaque less overtly politicised than it might have been. This sensitive use of language is fitting, given that Emmet’s real memorial is his speech from the dock on the eve of his execution in 1803, concluding with the famous “Let no man write my epitaph” lines.  

That men-on-horseback have a role to play in the history of cities does not mean that this form of statuary is appropriate for contemporary memorials. In the period following the Second World War, a great many certainties about art, and representational art in particular, changed. Theodore Adorno said that after Auschwitz the idea of lyric poetry was an impossibility. It was also argued that figurative art could no longer be made, given the way that the image had been hijacked by Fascist art and cultural programming. The manipulative role played by the state in erecting statuary was becoming too transparent. And while such statues continued, and continue to be made, the visual language of the monument-memorial has also been changing, and also the processes by which they are commissioned and made, such as the ‘anti-monuments’ of Jochen Gerz.  Contemporary memorials, such as those erected to Holocaust victims, the Vietnam war, and those who died in the North of Ireland have also been taking on board the ambiguities of the battles, victories and defeats that they are made to symbolise. They are beginning to reflect the different publics that will view them, and are also starting to refuse to accept the role of covering up the contradictions that gave rise to the conflicts and tragedies in the first place. And as this happens their architecture and aesthetic are shifting.

Often a minimal approach is taken in order that the monuments are more open to the interpretations and subjectivities of those who come to them. For a while Minimalism was thought to be the solution to the problems of contemporary representation of memory, tragedy and loss. The increasing recognition of the complexities of the issues and of the role of the monument as cultural signifier has changed this once again. It has led to a return of design detail and symbolism in the monument-memorial. Rachel Whiteread's memorial, Nameless Library, which was unveiled in October 2000 to commemorate the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust, provides an interesting commentary on the conflicting approaches to contemporary memorials. Nameless Library is a concrete sculpture standing on the site of an old synagogue in the Judenplatz, one of Vienna's most beautiful squares. Depicting shelves of books, their spines turned inwards, the memorial has (what Adrian Searle in the Guardian termed) an "uncomfortable unapologetic presence [and] a certain grandeur."   The discussions around its installation illustrate the problems in arriving at a consensus around the aesthetics of contemporary memorials.

Rita Koch, a Viennese historian was against the memorial from the beginning. "We did everything we could to get it stopped. First they could have chosen a Jewish artist; secondly, it's nothing special; and thirdly, it is built on a site that is nothing to do with the Holocaust. But worst of all, they destroyed something of genuine value to build it, by putting it over the remains of a medieval synagogue." On the other hand, Hans Heider (of Die Presse) argued, "it is appropriate that it leaves a bitter aftertaste. In creating a memorial it must be stressed that symbols – whether in marble, iron or concrete – can only serve as a catalyst for changes in people's minds. Who can say that feelings of embarrassment and respect would be felt in people's minds if this had never been put up? Austria now has its central memorial. A memorial cannot banish things from people's minds. But it can help to release them."

Commenting on the relative uneasiness of the relationship of Nameless Library to both its site and traditional ideas of the aesthetics of memorials, Eva Menasse wrote in Frankfurter Allgemeine, “let us hope it is a long time before we become accustomed to seeing it", while veteran Nazi hunter, the late Simon Wiesenthal, argued that "this memorial shouldn't be beautiful. It must hurt." And Markus Mitttringer (Der Standard) concluded "Rachel Whiteread has defined a place of remembrance, because she has made a space for remembrance."

Nameless Library demonstrates that public art and memorials can be an opening in society's value structures, just as much as a closure. Official histories and constructions of community can be re-examined as well as simply marked and endorsed. Instead of marking simple affirmations, a new type of contemporary memorial is being created. These kinds of memorial make gaps for new readings and meanings to emerge in the spaces they make. They create discussion, embody contradiction. Art and culture have historically been used to endorse the values and beliefs of the dominant ideology, but contemporary socially-engaged art is now also proving a fifth column within the structures it inhabits, which sees it playing its own effective part in shaping new and more inclusive social agendas for the future.

This text is extracted and adapted from Home, published by the Fire Station Artists’ Studios, 2006, to mark the memorial Home, by Leo Higgins, that stands at the junction of Buckingham Street and Sean McDermott Street in Dublin’s North Inner City, and commemorates all those who died as a result of heroin.


Jochen Gerz
Lower Manhattan WTC Memorial Info (2005)
Rachel Whiteread's Holocaust Memorial
NY TImes Review - Rachel Whiteread