“Only an unfinished memorial process can guarantee the life of memory.” James E. Young
In 1996, seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, French artist Sophie Calle went to the former East Berlin and photographed the locations of the recently-removed political monuments and symbols of the former GDR. She spoke to various people and passers-by. She wanted to know what the erased monuments meant for Berliners, what they remembered about them, and what they thought about their absence. The respondents’ memories of the monuments were contradicting and unreliable, opinions – varied and opposing; there was doubt about the necessity of their removal (not about its legitimacy). The result was Detachment – an art project that probed acutely into memory, forgetting and remembrance.
In 2015, one year after Russia started its on-going military aggression against Ukraine, Russian artist Anna Jermolaewa went to Ukraine and travelled through small provincial towns, recording the locations of freshly-removed monuments to Lenin. She spoke to passers-by. She asked them who took the Lenins down. Even though the Ukrainian authorities had, the majority of respondents said they didn’t know – perhaps because the question seemed to be looking for someone to blame, as if the removals were some private illegitimate acts of vandalism. The artist referred to the removals as “iconoclasm,” and explained the necessity of the continued presence of a Lenin (often a cheap mass-produced plaster cast) in every single Ukrainian town and village thus: “As a not only political, but also cultural icon that reminds older generations of Ukraine's Soviet years, a Lenin statue does not simply stand for a no longer practiced or foreign ideology. In many towns and villages, statues of ‘Grandpa Lenin’ witnessed the functioning of daily life of the average Ukrainian.” Would Ukrainians feel they hadn’t lived if their life had been witnessed instead by, say, a beautiful centuries-old church, alas destroyed in their town on “Grandpa’s” orders?
In 2015, eighty years after a statue of the major British colonialist Cecil Rhodes was unveiled, it was removed from the university of Cape Town in South Africa, as a result of student protests, because “memorials to fallen ‘heroes’ have no place on public plinths.” The same year, a campaign started at Oxford University to remove a Rhodes statue from its campus. However, it was decided not to do so, because “the battle isn’t won by taking the statue away and pretending those people didn’t exist” and “apologizing for the past is one thing, but destroying symbols of the past is quite another.”
In 2016, three months after a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was unveiled at a university campus in Ghana, demands were voiced for it to be taken down on the grounds of Gandhi’s racism against black people. Another argument was that it is the only statue to a historic personality on the campus, and there are no monuments to African heroes and heroines. The monument was a gift to Ghana from the Indian president. Why gift a monument of your own national hero to another country?
In 2016, just before a monument was erected in London to Sir Nigel Gresley, the designer of the fastest steam locomotive (the Mallard), a tiny figure of a duck that was to stand by the feet of the monument was removed, despite passionate pro-duck protests on social media, because Gresley’s family deemed the duck's presence in the monument disrespectful…
In 1990, after fifty years under the Communist Russia’s rule, Lithuania got rid of all the “gifted” Lenins, and other monuments and symbols that had anything to do with Communist ideology and Soviet occupation. Then it hastily rebuilt the national monuments that the Soviets had destroyed. Then it hastily erected some new ones, that – it was felt – should have been built long ago, and the only reason they hadn't been was the occupation. Perhaps it was because of this "catching up" that all the new national monuments acquired the same romantic, old-fashioned, conservative, traditionally-representative form and content. Unfortunately, we still haven’t finished paying that debt to ourselves.
In 2018, in two years’ time, for the occasion of the centenary of the modern Lithuanian state, there are plans to erect a hundred statues of national heroes across the country. There are still some influential groups and individuals who find even abstract, let alone conceptual, monuments inadequate or even disrespectful. There are demands even for “Freedom” to be commemorated by repeating totalitarian tradition. Wherever a void appears in a public square, there is an urge to fill it. But questions are rarely asked of how to remember what is no longer there? How not to forget what is there? How to memorialize something we wish not to have been? What monuments could still move us and make us think? What monuments could distinguish the new era from the old? What do we need to be reminded of, and what is better forgotten? In the face of over-saturation, what monuments, if any, do we really need?
In 1984, forty-five years after the demolition by Nazi activists of the Aschrottbrunnen Fountain in Kassel, originally funded in 1908 by a wealthy Jewish patron of the city, it was decided to rebuild it. But a German artist, Horst Hoheisel, proposed instead – “in order to rescue the history of this place as a wound and as an open question, to penetrate the consciousness of the Kassel citizens so that such things never happen again” – to construct its negative: a hollow in the ground in the original fountain’s shape, into which water would be falling down. A counter-monument. Rebuilding would not commemorate anything – on the contrary, it would make us forget – as if nothing had happened, as if it had never been destroyed, as if the whole Jewish community of Kassel had not been wiped out.
