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grafisches Element

Memorial and Revision

Sarah Mendelsohn »

Participating artists:

Iman Issa
Jelena Jureša
Plattform Geschichtspolitik
Ruslana Lichtzier
Radio Aktiv

“The word ‘propose,’ which holds the prefix ‘pro,’ implies, at once, ‘before,’ ‘forward,’ ‘through’ and ‘in front.’ At the same time that it ‘favors’ and ‘accounts for,’ it goes and comes ‘forth,’ ‘besides,’ ‘against,’ and ‘beyond.’ It moves too much and in too many directions, which is, perhaps, the way thought behaves.

…Anyway, what is it, to ‘understand’? Under, stand? Does it advocate the need to stand under, to haunt, to capture, to stoically stand on, or in a worst-case scenario: to stand underneath it, to dig in, to take shelter in your knowledge. And then you can hide in the arms of the academy. Mama.”

—Ruslana Lichtzier, from 6 x 9 (2013)

A memorial stands in for loss. It helps to—if not understand it—think about the facts and feelings of loss, which are insurmountably further-ranging than the memorial itself. A memorial provides a thing to stand under, a scaffold.

In the field of public memorials there is a convention of call and response: a committee puts out a request for proposals, to which artists and architects respond with proposals. There are follow-up conversations, further questions, and eventually one proposal is selected and re-worked, developed, created. This system relies upon consensus—the event being memorialized is agreed upon, named, and the function of the memorial is spelled out. But what about the insurmountability of the request? What if the work itself could be seen as both a proposal and a request: a proposed relationship to history, and a request to revise that relationship?

This online project for Open Systems takes memorialization as an ongoing and elliptical process: one that moves back and forth between subjective and civic experience, and between focused and peripheral attention. Memorial and Revision features recent works by five artists and collectives that in different ways question the formality of “monumental” gesture. In different ways, these practices advocate against the hegemonic recapitulation of known histories and societal grievances.

Iman Issa’s video Proposal for an Iraq War Memorial (2007) and Jelena Jureša’s video and photographic project MIRA: Study for a Portrait (2010–2014) question whether images can act as memorials. Plattform Geschichtspolitik’s project Weinheber Ausgehoben (Unearthing a Nazi Poet) (2011–ongoing) interrogates a pre-existing monument to a Nazi poet in Vienna. Their work addresses the persistence of historically potent representations in public imagination—a line of thinking also taken up by Ruslana Lichtzier in her text-based work 6 x 9 (2013). The audio project Sonic Deep Map (2013) created by Radio Aktiv (Brett Bloom, Bonnie Fortune, and Antye Greie-Ripatti) explores a kind of speculative memorialization, documenting the efforts of activists to save their landscape from the construction of a proposed nuclear power plant. With the exception of Plattform Geschichtspolitik’s project, which can be witnessed or joined while an intervention or public discussion is taking place, each of these works is originally encountered in an intimate space: in a gallery, over radio broadcast, or on the Internet. For Memorial and Revision, each has been adapted to appear online, and is accompanied by a short text.

I have developed Memorial and Revision as the first part of an ongoing project that considers memorials as live stages for political and aesthetic dispute. This writing is a way to outline my own questions and to look closely at a series of approaches. The projects featured here model processes of memorialization that provoke rather than limit a personal questioning of history, but do not necessarily call themselves memorials. To frame this perspective, I want to look briefly at examples of ongoing mass memorialization and how they have been expressed at public sites in two cities: Vienna and New York. These examples address how memorials are often asked to function.


Located one kilometer apart in the center of Vienna, two memorial sites convey opposing aesthetic and contextual approaches to the events of World War II. Alfred Hrdlicka’s Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Faschismus (Monument Against War and Fascism) (unveiled in 1988, fifty years after the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany) was the first monument in Vienna to acknowledge the Anschluss. Consisting of several freestanding figurative sculptures arranged to create a culturally explicit scene outside the Albertina Museum, this site has provoked discomfort and outrage—both in response to the visceral nature of Hrdlicka’s depictions of mass graves and suffering individuals, and at the vagueness of the monument’s dedication. Prevailing protests of his work follow the ethical position that it is neither adequate nor appropriate to depict events of the Holocaust in art.

Advocacy for a memorial dedicated specifically to the Austrian Jews murdered during National Socialism led to the call for proposals from which Rachel Whiteread’s Mahnmal für die 65 000 ermordeten österreichischen Juden und Jüdinnen der Shoah (Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, also called Nameless Library) (2000) was selected and eventually completed.[1] In contrast to Hrdlicka’s, Whiteread’s work is minimal and austere. Her memorial evokes an inverted study: a solid cement structure cast to represent shelves of a library, with rows of books positioned with their spines facing inwards, titles invisible. The impression of two inverted closed doors designates a front, and confirms the inaccessibility of the interior.

Much has been written discussing the differences between these two memorial projects, and how they might intersect with broader trends of representation and minimalism in the public memorialization of the Holocaust.[2] Rather than elaborate these differences here, I want to consider how both sites contribute to the dense visual landscape of memorials and figurative representations found throughout the city. Does the proximity of these memorial sites affect how the history of fascism is discussed in Vienna, and how it is felt in relation to current struggles for political representation? Whose bodies are or are not represented, summoned, withheld, implied?


