Memorials and Remembrance

My Problem with Holocaust Public Art

by Deborah Trilling

One form of public art is the memorial,whose Latin root, memor, means mindful. The Holocaust, that singular page in Western culture that illustrates the evil of which we are all capable, certainly warrants public mindfulness. After all, Hitler rose to power in a cultured, democratic society. The tragedy of the Holocaust and the symbols that make us mindful of it belong not only to its victims, but to all who value freedomin other words, to all of us.

For me, the problem with the over 250 Holocaust memorials in the United States, Europe and Israel is not their validity as public art, but that so many fall short of their task of memorialization. Some unsuccessful memorials fall under the category of what historian Sibyl Milton has called Holocaust kitsch. Nathan Rapoports eighteen foot memorial Six Million Jewish Martyrs in Philadelphia is an example of this type. This stew of Biblical and Holocaust motifs, with its 3-D burning bush, resistance fighters, wailing child, fiery Menorah and gigantic Torah is an aesthetically incoherent form that muddles rather than clarifies. Another example, Waldemar Grzimeks illustrated bas-relief at Buchenwald, hits the viewer over the head with his ideological message: the plight of the exploited laborer, Soviet style.

Another type of Holocaust memorial chillingly resonates with Fascist architecture. Take for example, the Israeli Monument to Jewish Soldiers, Partisans and Ghetto Fighters at Yad Vashem. The memorial consists of six 20-ton granite blocks lying three on a side and placed such that they create an interior negative space in the shape of a Jewish star. From the middle of the star shape rises a 19 foot steel blade-like structure that represents Jewish resistance. This monument so insistently calls attention to its own strength and form that it bespeaks a disquieting nationalist fervor.

Given the history of Christian anti-semitism, I feel that the use of Christian iconography in some memorials is inappropriate. Nandor Glids 52-foot memorial at Dachau is an open lattice-work of elongated figures twisted in deathly contortions and interlaced with spiky metal forms. The forms evoke the tradition of German pietàs and passions: spikes recall crowns of thorns, and the figures, dead Christs. George Segal, whose memorial in San Franciscos Lincoln Park consists of white plaster corpses lying behind a barbed wire fence, includes a female figure with an apple and a male with outstretched Christlike arms. The apple may refer to exile from Eden, but with a Jesus stand-in lying nearby, the reference to Christian redemption resides uncomfortably in the piece.

Perhaps the least successful monuments are those that sit silentlyfloating signifiers that reveal nothing except that the local guardians of historical memory elected rather to obfuscate the past. An example of this is the Stuttgart monument to the victims of Nazi persecution; these unremarkable cubes now serve as a bicycle parking lot. This type of memorial proves that all too often public art is hostage to public denial.

For me, the strongest memorials focus not only attention, but emotion as well. When they work, the message and aesthetic are one, their impact immediate and inescapable. One of the best examples of public art is Maya Lins Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans. Its success points to problems unique to the portrayal of the Holocaust. Lins basic black wall, described aptly as a scar upon the earth, clearly focuses emotion. The senseless pain of this war and the fact of 57,000 dead soldiers are readily communicated to the viewer. Its abstract simplicity, directness and proximity to Federal government buildings, all contribute to the force of the work. But beyond the seamless integration of form and content, her work does something more. Anyone who has visited the wall has witnessed survivors taking rubbings of the names of the dead. This lived interaction inspires hope. I dont know whether Lin intended this, but she has invited interaction in subsequent commissions such as the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

Part of the problem in memorializing the Holocaust is the sheer incomprehensibility of it. How can an artist elucidate something that lies outside understanding, something that is about silence... about non-understanding? O. Pingussons Holocaust memorial in the Ile de la Cité comes close. With walls of 200,000 backlit quartz pebbles on the inside of a long, low ceiling and narrow tunnel, it manages to convey the menace of the aggressors alongside iconographical references to the Jewish practice of placing stones upon the graves of their dead. What the piece lacks is a chance for transcendence, for going beyond the horror of events past. Perhaps if viewers could insert handwritten prayers between the pebbles, as at the Wailing Wall, a sense of redemption could be achieved.

Memorials may be controversial, they may make us uncomfortable, they may be aesthetically repugnant or woefully inadequate to the task of representation; yet they are necessary to keep the memory of this genocide alive. The debate itself over these monuments may be seen as another form of memorialization.

Great art works move beyond time, place and content to evoke a feeling of transcendence that no public Holocaust memorial has yet achieved. My own response to the enormity of the Holocaust is more singular. Although my work has been exhibited in public spaces, I make private pieces about my grandmother who perished in Treblinka. The reference to a single individual, some might say, cannot do justice to the subject. Nevertheless, because of my own personal connection to the Holocaust, I have a need to memorialize real individuals. This is a resolution for me; my work serves as a reminder and a very personal warning. My best pieces, hopefully, offer that transcendent beauty.

Right image: Deborah Trilling, Yellow Star (Memorial), Life Size, 1993

Deborah Trilling is an artist and teacher who resides in Palo Alto. Her artwork was recently exhibited in the Mountain View City Hall as part of a larger public art and education program, and at the Koret Gallery in Los Altos. Her work will be included in Stephen Feinstein's forthcoming book, Indelible Images: Contemporary Art about the Holocaust.

Public ArtWhose Art?

| sbawca | about | calendar | (detail) | gallery | outreach | portfolios |