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.

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