Selection by Marielsa Castro Vizcarra
Moment, Monument, Memory, and Memorial

The need to remember the past and preserve history is as old as history itself. Art has been inscribed in the production of memories through multiple formats like monuments, memorials and antimonuments, and in works that aim to build, preserve, materialize, or even edit memory.

History and memory hold many affinities, and some differences. French historian, Pierre Nora, affirms that these two concepts, rather than being synonymous, are opposites. Memory is in constant transformation, it is forgotten and remembered according to the dialectic of the moment. On the other hand, history is a reconstruction of what is no longer there, and is therefore always incomplete. Memory is a phenomenon of the present, history a representation of the past. Memory is absolute, while history is relative. 1

In line with Pierre Nora’s claim: “We speak so much about memory, because there is so little of it left,” 2 artists such as Christian Boltanski, Ilán Lieberman, and Oscar Muñoz have explored ways to remember those who are no longer here, preserving what seems impermanent. French artist Christian Boltanski reflected on themes such as death, collective trauma, and loss of identity throughout his career; seeking to rescue memory through a variety of media. Boltanski collected photographs, objects, and even heartbeats, with the intention of remembering ordinary people and making them transcend in memorials that allude to collective memory. Among Boltanski’s emblematic work is the Monument series, which consist of installations of black and white portraits of children, stacked in a pyramidal shape with light bulbs that are connected to each other, recalling a public and collective mourning that commemorates specific people.

Both Boltanski and Mexican artist Ilán Lieberman collected photographic archives of children for their artistic production. Both practices employ photography to recall the memory of what has vanished from view, photography as the capture of an instant in time. Lieberman drew exact copies of newspaper images of missing children in pencil and with the help of a microscope–replicating the dots of the printing. Lieberman recreated over a period of three years, one hundred photographs from a local Mexico City newspaper. Primeros 25 Dibujos de la serie “Niño Perdido” [First 25 Drawings of the Lost Child series] acts as a collection of obituaries, or missing posters. Accompanying the drawings is a caption underneath that lists some of the characteristics of each missing person; such as name, age, height, particular characteristics, and date of disappearance.

