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MONUMENTAL TRIUMPHS AND BLUNDERS

 

By Alan Behr

MIAMI BEACH, 29 APRIL 2007 —This season has marked the appearance on the cultural calendar of two important and uniquely related milestones: the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and the arrival in Port Everglades, Florida of a Polish railroad car. Both events are about publicly accessible monuments, which is to say that both events are as much about politics as art.

Those of us who remember the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial can only watch with admiration as it has aged from a "hole in the ground" into an honored masterpiece. Minimalist before minimalism was cool, the memorial consists of two granite slabs embedded into the Washington Mall and forming an exposed wedge, as if Mars, the god of war, had penitentially tried his hand at plowing, only to gave up in frustration; the slabs contain the names of all 58,253 known American dead of the war, and like much good abstract art, the memorial teaches brutal reality by metaphor: you arrive at the apex of the wedge the way that America arrived at the apex of its frustrations in Vietnam—you start at what looks like an easy path lined with ankle-deep granite, then head ever deeper until you are in over your head. Hardly a day has gone by since its dedication that people have not come from afar to bring flowers and to leave small tokens of remembrance for the dead—proof that the memorial, despite or perhaps because of its simplicity, is doing all that a memorial can do for the living.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial also reminds us how hard it is to express in art the emotions that arise from mass tragedy: pathos, anger, a desire for revenge, and a competing need for resolution, forgiveness and peace, to name an essential few. Picasso’s Guernica is perhaps the finest example in twentieth-century painting. There are recognizable, albeit distorted human figures in the work, but it is the metaphoric thinking of abstraction that ultimately carries meaning. Like all extremes, raw abstraction can be too easy and become a crutch, but the art of mass tragedy, when done in a representational form, often has trouble walking on its own two legs. That is because, to express inhuman tragedy, a nearly inhuman amount of self-restraint is required that a figurative work all but tempts its creator to abjure.

Now and then, representational excess, if honestly executed, can just make it through the guarded gates of good taste, as does Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, but that was about one shipwreck. Tragedy on a grand scale all too often brings out a human need for grandeur and its evil twin, kitsch. Political outcry at the simplicity of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial led to the installation of an ennobling flagpole and of two figurative sculptures that nearly everyone ignores, even as "The Wall" itself remains one of the most visited memorials in a city in which monuments appear at every bend.

The plans for a 9/11 memorial in New York City show a promising willingness to follow the model of self-restraint established in the USA by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Substituting for it while New York works out the politics, aesthetics and economics of rebuilding the World Trade Center site,  has been a memorial, displayed periodically, that consists solely of two searchlights aimed straight to the sky from about the locations of the Twin Towers. The effect, when seen from anywhere in Manhattan, has been marvelous; it’s as if the towers have reappeared as their ghostly selves, rising higher than before, until they diffuse into the heavens. Abstract art may have troubles finding its humanity (consider Rothko, Pollock and Mondrian) but that simple, impermanent monument, composed of waves of light—a memorial not even built of matter—shows the metaphoric power of both abstraction and minimalism.

Self-restraint and metaphoric thinking are not strong suits of South Florida, where the longing for quick money, the display of what quick money buys and local ethnic politics too often combine to showcase excess and lapses of taste. In 1990, when the Holocaust Memorial of Miami Beach opened, two problems immediately became apparent: The first is that a holocaust memorial in Miami Beach makes about as much intuitive sense as a baseball hall of fame in Düsseldorf. The second is that the memorial honors the six million Jewish dead of the German extermination system and not the five million others.

The design includes a low colonnade of Jerusalem stone, a lily pond and palms. All well and good until you walk through the covered entrance and inexplicably hear a recording of children singing. You head toward a sculpture of a crying child, make a left turn outside and face a green arm, about the size of a NASA rocket, with Hieronymus Bosch figures of agony burrowing into it and dropped all around it like maggots from putrefied meat. In the merciless Florida sun, the green of the arm and the figures takes on the sickly faux-oxidized look of reproduction antiquities. Forget the generals on horseback riding on pedestals above town squares; forget the oversized statutes of stern, visionary dictators leading their intimidated populations forward; the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach is the kitschiest monument on view anywhere.

Nominally part of the American South, the Miami region has become, with the influx of Cubans, northern Jews and many others, a fragmented ethnic compilation—not the cliché American melting pot but a cheese board, with strong and very distinctive aromas arising from, and competing with, each quadrant.

I saw some of that when, in 1978, I participated in what was probably the only postwar South Florida connection to the Holocaust. I served as a legal intern on the government team in the trial of Feodor Fedorenko, a Ukrainian-born retired foundry worker. It was a civil case designed to take away Fedorenko’s citizenship, which, the government alleged, Fedorenko had falsely procured. The reason was that Fedorenko had claimed on his visa application that he was a displaced person (that is, a refugee), having failed to mention that the Germans had recruited him from a prisoner-of-war camp to become a guard at the Treblinka concentration camp.

