Invisible Past, Invisible Future:
A German’s alternative response to the Holocaust
By Mark Callaghan
ART TIMES Online October 2010; Nov/ Dec 2010 print
In the German city of Saarbrücken, hard by the French border, there is a public work of art that is, in effect, invisible. Created by German artist Jochen Gerz in 1990, 2146 Stones: Monument Against Racism uses the architecture of a public square whilst having no discernable architectural features of its own. It is a monument that announces its presence by words rather than traditional visual forms, with street plaques reading “Platz des Unsichtbaren Mahnmals” (“Place of the Invisible Monument”), informing those who enter the square that something lies beyond the cobblestones leading to the Provincial Parliament Building; that there is something more to this space than meets the eye. As the street plaques indicate, there is no monument to peruse here, at least not by conventional practice.
The square’s eight thousand cobblestones have an ominous hidden side. They conceal the memory-work installed by Gerz and his students over a three-year period, with the initial labour carried out clandestinely, without legal authority, and only retrospectively commissioned after a narrow vote in the Saarbrücken Regional Council. Between April 1990 and May 1993, 2,146 cobblestones were removed from the square, often nocturnally, with students masquerading as revellers who, at opportune moments, would remove stones and replace them with temporary substitutes. The original cobblestones were taken to Gerz’s workshop where the names of desecrated Jewish cemeteries were engraved on their underside – one name per cobblestone, each one representing a Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Nazis. Then, in batches of ten-to-twenty, the cobblestones were returned to the square and reinstalled with the inscriptions pressed into the ground, causing the names of the cemeteries to be permanently hidden and the work to continue largely unnoticed by the people of Saarbrücken. 2146 Stones is therefore a monument to be walked over, to be negotiated like any pedestrian pathway, and it is reasonable to presume, a memory-work where innumerable people have unwittingly trodden on the buried inscriptions during the twenty-years of its existence.
Now, two decades after its conception, the monument’s meaning, success, and ultimately its contribution to Holocaust-related aesthetics, can be evaluated. Is Gerz’s invisible monument the most appropriate post-Holocaust aesthetic? Did Gerz unwittingly create a response to Theodor Adorno’s famous post-Auschwitz aporia, that in the aftermath of the Holocaust, all representation is uncivilized? Is Saarbrücken, a C-list European city, the unlikely location for the most compelling yet ignored response to Germany’s nadir?
As 2146 Stones was not created until 1990, a considerable bulk of aesthetic discourse was established before its conception. The most notable exponent of this debate, Theodor Adorno, outlined his palpable fears in the 1962 essay, Commitment, with a series of warnings pronounced under the epithet ‘the crisis of representation’. The ‘crisis’ in question relates to Adorno’s post-Auschwitz aporia, a complex deliberation famously reduced to the single sentence: ‘To write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Though this dictum suggests the abolition of post-Holocaust art, it is more to highlight the aporetic situation facing the post-Auschwitz writer or artist: the moral obligation for artists to represent and reveal appalling crimes versus the possibility that aesthetic pleasure may emanate from the victim’s experience, or that the extermination of a people could somehow be given meaningful form. Adorno’s warning against mimesis is exemplified within this dialectical tension, with pronouncements that highlight the distinct possibility that artists, despite their honourable intentions, will produce images that in their shock actually serve to stimulate us.
Of the connectable discourses available to this one artwork, the non-visual representation of the Holocaust is an axiomatic concern of Gerz and his students. There is nothing to see in Saarbrücken’s square. Every trace of research, collaboration, and subsequent engraving, is hidden. 2146 Stones is therefore the antithesis of the more traditional, and indeed visual, Holocaust memorial. Its paradoxical showing of nothingness also makes it more radical than any of the Holocaust-related monuments created since the 1990 German Reunification when East and West Germans began to officially address their country’s shameful past as part of their now shared future. So already we can appreciate why the Holocaust represents an onerous challenge to aesthetic norms and whether Gerz’s blank page of apparent nothingness becomes a solution to the formidable burden on artists, or, instead, a metaphor of the discursive problem itself. Or even both. Given the unrestrained murder of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, and political opponents of the Nazis, how can Gerz’s memorial of nothingness compensate for such irredeemable loss? Twenty years after its illegal beginnings what can be learned from Gerz’s monument? Does the counter-monument even have such aims? Does it have the ambition of “never again”, or is 2146 Stones a conceptual art exercise against the traditional monument with no intentions beyond this self-imposed remit?
As Gerz told me: ‘In my opinion, the traditional monument was kitsch; it was a horror show after the war. It was invented to make a glorification of an event – a victory which is good for you but bad for others. So the invisibility of our monument was like a cure. If you are representing absence you should create absence. That same absence also permits each person to become the author of his/her own memorial work’.
Whilst the monument may serve as the foundation for a visitor’s awareness of the Holocaust, it is reasonable to presume that the majority of those who enter The Place of the Invisible Monument will be conscious of the Nazis unrestrained murder of selected groups, an awareness that inevitably includes a personal stockpile of remembered imagery of the kind Adorno would find so incommodious. So whilst 2146 Stones can be viewed a postmodernist standard-bearer for Adorno’s concerns, not only reflecting his aporia but also edging toward the nearest we may find to a ‘solution’, it is ultimately compromised by our memory of art, that same knowledge of the Holocaust that becomes a prerequisite for understanding 2146 Stones and its historical references. And here I briefly add my contribution to the post-Holocaust aesthetic debate: a new aporia – the Memory Aporia.
