Moving Memorial to German Unity

May 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

As anyone who has visited Berlin in recent years will have noticed, Germany’s capital is a city steeped in memory and, above all, in memorials. You might be forgiven for thinking they didn’t need anymore. And yet, nearly 18 months after the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, plans for another memorial are finally taking shape – this time  more optimistically marking the historical event of German reunification. After another long and drawn out process lasting over 12 years and involving two design competitions, the winning proposal for a new Freiheits – und Einheitsdenkmal has been announced – and it has, as expected, drawn much comment from a nation already very well-versed in historical debates. For this is not just another memorial and it’s concept differs significantly from the traditional image of the immovable and stoic stone statues of past centuries. Holocaust memorials in Germany since the 1980s have, it must be said, in general already marked a departure from traditional forms to the more conceptual memorial; but this new memorial, not to the Holocaust but to the moment in German history that marked the beginning of its recovery after this catastrophe, takes things a step further. The memorial design, entitled ‘Buerger in Bewegung’ or, ‘Citizens in Movement’ is a collaboration between Stuttgart designers Milla & Partner and Berlin dance choreographer Sasha Waltz. Taking the form of a 55m long concave steel dish, the memorial is designed quite literally to be a moving memorial. Visitors will be encouraged to climb on and interact with the structure – indeed,  this active participation and interaction is key to the design, since the memorial itself is set in motion by the movement of its visitors. The design takes the trend for interactivity already at work in many memory museums to an extreme, and, for me, makes some very interesting comments about the role of visitors to memorials as active and embodied agents in the construction and maintenance of memories and their meanings.  To visit this memorial will be to perform, in a way not dissimilar to Waltz’s dance troupe, in the collective remembering of the peaceful revolution of 1989. Visitors will be asked to use their bodies in the process of meaning-making, they will be asked to focus on physical as well as emotional and intellectual sensations, and they will be asked to do this together, as a collective – the memorial requires more than 20 people to start moving.The metaphors are obvious and, perhaps, not very imaginative, but they work in their simplicity. Johannes Miller, one of the architects behind ‘Citizens Movement’, has sought to make the difference between this and traditional memorials clear. It is a difference in function and in ethics as well as in aesthetics:

“The rest of the world’s monuments are built to be looked at. This monument isn’t just an object to look at. It should be entered and set in motion. That movement is only possible when a large group of visitors cooperate. With this concept, it’s the people who’ll make it into something. Maybe they’ll use it for theatre, or like Speaker’s Corner, or skaters will use it. The people will make it their own.” *

Something in this statement recalls Peter Eisenmann’s comments about Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, which finally opened in 2005 and which has, indeed, become a space for all types of interaction, including providing a hide-and-seek paradise for children. While this new design has, like Eisenmann’s, inspired much criticism from a variety of wholly legitimate perspectives, I can’t help but to like it and look forward to seeing it in action. In 5, 10 or 20 years it may, as the critics predict, seem frivolous and populist, unable to withstand the ravages of time as more sombre constructions might do. But I would argue that right now, in this moment so marked by memory and trauma and attempts to ‘deal with’ the past, projects such as this one serve a crucial purpose not only in terms of remembrance, but also of reflection upon the ways in which we remember, and upon the part we all have to play in the process of sustaining the relevance of the past  within the social, cultural and political contexts of the present.