For Proyecto para un memorial [Project for a Memorial], Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz also uses newspaper clippings of victims who disappeared during the violence in Colombia. Muñoz presents five videos that begin with a shot of a concrete surface illuminated by the sun. A few seconds later, a hand begins to paint a face on the ground with a transparent liquid. Shortly thereafter the viewer can sense that the liquid is water, as the drawing begins to evaporate the moment the face is finished. The artist represents the short temporality of memory and the impossibility of remembering those that have disappeared. In Latin American countries, disappearance has been used as a strategy of repression enacted upon dissidents. By disappearing the bodies of opponents, those in power not only repress by imposing terror on the population, but also erase the history and memory of those who fought or attempted to raise their voices, creating collective amnesia.
Monuments and memorials are built to preserve what happened and those who are no longer with us, as a way of remembering and constructing identities. Just as there are differences between history and memory, there are also differences between monuments and memorials. Monuments are built to commemorate the actions of a person or a specific moment relevant to a social group. Memorials on the other hand are spaces created to remember people who have died, and unlike the monuments that celebrate an action meant to be remembered, a memorial in turn denounces it. In the words of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it `the way it really was´” 3 but rather to re-create it through new interpretations of an experience. Historically, monuments are characterized as static places that create distance between the past and the present. While memorials leave room for new interpretations, based on sensory experiences. Both have been ways in which memory has been preserved. In contemporary artistic practices memorials and monuments have been the object and product of artistic production, as is the case with the work of Dan Flavin, Peter Coffin and Mark Dion.
Between 1964 and 1990, the artist Dan Flavin made 50 pieces dedicated to the Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin. Untitled (Monument for V. Tatlin), is one of them. Through a minimal and symmetrical organization of fluorescent lights, a material commonly employed by Flavin, the artist commemorates the Monument to the Third International (1919-1920). Also known as Tatlin’s Tower, and symbolic of the Russian communist revolution, it was intended to house the headquarters of the Communist International but was never actually built. Flavin’s work plays with the temporality of materials through iteration; and while a monument is intended to be permanent; a fluorescent light bulb is not. Similarly, American artist Peter Coffin uses historical symbols as jumping off points for his works and transforms images present in the collective memory into light black silhouettes in the series Sculpture Silhouette. Interested in reproducing the shadow of sculptures, Coffin produces black steel models just a few centimeters thick. Sculpture Silhouette Prop (B. Newman ‘Broken Obelisk’ 1963-69), is Coffin’s homage to Barnett Newman’s well-known Obelisk. Newman created a broken memorial, representing the cracks in the capitalist system, whilst Coffin designs a memorial to Newman by replicating only Newman’s shadow.
In response to memorials and monuments, contemporary artist has created anti-monuments that question ways of remembering and the hegemonic construction of history. Mexican artist Teresa Margolles has used the physical remnants of traumatic events in her work to represent loss, violence, and death. In 2008, Margolles was in China when an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the magnitude scale struck Sichuan province, leaving a total of 1,370,000 people displaced, 64,197 dead and 18,263 missing. Margolles traveled to Sichuan and as a result of her experience created Escombro [Rubble]. The piece has two parts—a small pyramid of 18 karat gold that supports a splinter collected by the artist from the site. The piece consists of showing a physical remnant of an event and thus reflecting on death. Rather than being monumental, it’s small dimensions and its takes on presenting a counter narrative make it anti-monumental.
In Monument to the Birds of Guam, American artist Mark Dion memorializes the extinct birds of the island of Guam. The installation features a tree with hanging snake bodies covered with dried tar. During World War II, a new snake species was mistakenly introduced to Guam and has since become an invasive and predatory species, causing ecological damage and extinction to multiple native bird species. The installation exposes the ecological dilemmas caused by humans who are responsible for the alterations in the diversity of ecosystems. The artist presents an anti-monument that denounces the predator and remembers the extinct species.
Patriotic symbols, like monuments, serve the purpose and are built with the intention of producing a national identity. Modern Mexico is largely based on the national anthem, the flag, and the national emblem. Desmatelamiento y reinstalación del escudo nacional [Dismantling and Relocation of the National Emblem] by the artist collective Tercerunquinto shows the photographic and video record of the action of temporarily removing the national emblem from the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City, now Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco. The action lasted 24 hours and took place on October 2, 2008, which marked the 40th anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre. Tercerunquinto’s action offers up multiple layers of interpretation. On the one hand it serves the purpose of denouncing the amnesia or lack of political memory of a traumatic event, and on the other hand it is a critique of the value given to symbols for the construction of a nation-states’ identity and nationalism.

Argentine artist Amalia Pica proposes the construction of new memories through the action To Everyone that Waves. Made in 2005-2006, the work speaks of displacement and nostalgia. Composed of a 16mm black and white video, and a pile of white handkerchiefs on a pedestal, the video shows an old ship setting out from the port of Amsterdam, the same place that said goodbye to thousands of people who emigrated to the United States centuries ago. Unannounced, the artist handed out white handkerchiefs to the people boarding the ship, as well as to those who remained on the dock. The happening was intended as a speculative study about whether peoples would wave to the ship with the “typical” white handkerchief salute and as a study of the documentation and recording of ephemeral art. The record of this happening, in conjunction with the confirmed speculation of the artist, speaks of the construction of new memories, and the subjective interpretation of history.

This selection includes works related to the act of remembering. Through different means, the included artists seek to build memories around situations or losses. Each of the artists gives a new interpretation to moments, in some cases through the construction of memorials, monuments, or anti-monuments, and in most of them through reinterpretations that show that memory is a construction built in the present. It is through the experience of each of the pieces that these monuments become memorials and that the viewer can create his or her own memories, questioning the idea of a hegemonic history.

Entrevista con Tercerunquinto
1 Pierre Nora, “Between memory and history: Les lieux de mémoire,” representations 26 (1989): 7-24.
2 Idem.
3 Walter Benjamin, “On the concept of history”, (2009): 389.
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