Memory and the labyrinth

I’m in Berlin for a few weeks, doing some research on street art here (about which more later, no doubt). But Berlin is not only a city filled with uncommissioned art, it is also a city immersed in the work of memorialisation of the past through public art and sculpture. This is very much one of my interests – how a city represents its relation to events which have marked its identity and character – and so on Wednesday, I went to see the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

This massive memorial site is located in the heart of Berlin, one block from the Brandenburg Gate, two blocks from the Reichstag, across the road from the US Embassy, close to Potsdamer Platz, and so on. Locating the memorial here (rather than in, say, some out of the way park, as might easily have been done) thus embeds it within the centre of Berlin as a seat of government, as an international city, and as a tourist destination.

The memorial, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, occupies a site that is pretty much the size of a city block (4.7 acres, in fact), and consists of 2,711 dark grey stelae (stone blocks) of various heights, arranged in rows, but patterned in that they appear to undulate across the site. This undulation is created partly by the varying heights of the stelae, and partly by the fact that they stand upon ground which rises and falls, rolling across the site in paved peaks and troughs (something that is hard to see from the outside, and which is instead experienced as you walk into it).

It’s an important part of the design that this is a memorial that you enter, rather than simply look at. It is designed to offer a range of unmarked paths that can be traced through the grey blocks. At its sides, the stelae are relatively small – knee-high, looking more like seats than columns. But the undulating unevenness of the ground means that, as you enter the site, very quickly the ground falls away, and you are surrounded by higher and higher blocks of stone, until they fairly tower above you, reaching as much as fifteen feet in height. At these points, sound – from other visitors, from traffic on the nearby streets – is muffled, and there is a feeling of being, quite suddenly, cut off from the world.

Thanks to the arrangement of the columns in blocks and rows, it’s possible to invent a path through what is revealed as a labyrinthine structure, in order to come out on the other side. Some paths are, literally, straightforward, marching in one direction across the site; others suddenly take you into a trough, in which the way through seems obscured. And, thanks to the presence of other visitors who can’t be seen until you almost collide with them as their path intersects with your own, any way that you choose may turn out to be momentarily impeded.

In this way, the memorial enacts a powerful narrative about the Shoah – the randomness of horrors, the ways in which escape routes chosen by individuals could turn out to be blocked by others, the suddenness with which people were isolated from assistance….

Before visiting, I had seen pictures of the memorial, and thus knew something of what to expect from it. But I hadn’t anticipated the experience of being at and in the memorial to be so effective (although note that I’m not saying ‘affective’ – and more about the memorial’s affect later).

So what was it that was striking, in the experience of being there (as opposed to simply seeing pictures and reading about the memorial’s design)? I noticed immediately (and can vividly remember) the smoothness of the stone used for the grey stelae: to run your hands down the side of one constitutes a beautifully tactile experience.

And I later recalled that there was controversy about the anti-graffiti coating that was applied to these stelae – the product originally used was made by a subsidiary company of the one that manufactured Zyklon B for the gas chambers. It seems unclear whether this was a slip-up in the memorial’s manufacture: perhaps some functionary sourced the coating without checking whether its manufacturer had any links to the Shoah, but perhaps instead it’s a means of provoking discussion about how many companies that were operating during – and profiting from – the Holocaust are still engaged in commerce today… But what can be said is that this is also one of the effective things about the memorial (smooth stone prompts one to think of the chemical coating the stone, and perhaps also its provenance and manufacture): its tactility directs thought in ways that words can’t quite manage.

I also went into the visitor centre, located underneath the memorial. I’ve written elsewhere about Holocaust museums and visitor centres, and I have great scepticism about how some of them are constructed, but this one is well done. It engages the senses – rooms with visual timelines of events are matched by a room in which a voice reads out the name and a brief biography of each Jewish person lost in the Shoah (to read them all will take over six years). Most remarkable was a dimly lit room with lighted panels in the floor (rather than placed on a wall in standard museum format): the panels showed letters and postcards written by individuals in ghettos and on the trains to the camps (some of these thrown from the trains and salvaged by others).

But most interesting of all for me in the days since seeing the memorial is the question of how there is no necessary affective relation between the architecture of this monument and the experience of being there. Its affect is contingent upon knowledge of what it is there for; its status is therefore nominal, in that solemnity and gravity depend upon its being named as the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’.

For my 8 year old daughter, who as yet knows almost nothing of the Shoah, it was not a place of sadness, but was rather a space of joyfulness: a maze that had to be navigated, a labyrinth that brought to life some of the puzzles that she does at school and some of the stories in her books:

We didn’t burden her with any of the narrative that the memorial seeks to animate – and in fact I rather envied her the ability to experience the site in its purely physical form without its metaphorical overlay.

Did her delighted leaping from one corridor to another have an impact upon my affective relation to the site? I certainly found it far less affective than some other Holocaust memorials that I have seen (for example, in Prague and Budapest, and also here in Berlin, on Grosse Hamburger Strasse). So what is the affective relation sought by this particular site? Perhaps it’s not that it failed to generate the solemnity and pensiveness that arises so easily at some other memorial locations, but perhaps instead its affectivity is mutable, intricate and elusive. At any rate, I’ve thought of it and about it many times since we visited a week ago, and in this respect – as a spur to thought – it performs an admirable function.

2 comments so far

  1. steve on

    There is way too much that i liked in this piece to make any sensible comment.

    Perhaps i’ll focus on the questions, which i am not taking as rhetorical and have decided to jump onto.

    “So what was it that was striking, in the experience of being there (as opposed to simply seeing pictures and reading about the memorial’s design)?”

    —–my own take of whether it is effective or affective is problematic, there are too many inversions to express myself sensibly. But i think Lacan’s mirror stage could be applied to any surface of interaction. Perhaps the fingers in that tactile moment has its own psychic presence situated in the shoah discourse. in that sense, perhaps what was striking, was that child-like experience, of self-recognition in the mirror, conducted in the psychic realm, through fingers caressing stone.

    speaking of child-like…

    Did her delighted leaping from one corridor to another have an impact upon my affective relation to the site?

    —–If the lacanian theme above holds true, that image in the mirror could now be threatened by (the child – on the side, why did i delete the name?). the affective elements of the self cannot contain this intrusion. I personally am finding difficulty with this, as i am making sound pretty close to trauma.

    with trauma, we lead to memory…

    So what is the affective relation sought by this particular site?

    —-does it have to be “instant”? Can photos, narratives and other re-tellings of a playful presence yield even greater reflection at a more “shoah-wise” age?

    meinem traum – it is a bit of a labyrinth as you say.

  2. imagestoliveby on

    Hi there

    thanks so much for this thoughtful comment… would love to hear more about these ideas…

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