Bearing witness to the witness: some thoughts on hearing wounds talk

May 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

Talking wounds.
Can wounds talk? Pain is often a great silencer; unshareable and often uncommunicable, it frequently cuts us off from others. But it is also true that, as in the story of Tancred and the tree, wounds never stop speaking, seeking out listeners who will hear them or, if such a thing is possible, heal them.  Holocaust survivor Primo Levi writes in if this is a Man of his recurring nightmare: the ‘ever repeated scene of the unlistened-to story’. The dream expresses a fear he says is common to survivors, and which is connected to the need to ‘tell our story to the rest, to make the rest participate in it’ (1987: 15.) The plea of the survivor, then, is to be heard, it is a request that we, who did not have to suffer the trauma of the surviving the Holocaust, bear witness to the witnesses of atrocity. It is a request that was for a long time painfully denied, but which has in recent years found itself at the heart of a burgeoning interest in trauma and, along with it, an emerging ethics of witnessing. For Cathy Caruth, for example, the call of the ‘crying wound’ of trauma represents an ethical address of the other to the self that ‘demands a listening and a response’ (1996: 9). Similarly, in the psychoanalytic model of trauma testimony described in Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s by now seminal study Bearing witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening, ‘it takes two to witness the unconscious’ (1992: 15). Holocaust testimony is here described as a performative act that can be understood not as a statement of truth but as ‘a mode of truth’s realisation’, in which the witness to the witness is an active participant. For Laub, the listener is an ‘enabler of testimony’, he or she is ‘party to the creation of knowledge’ (Felman and Laub 1992: 15). The listener, as the ‘enabler of testimony’ is what makes possible the process by which ‘the narrator (the survivor) reclaims his position as a witness’ (Felman and Laub 1992: 85). To witness then, is no solitary act; the wound that talks always seeks the secondary witness that will hear it. French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard has also theorised this relationship in his succinct and oft-cited formula for a ‘testimonial pact’. Among the conditions necessary for successful and politically useful testifying Lyotard notes the importance of ‘an addressee, not only willing to listen and accept the reality of the referent, but also worthy of being spoken to’ (Nance 2006: 87).In his model the listener – who actively and ethically listens, recognising the voice and subjectivity of the testifier in the process – is not merely an additional benefit, (s)he is a vital element without which the testimony would not exist. Put simply, it is only in the company of a (worthy) listener that my story can be told. This is perhaps no great revelation, and indeed the notion of an audience as a necessary part of the act of witnessing is nothing new. One of the earliest categories of witness, the martyr (etymologically linked to the modern term witness, via the Greek martur, itself said to be linked to the Indo-European word for ‘remember’), is a case in point.  In early modern stories of sainthood – often called the pious pornography of the middle ages – the martyrs bear witness to their faith in God always and necessarily in front of an audience. The martyr becomes a saint by virtue of her tortured, gruesome, bleeding body: flesh and limbs are torn apart, breasts are sliced off, and nubile young girls are set to boil in vats of hot oil. But this body does not suffer in isolation, for the witnessing body of the martyr is in all senses a site of performance and spectacle – of the pagan torturer’s power (which is undermined), of the faith and endurance of the saint, of the miraculous blessing and protection of God, and of the sublime nature of suffering and abjection. As with every spectacle, the audience is crucial to the success of the act. Without the belief of the audience, both within the narrative (the pagan spectators who convert to Christianity, the God who observes and intervenes), and without (the medieval layperson who reveres relics and images of exotic martyred flesh) the saint would quite simply not be a saint. As Blondheim and Liebes put it, in biblical witnessing, ‘the witness is the addressee, not the medium. It is the collective which performs the witnessing’ (Blondheim and Liebes 2009: 115). If Judaeo-Christian storytelling is not as popular as it once was, the principle of religious witnessing seems to be making a come-back in the secular creeds of trauma, memory and human rights discourse. The entreaty made to us by survivors who tell their stories or historians who construct their museums and mausoleums in remembrance of the ugliest of pasts is, indeed, as Levi put it, an entreaty to participate in a community of collective remembering in which witnessing the witness becomes an ethical imperative. So what does this mean for us? What should it alter about the way in which we regard the wounds that speak to us every day – in books, films, or artworks; through the museums and memorials that we visit; or even in the news as we eat our dinner? For me the first step is to begin to think of ourselves in this position of reader/spectator/visitor/viewer less as the passive receivers of media projections and more as active listeners, as secondary witnesses whose role in the production of memory and its meanings is far from obsolete. This is on the one hand an empowering move: as active listeners we are also free to question the narratives constructed by these media projections of the past into the present; to do so is critical in all senses of the term, for to challenge something is also to engage in it. This does not, however, mean that by becoming active listeners we should or would callously join the league of deniers; for when we accept our role as active participants in the ongoing conversation with the traumas of the past, we also enter into that testimonial pact that Lyotard has outlined. We commit also to partake of an ethics of listening by which we are positioned first and foremost as witnesses to the witness. Through this commitment we acknowledge our responsibility of recognition towards the original witness who, like so many of those survivors of the holocaust who have so graciously given us the gift of their terrible stories, are no longer there to tell their stories, but whose wounds nonetheless continue to speak, and must continue to be heard.

