Thursday, May 14, 2009

Response: "Seeing the Past in Present Tense"and "The Eiffel Tower"

I have been chewing over monuments, leaving teethmarks in bronze, turning them inside out to pin-point what they do and fail to do, even when quite well intentioned. Site and culture specific with hints of propaganda, these disembodied distillations of History carved in marble are so silent in their eternal gaze.

Paula writes in Seeing the Past in Present Tense of a Holocaust monument in Harburg, Germany, Monument Against Fascism, War and Violence--and for Peace and Human Rights (1986).

"The monument... was a forty-foot-tall, three-foot square rectangular structure made of aluminum and sheathed in soft lead. The designers attached styluses to the monument and encouraged visitors to sign their name on the surface of the structure, in effect, signing a contract of responsibility. Between 1986 and 1993, the monument, with all the signatures it carried, was slowly lowered into the ground on hydraulics. Downstairs through a glass slit in a metal door the monument and some of the signatures could be viewed. Finally, only the top of the monument remained visible from the surface... I visited the site of the Harburg monument recently and found that it has been profoundly and resolutely forgotten."

Yet even the more typical monument, huge in plain sight, is forgotten, looked past as we move through space, commemoratives of things we don't care to remember. The Dewey Monument, in Union Square, for example, is to commemorate Admiral Dewey's victory over the Spanish Navy at Manila. How many Union Square shoppers are aware of that? The monument's significance fades into oblivion.
Often in other cultures, and occasionally in our own, monuments are tied to specific ceremonial activities. This happens when monuments are the site of rallies, protests, or state-sponsored national celebrations. These gatherings and ceremonies serve to re-activate the monument as culturally significant in a similar way that ceremonies of parading (such as Semana Santa celebrations) or washing (as of the Buddha during New Year celebrations) of religious sculptures serves to constantly activate them symbolically in the religious community.
The Vietnam Memorial functions in this way, constantly activated by those who go there to rub names or leave flowers.

Roland Barthes wrote "The Eiffel Tower," published as part of Mythologies. The Eiffel Tower is so large that it is always present, it cannot be forgotten, and its simple shape open to attribution of meaning, an "infinite cipher."

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