Tag Archives: counter monument

As I read through the article “Art and Accountability” and the opening pages of “Living as Form”, my mind kept making connections to one particular public art work/performance. So much so, in fact, that I decided it could serve as one of this week’s ‘case studies’ through which to explore the themes and questions raised in the readings.

So first let me introduce you to this ‘case study’: Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s The Hamburg Monument Against War and Fascism and for Peace. During postwar Germany, concerns started surfacing regarding the effectiveness of memorials and their call to remember. In response to this, a handful of public works used strategies of participation and erasure to subvert the premise of the conventional monument as permanent, rigid and authoritarian. James E. Young coined the term ‘counter-monument’ (in his essay “The Counter Monument: Memory Against Itself in Germany”) to describe these practices, of which The Hamburg Monument Against War and Fascism and for Peace is, in my opinion, the mascot for this mini-movement.

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In 1986 the city of Hamburg invited six artists, including Jochen Gerz, to design a ‘monument against fascism, war, and violence – and for peace and human rights’. Jochen Gerz, together with his wife Esther Shalev-Gerz, approached the project with two challenges: one was the oxymoron of an antifascist monument, (how to depart from the fascist tendencies that existed in most monuments?), and the other was the desire to re-enforce active remembrance (how to unlock the obligation of memory from the monument and return it to the people?) As Pierre Nora warns, “The less memory is experienced from the inside, the more it exists only through its exterior scaffolding and outward signs.”[1] The materiality and stability of the traditional monument absorbs the memory-work of the public, and in doing so becomes more a symbol of forgetting than memory.

To counteract this, Jochen Gerz and his wife devised a structure that disappeared over time in response to public participation. The design consisted of a hollow, aluminum, one-meter (three-foot) square pillar that stood twelve-meters (forty-foot) high. The surface of the pillar was plated with a thin layer of soft dark lead intended for inscription. At each corner of the base was an attached steel-pointed stylus, beside an invitation (in German, French, English, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish), which read:

“We invite the citizens of Hamburg, and visitors to the town, to add their name here to outs. In doing so, we commit ourselves to remain vigilant. As more and more names cover this 12 meter tall lead column, it will gradually be lowered into the ground. One day it will have disappeared completely, and the site of the Hamburg monument against fascism will be empty. In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.”[2]


Underneath was a hollow vault, as deep as the pillar’s height: in a sense, its tomb. As each ‘section’ (measuring approximately one and a half meters high) was covered with what became an illegible chaos of memorial graffiti (names, remarks, quotes, drawings, stars of David, faces, swastikas etc), the pillar was lowered further into the ground. Thus the speed of its descent was determined by the degree of the community’s engagement, until its final lowering took place six years later.


So, here are my discussion points/questions to consider in preparation for next class.

1. The work is certainly an example of ‘participatory art’ or ‘socially engaged art’ as it “requires action on behalf of the viewer to complete the work.”[3] To begin with, the participation (as envisioned by the artists) was limited to signatures. In this way Jochen and Esther Gerz were largely orchestrating (even controlling) both the language upon and activity around the pillar. Thus was their initial effort to return ownership to the public really just an illusion?

2. Interestingly, the public did not play along. Neither the artists nor the city officials who commissioned the work were able to foresee how much the work would engage (and enrage) the community on a much deeper level. Over time the pillar became a space for all kinds of expression, which authorities superficially labeled as “vandalism”. However Jochen and Esther Gerz embraced this evolution of their monument, declaring, “Why not give that phenomenon free rein and allow the monument to document the social temperament in that way?”[4] Is this the moment where it became less about participation and more about performance? Could the Hamburg public be seen as another manifestation of the woman that interrupted Augusto Boal’s play? How does this work compare to interactive theatre and ‘Forum’ Theatre?

3. Much like all the other examples in the readings, The Hamburg Monument Against War and Fascism and for Peace defies easy classification into the classical arts (or even public art or monuments) as it is cross-disciplinary. How does it foster interplay and expose tensions between art discourse, politics, public space, city development, graffiti, memory, ethics, history, civic agency, accountability (and any others) etc.

4. Doris Summer writes, “Art can disrupt in order to refresh rather than overwhelm politics” and that “the fundamental aesthetic effect of art is to break habit by ‘defamiliariazation.’”  How is this work an interruption of habit? Even though it memorializes death, does it “recover the sensation of life?”[5]

5. What was the ultimate impact of the work? Do you think its provocation of the community into aggressive outbursts was simply a symbolic gesture? Or did this serve a larger long-term purpose (tactical vs strategic?): perhaps it was practical in the way it set up a stage for some much-needed catharsis? How does it compare to Antanas Mockus’ work in Columbia and the notion of a “city-wide performance therapy”? Furthermore, Doris Sommer suggests, “Creativity may contribute to democratic social change.” Is this indeed an example of “creativity”? And did it, in your view, contribute to any form of democratic social change (immediate, ongoing, or delayed)?[6]


6. As a species of monument (however it may propose to subvert the genre), the work intrinsically takes on the challenge of how to give form to the ‘unrepresentable’. However would it be going to far to say that it was “anti-representational”? The imagery of a heavily severe pillar being driven into the ground (in a public space, by the community, no less) is extremely powerful and evocative. Some have interpreted it as “a great black knife in the back of Germany, slowly being plunged in, each thrust solemnly commemorated by the community.”[7] Does it allude to anything else for you? (For example, the motifs of falling towers and dark abysses in the ground: perhaps September 11 and its memorial?).

7. Finally, is the imagery compelling enough to constitute it as “spectacle” even if it did not generate a media frenzy at the time (especially relative to today’s standards)?

[1] Nora, Pierre trans. by Marc Roudebush, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire’, Representations 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory, Spring, 1989, 13.

[2] Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1993, 30.

[3] Thompson, Nato. Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, The MIT Press: Cambridge, 2012, 21.

[4] Gibson, Michael ‘Hamburg: Sinking Feelings’, ARTnews 86 , Summer, 1987, 106-107.

[5] Sommer, Doris. “Art and Accountability”, Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, Issue 71, Vol. 38, No.2, 2005, 261-276.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1993, 34.