In 1995, fifty years after the Holocaust, Horst Hoheisel submitted an even more radical proposal for a German national memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. His idea was to blow up the Brandenburg Gate and to grind its stone to dust. To commemorate destruction by destruction, by creating a void: “Only absence can speak about absence.”
In 2011, the year that the Syrian war began, Lebanese artist, Ali Cherri, went to Syria and photographed the empty plinth of a statue of the former president. He called his work The Great Emptiness / Statue of Assad. The statue had been removed to prevent its destruction by anti-government forces. Tearing down was prevented by tearing down.
In 2015, twenty-five years after Lithuania regained its independence, the municipality of Vilnius removed the Soviet-era sculptures from the Green Bridge. Despite being recognized as cultural heritage, they succumbed to populist political manipulations. They had remained in public space until now because they were not monuments. They were four pairs of nameless generic figures of “workers, farmers, students and soldiers.” (Only the pair of the Red Army soldiers could be seen as controversial, as they represented the occupying force of a foreign country). They were not Lenins. They were not icons either – cultural, political or any other. They were on the heritage list not because “they witnessed the functioning of daily life of the average Lithuanian,” not because “a generation grew up with them,” but because they were the last remaining specimens of socialist realism in public space in Lithuania.
In 1947, three years after the Nazi occupation had been replaced by the Soviet occupation in Lithuania, and more than three hundred years after it was built of stone, the Great Synagogue of Vilna – one of the oldest synagogues in Eastern Europe, the main symbol and center of Lithuanian Jewry, and the spiritual and physical home of the world renowned Vilna Gaon Eliyahu – was demolished by the Soviets, despite attempts to preserve this war-damaged building as a historic monument.
In 2009, one thousand years after the name of Lithuania was first mentioned in a historic text, Horst Hoheisel came to Vilnius and created a monument to the Great Synagogue. He installed semi-transparent photographs of the synagogue’s interior in the windows of the crude school block built on the synagogue’s site by the Soviets. Thus a mirage of the vanished synagogue appeared inside the school. But, for some, the mirage was “not visible enough.” Pointless and clumsy attempts were made, after the artist left, to make it “more visible,” but then it was decided that there was no money anyway to keep the electricity on in the building after the school classes. So the mirage was removed.
But what is the difference between the proposed destruction of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the razing of the Lenins in Ukraine, and the removal of the Green Bridge sculptures in Vilnius? It is not so much the one between a conceptual artistic project, the result of national self-determination, and a cheap populist spectacle. The more important difference is this: The Brandenburg Gate is a symbol of German greatness and power that stands on German soil; the Germans built it for themselves and the Germans themselves would have to remove it – as an act not only of destruction, but of humility and remorse. Of course, it will never happen, and this impossibility is part of the idea. Whereas taking down the sculptures of the Green Bridge today was not impossible. It was easy. But it served no purpose. We are a free country now, our borders are intact and we are protected (or so we believe) by NATO. Our relationship with Russia might be tense, but at this moment in time we do not have to assert our independence or political preference, like Ukraine. The fact that the sculptures bothered us perhaps only shows that we haven’t detached ourselves enough from the Soviet era. And only if Russia itself offered to remove the sculptures of the Green Bridge as symbols of its aggressive expansion in our land, would the idea of the removal be meaningful today. Of course, it would not happen. At least not in our lifetimes. But we could have lived with the expectation, and the very impossibility of it would be part of the idea. The sculptures were not a monument before they were taken down. If they had stayed in place, they could have become a monument ever on the brink of its existence – a monument not to nostalgia, but to historical memory and historical truth; a stark reminder of what happened to us, and that it is not impossible for it to happen again. Compared to the short life of most monuments (in Lithuania the oldest monument is not even a hundred years old) this one could have lasted – in its perpetual impossibility not to be – as long as we continued to choose that impossibility.
Yet, there is a greater impossibility than the destruction of the Brandenburg Gate by the Germans themselves, greater even than the removal of the symbols of their aggression by the Russians themselves. Today the Great Synagogue’s greatness lies perhaps in the fact that its rebuilding is so overwhelmingly impossible. Therefore, its destruction is even more impossible than that. But here is something possible: To keep the light on through the night in one of the classrooms. If every current resident of the former Vilnius ghetto made a tiny monthly contribution to the memory of our murdered Jews by collectively paying the electricity bill of a mirage.