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Monumental Dilemma

A design competition is seeking an uplifting Holocaust memorial. Is such a thing possible?

Robin Cembalest
May 26, 2010
Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin.(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin.(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

From afar, the sculpture outside Milwaukee’s Jewish Museum looks suspiciously like Claes Oldenburg’sLipstick. Actually it’s a chimney. Meant to symbolize crematoria in the camps, the truncated tapered column is part of a Holocaust memorial created by artist Claire Lieberman. This 1983 monument’s array of literal and symbolic citations would put R. B. Kitaj to shame: steel sheets weathered to resemble tear-stained book pages inscribed with the names of concentration camps; yellow marble stripes to evoke the armbands Jews were forced to wear; railroad ties.

Recently, Milwaukee’s Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC) decided the city needs another Holocaust memorial. So, this spring, it announced a competition for a sculpture on a prominent public site outside a Jewish community center. The monument has to be weather-durable and low-maintenance; it must include landscaping, seating areas, and space for ceremonies. The winner has to fabricate the piece, at a cost of around $100,000 at most. One more thing: It should not be about the Holocaust.

“While there should be some reference to the Holocaust,” the request for proposals says, “we are envisioning the iconography of the site to be of life and hope rather than of death and despair.” The goal: to “reach out and touch the generally impassive and silent majority, to inspire awareness among both Jewish and non-Jewish society, and to encourage deep reflection on the consequences of denying fundamental rights, human hope, and common humanity to any group or individual, particularly so when mass silence and indifference allows this to happen.”

Good luck with that.

Call it, with a nod to James Young, the post-Jewish-Holocaust-memorial problem. Is it appropriate, or even possible, to transform the specificity of Jewish suffering into something universal, appealing, uplifting—and inclusive? Just how inspirational is a Holocaust memorial supposed to be? Can a Holocaust memorial be too Jewish?

Certainly there are still some believers in the old-school tropes. Recently, outside Congregation Beth Ahm in Verona, New Jersey, train tracks appeared leading up to the existing Holocaust memorial, a Star of David encircled with barbed wire. The synagogue says the 11 ties represent the 11 million killed in the Holocaust, as well as the three local residents who died on September 11, 2001. That doesn’t mollify some neighbors, who complain the tracks are a macabre symbol they don’t want to look at every day. “People have to be aware of suffering in the world,” the rabbi told the press.

Increasingly, however, memorials derived from the iconography of the oppressor are on the way out. Commemorating the survivors as well as the victims is in. DeAnna Maganias, the sculptor of the Holocaust memorial just inaugurated in Athens, for example, notes that while the tips in her broken marble Star of David point toward the homes of murdered Jews, the hexagonal block in the center symbolizes rejuvenation and survival.

It will be interesting to see how artists visualize Milwaukee’s ambitious assignment. The charged field of memorial-building complicates the classic dilemma of public art in general: One person’s celebration of identity is another’s stereotype; one’s iconography of life, a beholder’s symbol of death. Remember Louise Bourgeois’s bronze sculpture of clasped hands, which was initially installed on the Battery Park waterfront looking out at Ellis Island? When the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust was preparing to open nearby in 1997, park officials took the precaution of surreptitiously moving the work to a less-prominent location. There was concern it might remind museum visitors of body parts from the death camps.

Abstraction poses other problems. Some thought the field of gray concrete steles in Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin was lacking in powerful symbolism when it was inaugurated five years ago. Others complained it was too Jewish, because it omitted mention of other persecuted populations. This resulted in the commission of two more Holocaust memorials for Berlin: Elmgreen and Dragset’s monument to gay victims (as well as, it turns out, to Eisenman’s design) and a still-unrealized environmental sculpture by Dani Karavan in honor of the Sinti and the Roma.

Eisenman designed his memorial to be ominous, alienating, and somber. However, that’s not what’s attracting a growing number of visitors to the site. A recent article reported that its field of gray granite slabs has become a haven for sunbathers, urban daredevils, and hide-and-seek players. However, the article said, Lea Rosh, who helped bring the monument into being, doesn’t like children playing on it. She tells them to go someplace else. So, it seems like Berlin has a new Holocaust memorial problem—it makes people feel good. Go figure.

This turn of events might be a cautionary tale for Milwaukee. Make a memorial that refers to the specific events you’re supposed to memorialize, and some viewers—precisely the ones you’re trying to reach—might be put off. Make one that doesn’t, and you end up with a picnic spot. If you make a monument to life going on, it will. But maybe that’s the point.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor ofARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

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