Time for a memorial?

Today a newspaper dated 22 July is displayed outside the office of VG, Norway’s largest news agency in Oslo. It’s a somewhat disheveled showcase for VG’s daily broadsheet; the glass is shattered; the pages pock-marked and faded by the sun. But this is no everyday object. 

The paper was posted here on the morning of 22 July 2011. Later that day a massive car bomb ripped apart central Oslo before the horror of the shootings at the Workers’ Youth League (AUF) summer camp on the island of Utøya unfolded. It has been left untouched ever since.

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Here is a memorial authored by the blast itself – a prosthetic for the violence wrecked on the city and its inhabitants. The paper’s content – the events of the day before – appear oddly irrelevant, indulgent even, in the face of what was to come. It acts as an involuntary artwork – freezing the moment of rupture in Oslo’s history, serving as a reminder (at least until it is removed in the redevelopment of the site) of the futures erased by Anders Behring Breivik that day.

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This month sees the launch of an international competition for the design of two public art memorial sites – one in Hole (on the headland facing Utøya) and one in central Oslo to commemorate the lives lost in the terror attacks of 22/7. For some the competition comes too soon after the trauma of Breivik’s trial. Yet the call responds sensitively to a perceived need to ‘design’ places for contemplation  – a new urban park in the city and vantage point at Hole are to become sites of pilgrimage and ceremony.

Considering the impact of the newspaper display as an unintended memorial, the competition raises the question – how do artists set about describing the indescribable in this place? What new design, what new structure or square, landscape or monument could possibly deal with the facts and implications of 22/7.

The history of public art memorials is fraught with controversy – Rachel Whiteread’s Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial (Nameless Library) took four turbulent years to materialise. Mute and impenetrable, the work (at least in its formal qualities) echoes the characteristics of numerous contemporary permanent monuments across the globe – many of which deal with the unspeakable nature of human racism and the aching absence of lives lost.

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Amy Waldman’s acclaimed 2011 novel ‘The Submission’ took as its starting point the ambiguities surrounding the development of a public art memorial for 9/11. The novel begins with the opening of an envelope containing the anonymous winner’s name which reveals he is an American Muslim. The resulting furore plays out the ambiguities of commissioning an artistic response to both personal story and world history. It reveals that our attempts to create places outside the momentary crisis of political, social and religious disputes, inevitably become the battleground over which such disputes are fought.

The quiet orthodoxy of contemporary memorial sites is perhaps best represented by the 7/7 Memorial in Hyde Park designed by Camody Groarke/Arup with Antony Gormley. The constellation of steel pillars represents the 52 victims in four inter-linking clusters reflecting the locations of the bombings across London.

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150 people gathered here on 7th July this year. Meanwhile the British Media celebrated Andy Murray’s win at Wimbledon and the serendipity of sevens (a win on 7/7, 77 years after the last British male champion) with little reference to the the past infamy of 7/7. That night a growing dis-ease circulated across social media sites bemoaning the lack of coverage of the 8th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings. Should such memorials, such as this, serve then simply as a site of contemplation, or is their purpose one of helping us to remember?

The question for the artists and architects considering the 22/7 memorial sites might be to consider how they approach the inevitable process of public forgetting: Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s Monument against Fascism (Hamburg-Harburg, Germany 1986) used the threat of amnesia as the essence of the work. The city’s residents and visitors were asked to engrave their names and sign against fascism on the monument, a 12-metre tall lead coated square column. As soon as the accessible part of the monument was covered with signatures, it was lowered into the ground. Between the inauguration on 10 October, 1986, and its disappearance on November 10, 1993, the Monument against Fascism was lowered into the ground eight times.

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A memorial is not only a site – but also a marker in time from which point the future unfolds. What if the artists considering the 22/7 memorial competition, considered not simply public space, but also the nature of public time? The atrocity of Breivik’s action was to halt the future potential of 69 young people. How might that future be honoured? Perhaps such a memorial should consider its potential to be productive rather than just contemplative, to urge us to look forward, rather than simply to look back and remember?

What might such a productive work look like?

A marked change in public art in recent years has been the development of durational projects which unfold over time, involving different characters and participants. In Oslo, as part of Slow Space, Katie Paterson will work with the national library on Future Library which will see a writer of international significance commissioned every year for 100 years with the final publication of every text withheld until 2114 – a gift to a future generation of readers beyond our lifetime. The project – Locating the Producers: Durational Approaches to Public Art – also touched on the emergence of new long-term projects which create a space for the unplanned to emerge.

Might then a space for the unplanned, a space in which new ideas and resolutions emerge, offer a starting point for an artistic response to the unspeakable grief of 22/7? 

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