According to Gerz, during the installation of 2146 Stones, Adorno’s theories were always ‘part of the furniture’. As he explains: ‘We saw Adorno as being ever-present, as being a challenge to any artist who wishes to represent the Holocaust. We felt that invisibility was the only way to portray this horror and the reference to the destroyed cemeteries was ideal for this; it related so well”. In this sense Gerz’s monument is a mimetic production. It emulates the fate of the Jewish tombstones that were converted to prosaic materials; it even provides the conditions that reproduce a pedestrian’s utilization of the space, including the likelihood that one will be unaware of what lies beneath. However, with regard to Adorno’s dictum, Gerz overlooked the problem that invisibility, and with it, self-authorship, could cause. For whether we like it or not, once icons of the Holocaust enter the popular imagination, they turn mythic, hard and impenetrable. Therefore, if Gerz wished to counteract the familiar images of the Shoah, he was unwittingly creating a blank space that would surely conjure one’s knowledge of the Holocaust, including those very same icons that he and Adorno found so troubling. This is the Memory Aporia.
Therefore, Gerz’s concept of authorship is flawed. Invisibility, for all its positive points, for all its undoubted audacity, is no more an ‘answer’ to the post-Auschwitz aporia than any artwork relating to the Shoah. This however, is appropriate to its content, as the most suitable expression any Holocaust-related artwork can make regarding its chosen subject is the sheer impossibility of representing it. Whatever an artist produces is contrary, whatever is depicted is troublesome, whatever is portrayed, even with the best of intentions, is problematic, often for reasons the artist is unaware of, as exemplified here with the Memory Aporia that Gerz unwittingly created. Gerz shifts the debate, but suitable to the subject, he does not resolve it.
However, invisibility does have the potential to alter aesthetic discourse. It is, by definition, easy to ignore, but invisibility can also result in subjective commemorations as Gerz intended for 2146 Stones. The conditions found in The Place of the Invisible Monument create this opportunity for personal imaginative authorship of one’s own memory-work that, like Gerz’s version, remains internal, concealed. In fact, in keeping with the phenomenology of memory, Gerz’s creation can be seen as an aesthetic coherence between the nature of memory – the fact that it is, in effect, invisible – and the concealed memory-creation of Gerz and the students. In this respect, despite the aforementioned Memory Aporia and the apparent failings of the monument (if they can be considered in such a binary sense), 2146 Stones succeeds in representing not just the historic problem of the ‘crisis of representation’ but also the promotion of subjective memories and concepts, which can only be achieved with an invisible aesthetic. Invisibility can be the key condition for creating this state of contemplation, of recalling one’s knowledge of the Holocaust, uninterrupted by a visual entity, be it figurative or abstract. To some, 2146 Stones will be out-of-sight, out-of-mind, whilst to others – and this is where the monument succeeds – it is out-of-sight, yet-in-the-mind. In fact, it becomes in-the-mind because it is out-of-sight. There are no distractions, no objects to ponder, not even the inscriptions to read and consider. Instead, there is just the knowledge that this is a place of remembrance and that knowledge, with the accompanying references to cemeteries, is enough for personal, imaginative, and subjective contemplation.
To some, the Place of the Invisible Monument may feel like a virtual-reality Giorgio de Chirico painting; a metaphysical brooding esplanade made curious by its sparseness. Others, however, might dismiss Gerz’s indiscernible monument as a post-modernist Emperor’s New Clothes, a public square subjected to a conceptual art project complete with pontificating pseudo-intellectuals and rumours of an elaborate hoax. Either way, twenty years later, the audacity of an artist paradoxically producing an invisible work sparks all reactions, be it admiration, cynicism, aesthetic discourse, or in some cases, no response or awareness at all. The monument’s invisibility is, however, intrinsic to our understanding of the complex issues concerning the representation of the Holocaust and how Gerz’s work represents not only a metaphor for the absence of Germany’s missing Jews, but also a symbol of the impossibility of representing the events that caused that same solemn outcome: the Shoah.
What began in the relatively sedate environment of a classroom soon became a guerrilla memorial action, with a public square’s cobblestones transformed in meaning, converted from a mundane functional purpose to a conceptual art enterprise complete with an undertow of archaeologically layered invisibilities. Now, those same cobblestones come to represent that well-known triad of instances of temporality: past, present, and future. The invisible past signifies the impossibility of representing the Holocaust, that ungraspable event. The invisible present concerns our experience of the work, the conditions that educe not just our knowledge of the Holocaust, but also our experience of the moment. The invisible future is, by definition, something unseen, an unreachable dimension. Yet in Saarbrücken, the possibilities for representation can be ironically observed in the invisibility of Gerz’s monument. Future representations of the Holocaust cannot be formed in a vacuum devoid of past renderings - the Memory Aporia proves the inescapability of that – but invisibility, as way of expression, as a consequence of the historic impossibility of representing the Shoah, may in the end be the new icon that encapsulates Adorno’s aporia: everlasting, recondite, and out of reach.
© Mark Callaghan, 2010: Shepshed, England