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For this reason, several artists commissioned by Germany to create Holocaust memorials turned to the notion of the “vanishing monument.” Unlike traditional memorials, these works nod to the difficulty, if not sheer impossibility of doing what is asked of them. How can we make manifest the absence of millions of human beings? How can we memorialize this vast rupture to collective memory?
We cannot, but we must if only by showing that we cannot. Jochen Gerz’s “Monument against Fascism” reflects the movement’s philosophy: erected in a suburb of Hamburg in 1986, the 36 foot high, lead-plated pillar slowly sank over several years into its pedestal. Flush with surface, it was then covered with a burial stone, forcing the visitor, staring at the space it once occupied, to do the hard work of remembrance.
Of course, the Wall is different: its builders never thought that it would be anything other than a wall. It is, in short, an accidental monument. Yet, though unplanned, it marks a terribly grim era that, through careful planning, squandered the lives of two generations of East Germans. But how much more effective is an unintended monument than an intended one?
Does the Gallery convey the shock of watching East German soldiers stretching barbed wire through the center of Berlin on August 13, 1961? Can it recreate the final moments of Gunter Litfin, the first victim of the Wall, shot in the head by an East German sentry as he tried to swim across a canal? Or, for that matter, can it evoke the last thoughts of the more than one hundred other men and women who died in their efforts to cross over?
This may be asking too much of any memorial, much less of a slab of concrete since plastered with art and graffiti. The anger felt by Berliners over the wall’s removal to another site certainly reflects their sense of the past’s frailty. While the moving of the Gallery hardly compares to, say, the removal of the Elgin Marbles, it still alters the historical record — an activity in which communist East Germany was all too well versed. To uproot the wall, for these thousands of protesters, is tantamount to uprooting history.
But is this the only way to approach the controversy? The Wall, an unintended monument, might have unintended, but welcomed consequences once moved. Like those Holocaust memorials once visible in Germany, only to fade, quite deliberately, into invisibility, a vanished wall would force visitors to truly confront the past. In V.S. Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River, a character, pointing to his heart, says: “The past is here.” Pointing to the ground, he continues: “It isn’t here.”
Just as the search for freedom, as The Hoff sang, still goes on, so too does the search for the past. It just isn’t always where we expect to find it.