Joel-Peter Witkin

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Joel-Peter Witkin and Andres Serrano were two of my rite of passage artists at art school. I met Witkin when I was working at RIP at Arles in 1996. He was an incredibly entertaining character with a sharp sense of humour (with a preference for dirty jokes). I think this initial personal encounter may have softened my initial reaction to his work as looking back on it now I find it very shocking. At the time I met him, Witkin had become famous for using unclaimed bodies from a Mexcian morgue in his photographs. He would include bodies or body parts in his complex studio set ups and place them at the centre of a complex and fantastical narrative, much like Classical paintings. The photographs themselves were exquisite – incredibly seductive in texture and colour. As a print and photomedia student they seem to me to have everything I coveted – the velvety texture of a mezzotint, the anger of an etching (Witkin scratches the photographic plates) and the bruised hues of tinted fibre based photographic prints.

In the context of this blog, Witkin’s photographs also have scars and wounds  – the bodies are unidentified, unclaimed and their most distinguishing feature is a great big fat autopsy scar across their body.

 I am not at all sure about the ethics of this work and as a blog which aims to work towards an notion of ethical secondary witness this images strikes me as problematic but for me as an artist who wants to use scars and wounds as a part of a visual language I need to think about it / look at it.

When I look at this image, and at the wound/scar what strikes me is how closed up an impenetrable the scar is – whereas the mouth and eyes are open. The scar is the location of the truth – the explanation, the evidence. The breathless mouth and sightless eyes can tell us nothing.

I have to look away now

Sophie Ristelhueber

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Thames and Hudson describe the work of Sophie Ristelhueber thus:

‘In Sophie Ristelhueber’s artworks and installations, the photographed landscape appears in fragments: damaged, rent, pockmarked. These traces of history and conflict, which the artist calls ‘details of the world’, are like scars on a body, and they convey a similar tale of wounds scarcely healed.

Ristelhueber has been photographing these metaphorical scars in war-torn places like Beirut, Kuwait, Bosnia and Iraq since 1982, recording the violence inflicted on the surface of the earth by the machinery of war. Rather than focusing on the geopolitical meaning of a particular conflict, she is engaged with the ambiguities of what she calls the ‘terrain of the real and of collective emotions’.

Ristelhueber’s approach implies that the current world situation is part of an unceasing historical cycle of destruction and construction – in her photographs, the surface of the land becomes a kind of palimpsest on which the disfiguring marks of decades of conflict continue to be recorded.’

I was privileged to meet Sophie Ristelhueber last year when I attended a small workshop at the Wellcome Trust where she gave a presentations and explanation of her art practice. Sophie started by showing  an early series (called ‘Every One’) of photographs of scars on human bodies that she took at a hospital in Paris. She explained that she would go to the hospital everyday and take photographs of post surgical scars. When she exhibited them she did so very large so that they were transformed into landscapes.

Later she started to areas of war and conflict and photograph scars of war left on the landscape. Sophie made an incredible series of photographs of trenches left after the war in Kuwait.

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Here is a link to a really good interview with Sophie Ristelhueber.

Marie Claire and Red

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday I was passed on a couple of UK magazines from a friend. A couple of children’s swimming and gynastics lessons later I found I have more or less read everything I wanted to read in them. Putting them down it struck me that the two articles/images that had grabbed me most were

‘Let’s Give A Voice to Women Who Cannot Speak Up For Themselves’ –  a piece in Marie Claire about International Women’s Day which includes some shocking images of women in Pakistan who have been victims of Domestic Abuse involving acid attacks to the face


‘Can you buy a better body?’ In Red, an article which apraises the various beauty treatments/operations under local anesthetic aimed at fat reductions such as ‘Smart Lipo TriPlex’ and BodyTite

Looking at them again now I am not too sure how to compare them – Clearly the Marie Claire article is much more serious and news worthy – these poor woman have been left horrifically disfigured. Their scarred faces really are shocking and hard to look at. When I first saw the images not having read the text I couldn’t work out what kind of scars they were. They are a mess, there are no straight lines, no cuts, no gashes, the facial structure has in many places been dissolved away and the healed wounds seem panicked and nervous. The wounds are angry, raw, brutal – yet paper thin, stretched, delicate, translucent.

