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SPA History / 1991 / Andreas Meier

The first and last moment of the monument

Monuments are erected, inaugurated and pulled down: and what is in-between? The criticism of the feudal monument was followed by the theory and criticism of the bourgeois and socialist monument; art criticism followed on criticism of reception theory. Ever since Einstein, the notion of the monumental memorial seems to have become unthinkable. The acceleration of our lives and the fragmentation of a static sphere of life into a multitude of real and fictional ones has revealed the fact that power symbolism based on individual, scattered points made no strategic sense. One would wish for a more effective distribution, at least of humanitarian ideas. As totalitarian state systems have fallen apart, the hunt has been opened in the "monument reservation" of an entire era that may hopefully be a thing of the past. History is being rewritten in the manner of fistfights. People want to forget rather than remember.


The aesthetic notion of a monument being erected to a specific ideology and to its overthrow remains fascinating to this day. Imaginary (masterless) monuments pretend to be monuments, joining the tradition of monuments in order to disrupt it. What is it about the written-off formula of the monument that fascinates the avant-garde? Is it the urbanistic gap at the core of squares; their undesirability at the edge of traffic neuralgias? Is it the perceptual imperative that trails the traditional notion of the monument like an evil or a pleasant smell; or the mysterious attraction of its morbid shadow of the past? Do we regret the fact that barely any poets and philosophers, let alone statesmen, dare stand out from democratically conditioned equality to claim monumental status? Or is it the acceptance of our inability to agree on who and what the memorial should be for? Is it resignation in the apocalyptic mood of a waning century that struggles to lay claim its own eternity given the ecological burden it is leaving behind? Chernobyl and Bhopal as real monuments to human failure and forgetfulness?


Wherever true monuments of remembrance rather than repetitions of unimaginative formulae are created, it is customary to bear in mind the place and circumstances, person and events, the processes of remembering and forgetting, as well as ways of formal stageing and artistic coping, in order to turn them into the actual objects of (anti)monuments. In the era of digital storage, which is in no way equal to remembering, is the cuneiform sign an a-priori anachronism, or should not rather every historiographer wonder, in the face of the private eligibility and impeachability of showmaster idols by way of button-pressing on-screen plebiscites, whether we can still engage in collective remembrance given the availability of twenty TV channels?


As long as we still leave our homes to engage in public with the real world, the crude form of the stone monument and the fictitious, playful monument-object will retain their inexplicable power of physical attraction to artists and all who seek to question primary perception. Placed in an aesthetic context, plinths, nameless busts, a perforated bronze plaque with the outline of a head, illegible inscriptions, unmotivatedly posturing generals, the "double lordship" of a monumentalised pair of cherries, ordinary trees, monuments that have been shunted around and irritatingly shifted back enjoy a sudden and immediate memorability and capacity to inspire new ideas.


It is in vain that we wait for new personalities – of the likes of a Rousseau, Haller, Pestalozzi, Dufour and Dunant – who might bring us utopias. No-one any longer sees any sense in moving realistic portraits up onto a plinth. A cultural award is more discrete, the media showcasing of an Oscar or Nobel-prize winner more global than a monument has ever been, but ultimately as ephemeral as any media event. A glance in the year "700 after the Rütli Oath" at countless photographs of inaugural and unveiling ceremonies from the past century reveals what many people remembering the 19th century miss so very direly and would so much like to revive as a collective event: we miss the funeral processions, the speeches, the flags, the scenic plays, the choirs and parades. Considering that our yearning for collective experiences finds its lusty fulfilment in the guise of the motorway processions called Easter or Whitsun traffic gridlock, worse still, that they may even be more thrilling than the mass events of soccer and ice-hockey games, it is not only the sociologists who are worried.


Having watched for decades how in the East orthodox authorities found unquestioning belief, we are now witnessing the trembling of cast-ore and carved-stone statues with a degree of satisfaction. Monuments give a-priori proof of ideological immobility, of an ontological inability to imagine something being different. The removal of these symbols of immobility currently seems to be the first and foremost goal of rebellious popular movements. Doctrines and utopia are irresolvable contradictions. Is this perhaps the reason why anti-monuments are potentially utopian; signs of negation in the sense of intellectual mobility; antibodies against the risk of idealistic state ideologies overlaying reality; theory being taken for the real thing? Utopia excludes all thought of finiteness.


Joseph Beuys, an artist more capable of utopianism in the sense of future-oriented creative thinking than any of his peers, considered his project "7000 Oaks in Kassel" (1982-87) a monument. It stands at the conclusion of an oeuvre that originated under the sign of a Christian cross. Beuys considered the symbolic five-year action of planting trees and placing rocks to be an investment in hope. Each individual tree became a symbol and was imbued with the characteristics of a monument only because it consists and continues to consist of a living part, i.e. the tree which continually changes over time, and of a crystalline part, which maintains its shape, mass, size and weight. This disposition of living and dead matter contains the notion of time. It is only in conjunction with the rock that the tree itself – identical with life and nature in the actual sense and devoid of any symbolic or metaphoric characteristics – can be interpreted as an "energy potential" and "symbol of hope". There were critics who saw this as no more than an artistically heightened ecological action. Beuys' response was that these trees do not fulfil the straightforward purpose of municipal garden and city ornamentation, but represent the spiritual dimension of new ideas for the future. Beuys placed his final great dual-function (art-action and art-work) piece in the context of a new notion of art and creativity which expands into all realms of human life in order to raise our awareness of a new notion of capital: the human ability to think and create utopias.


Andreas Meier


 

© Translation from German, August 2008: Margret Powell-Joss