In the early 2000s, the late critic Herbert Muschamp wrote a series of articles for the New York Times advocating for a visionary architectural gesture after the devastation of the attacks of September 11, 2001 in Lower Manhattan. Early on, he expressed concern that a visionary response would be compromised by the civic and corporate politics surrounding the question of what would happen at the World Trade Center site after the debris had been cleared away. The sixteen acres of the city plummeted by the attacks represented multiple, simultaneous but seemingly irreconcilable losses: of individual lives, of modernist architectural and capitalist achievement, of a nationally and internationally symbolic skyline.[3]

In 2003, Muschamp received a package in the mail containing a collage and a letter signed by the American artist Ellsworth Kelly.[4] In his letter to Muschamp Kelly explained that he’d been inspired by the critic’s essays about Ground Zero in 2001, and had wanted to express his solidarity with several other artists that the empty footprints of the twin towers be left open and converted to green space.[5] Two years later, coming across a photograph showing the World Trade Center site in an aerial view, Kelly created a sketch for such a memorial: a neat green trapezoidal area tucked within the gaping gray financial district. His collage provides an image to hold in contrast to the much slower development and realization of the Freedom Tower, the National September 11 Memorial designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, and the recently opened National September 11 Memorial Museum. Before these projects were fully formed, Kelly wrote that he felt “strongly that what is needed is a ‘visual experience,’ not additional buildings, a museum, a list of names or proposals for a freedom monument,” adding that such projects would be “distractions from a spiritual vision for the site: a vision for the future.”[6] Meanwhile, since the early stages of the recovery efforts, the site itself and surrounding neighborhood in Manhattan had been functioning as an evolving memorial: NYPD firefighters welded steel crosses using scrap from the World Trade Center debris, giving them as gifts to grieving family members or leaving them as totems at the site; people in New York left flowers, photographs, postcards, candles and other objects in and around the rubble, and people living elsewhere sent wishes and memorial objects through the mail—although in some ways this has gone on since 2001.

Kelly’s intervention on the World Trade Center site is hypothetical—but it is also directly articulated, and economically, socially, and environmentally low-impact. It is an idea, echoing a desire to circumvent the politics of call and response, to will something to come into the world more simply. Kelly neither outlined a budget and plan for implementation, nor opted to blanket the site (illegally, demonstratively) in green nylon or ground cover. Instead, he wrote a letter and made a collage, which ended up in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and was included in the exhibition September 11 (September 11, 2011 – January 9, 2012) at MoMA PS1, where it has been treated unequivocally as art.

Kelly’s green trapezoid, the Freedom Tower, and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum all contribute to an ongoing process of memorialization.[7] The sketch brings to the nationally-dedicated memorial and museum a recognition of the vulnerability of this space within the city. Each work sets its audience, visitor, viewer, or customer down a different digression (why minimalist art? why another super skyscraper?); collectively, these digressions build a broader questioning. What could exist here? The simultaneous possibility for and limits of visionary gesture at the World Trade Center site illustrates the extent to which memorialization involves speculative experience.

Nationally dedicated public memorial sites are often limited by their form and by the politics of their commission. Rather than providing language for questioning they provide objects to question and contest. Autonomously, they cannot behave the way that a personal process of memorialization behaves, which may require multiple forms and expressions, revisions, and digressions. The five projects featured in Memorial and Revision take on that process as content and as motivation. These projects model possibilities for thinking through what can and cannot take place in public.


[1] For a history of this site see Mechtild Widrich, The Willed and the Unwilled Monument: Judenplatz Vienna and Riegl’s Denkmalpflege, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 72, No. 3 (September 2013), p. 382–398.
[2] For instance see James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); Mark Godfrey, Abstraction and the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
[3] In an article published in October 2001 Muschamp described this difficulty in stark terms: “Just thinking about architecture in relation to the events of September 11 is a major imaginative challenge. People died on that site. Even if their bodies are removed to Staten Island, this is where 6,000 people lost their lives. Corporate culture has no way of dealing with this. In corporate culture, no one ever dies.” (Herbert Muschamp, “Power, Imagination and New York’s Future,” The New York Times, October 28, 2001. At this time the death count was being estimated at 6,000). See Judith Butler’s call to acknowledge a collective, cultural vulnerability, responding to the aftermath of the events of September 11 (Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, 2004).
[4] Muschamp wove this story into his series of reflections for the New York Times (Herbert Muschamp, “Critic’s Notebook; One Vision: A Hill of Green at Ground Zero,” The New York Times, September 11, 2003).
[5] Other artists advocating for a similar kind of memorial included John Baldessari and Joel Shapiro, and architect Tadao Ando (see Muschamp, September 11, 2003).
[6] Kelly’s letter as quoted by Muschamp (Muschamp, September 11, 2003).
[7] To varying effects, this process also includes, among other responses, Isa Genzgen’s works inspired by September 11; the graphic 9/11 logo used by the Memorial Museum, and the commemorative t-shirts you can buy at the gift shop.

Supported by:

ERSTE Foundation
Stadt Wien - Kulturabteilung MA 7
MA 7 - Interkulturelle und Internationale Aktivitäten

Collaboration with:

Istanbul Bilgi University

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