Reading the second article about these procedures which are meant to be alternatives to cosmetic surgery I couldn’t help thinking again of brutality and pain – in a number of places it talks of pain and bruising. Fat is melted and sucked, vacuumed and subjected to high frequency waves, frozen to death. A cannula is inserted under the skin, loosening it away to allow for more fat attacks.

Living in Rio de Janeiro, it is impossible not to feel the presence of cosmetic surgery as a part of daily life. Cosmetic surgeons have the most elegant houses as their surgeries/consultancies and walking down the street it doesn’t take long to spot a face lift/nose job. Talking about it with friends everyone know someone who has had something or other done, or is going to have it done soon. Apparently amongst the rich Brazilians it is completely normal. Having had my second son here I soon learnt that I was abnormal having a ‘natural birth’ and thus foregoing the tummy tuck that comes as standard with a cesarian section.

Is there perhaps then a whole other kind of Talking Wound?  A cosmetic surgery wound that is invited, that leaves us better then before (?), that testifies to success and wealth?

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Doubting Thomas

May 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Posted by Marilene

An image and story that often returns to me is that of Doubting Thomas, or the Incredulity of Thomas. In the Gospel of St John we are told that for Thomas to believe that Jesus has Risen again he demands to insert his finger into Jesus’ wound. The many images made of this story I find repulsive, they make me feel ill, for me it is truly abject. Unlike a medical cut, clean and soon to be closed again, it gapes open and Thomas putting in his finger into an open wound is surely bad – he is putting germs into it, making it worse, increasingly his pain. Why put your hand into a wound to believe it is true? He needs to touch, feel the wetness, the warmth, the stickiness of the wound. Why is it not enough to just see the wound, why enter it?

I don’t want to discuss the religious significance of Doubting Thomas, but the symbolic power of it and its possible relevance to this project. Jesus is dead, he is risen, he is a ghost – just before the lines about Thomas, he breathes the Holy Ghost into his disciples. I find it very hard not to think of the body scan data like this state and this story – it is a fully detailed immaterial version of the body and it offers itself to be fingered open, virtually leafed through. It offers insides as proof, it offers its wounds as proof. In the face of unbelieving, of not knowing, in a search for knowledge it opens itself.

When I made Protest the second time (it is an edition of 3) I had to go back at the end and restring the gapes between sheets. I wish I had taken a photograph of it now as it was quite a powerful image – a body full of gaping wounds. A body rendered enlongate through its wounds.

Could this be an interesting model of an ethical witness? Maybe – Thomas doubts but rather than just stating his doubt he dares poke his finger inside the pain, inside the abject hole. He is willing to risk contamination, to dirty himself. In Carravagio’s painting he looks like he is blind – his eyes stare blindly away from the wound and he looks like he is being guided into the wound by fellow disciples.

I remember reading a book which had a chapter about Doubting Thomas – for some reason I think it was Amelia Jones but it wasn’t – it had a pink cover. The Invisible Body? I really want to read it again! I think I borrowed it from the RCA Library… was back in 2004….

John, Chapter 20

1 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.

2 Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the LORD out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.

3 Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre.

4 So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre.

5 And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in.

6 Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie,

7 And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.

8 Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.

9 For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.

10 Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.

11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,

12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my LORD, and I know not where they have laid him.

14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.

15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the LORD, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD.

21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:

23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.

27 Then saith He to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.

29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book:

31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.

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N.B Incredulity: in·cre·du·li·ty

noun /ˌinkrəˈd(y)o͞olitē/

  • The state of being unwilling or unable to believe something

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