The courtroom was filled with Jewish refugees who grew visibly impatient by the day with the niceties of American jurisprudence; they’d come for a hanging, and the lumbering pace of due process frustrated them. There were those of us on the government side that thought our spectator’s gallery, with its groans and mutterings at each attempt by the defense to score a point, was turning the alleged perpetrator into a victim in the eyes of the judge; we were shocked, but not all that surprised, when the judge ruled in the man’s favor.

To its credit, the appellate court was having none of that and reversed the decision. The case went to the United States Supreme Court, which, in 1981, affirmed the removal of Fedorenko’s US citizenship; it then established what remains the basic rule on how these cases would be determined. The Russians had the last word: because Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union at the time, the Russians picked up Fedorenko on his return, gave him the kind of trial that the South Florida courtroom audience had been hoping for, then had him executed. In time, the refugees in the gallery that day died off, forever changing the accent and character of the region’s Jewish community and forcing its only classical music FM station to change formats for want of listeners.

Which brings us to the Polish railroad car. Hollywood, fifteen minutes up I-95 from Miami Beach, is the future home of the South Florida Holocaust Museum. If you imagine that baseball hall of fame opening in Düsseldorf, imagine building another just upriver, short of Cologne. The railroad car dates from the first half of the last century and was used for transporting livestock; it is the same model that was used by the Germans to move uncountable numbers of Jews toward their deaths in Central and Eastern Europe.

The cattle car is meant to make a serious statement, and Hollywood, Florida, which I visit often to be with family, could use a little seriousness and respectability. Its only other landmarks of recent renown are the FedEx Kinko’s where six of the 9/11 terrorists logged on to buy their airline tickets and the casino hotel where the scandalous Anna Nicole Smith breathed her last. The cattle car has the virtue of authenticity (at least as to period and style), and Hollywood also needs things that are authentic but not yet gone to seed in the way that, by obvious example, it had let its beachfront go until recently.

While riding on Central European trains, I’ve seen those cattle cars. Brick red and boxy, under the low, muddy skies of Germany and Poland, they too cast a disturbing appearance to those of us who know for what uses similar rolling stock was once employed. The Hollywood cattle car is slated to stand as graffiti bait on a siding off Dixie Highway, around from the pastel-hued semi-revival of downtown, with its noisy restaurants and bars and modest but earnest shops and galleries. Three blocks to the east is a parallel highway notorious for the hookers who nightly wave their greetings to passing motorists; just beyond that is the white-sand beach favored by local families, pensioners, clusters of menacing but often overweight young men, and the kind of French Canadian tourist whose idea of a good time is the "Chicken Dance."

Subtlety not being a South Florida virtue, the cattle car may yet fit in, but on local terms, not its own; which is to say, no matter what you throw at it, South Florida will have its special way with it. The same summer that the Fedorenko case was being tried, the Royal Navy docked its most powerful warship, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, in Port Everglades for a visit. To the obvious delight of British sailors, a succession of local girls in cutoffs and bikini tops strolled over the flight deck, and the grandest ship in the modern navy with the noblest tradition looked something like the Love Boat. Set that antique cattle car down onto a Hollywood railroad siding to corrode in the white-hot, salty air, then surround it with suntanned Floridians in flip-flops, and you will watch meaning and metaphor alter before your eyes.

As Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, accomplishes through modern architecture and sparely populated, Cubist-like galleries, and as the bluntly named Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin also demonstrates, the best way to express in art the emotional and social weight of mass death is to follow the acronym known as KISS, meaning, "Keep it simple, stupid." The Berlin memorial consists of 2,711 concrete stelae punching through a cleared space in the center of town—an obstacle course of remembrance. It shows again that the best way to comprehend in art the deaths of millions is to resort to symbolic thinking and symbolic depiction. And it reminds us why Holocaust memorials belong in Germany, and that South Florida is a very long distance from Mitteleuropa, both geographically and as a way of life.

There is one final, disturbing reason that designers of memorials to mass atrocity should beware of literalism. Decades ago, the phrase "Never again" was used by Jewish groups when describing the Holocaust, only to be abandoned after what should never have happened once had happened again and again—in Cambodia, in Bosnia, in Rwanda and beyond. (As if to highlight its own cultural insularity, the organization developing the Hollywood facility posts "Never again" on its website.) The human capability for atrocity is so multilayered and undiminished, philo-Semitic monuments such as these and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (which correctly houses its rival cattle car in a gloomy interior space), are likely to come under pressure to become multiethnic, opening up to the victims of other atrocities and, as sobering as it is to contemplate, atrocities yet uncommitted.

For the near term: the colonnade, the lily pond and the palms of the Miami Beach memorial aren’t all that bad, and a clever decorator should be able to do something with the Hollywood cattle car. My petition is to take down the green arm, remove the statues and kill the music in Miami Beach, to get that railroad car out of the midday sun, or even better, to see if Sir Norman Foster or Daniel Libeskind feels like a Florida vacation and the chance to offer free advice. As for those memorials their present form: when I reflect upon the great-grandfather I lost at Dachau, all I can think is, thank goodness he didn’t live to see this.

Alan Behr practices intellectual property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. He writes frequently on travel and cultural affairs and is the author of the travel memoir Once Around the Fountain . Alan Behr last wrote on Sex, Glitter and Doom in the Weimar Republic for Culturekiosque.com



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