Ralph Darbyshire is an artist and writer based in Liverpool, UK. Peter Eisenman is the American architect who designed the controversial Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, which was opened in May 2005.
There has been a non-story circulating news agencies recently about the fact that after almost three years, cracks have started to appear in some of the 2,751 concrete rectangular blocks that make up Peter Eisenman’s Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. Some reports claim that up to 400 slabs have been affected with cracks several centimeters deep, running through the entire length.
In reality the cracks are barely noticeable unless one is hunting for faults, and it should be remembered that this minor “teething” problem exists in the homeland of Mercedes and Benz and of the Bavarian Motor Works. Eisenman’s cracks will undoubtedly be dealt with quickly and efficiently and with the minimum of fuss.
This non-story has as much to do with good old-fashioned shaudenfreuder as it has to do with the controversy and concerns that threatened to blight the project from its very inception back in the early days of re-unification. The real non-story is that everything and nothing has come to pass. Over the past few years there has been almost no vandalism. No one has fallen to their death from it, no children have been irrevocably lost within it, and it has not become a skate park for Berlin youth. Significantly, its specific dedication to the “Jews” of Europe has not exacerbated tensions between survivor groups nor trivialised the suffering of the wider European populous, including that of the German people. It has not become a rallying point for what neo-Nazis denounce as the “cult of guilt.” However by the same token it has gone no way toward ending man’s propensity toward barbarity and unimaginable cruelty. It is this failure that marks its inevitable ceiling of usefulness.
A decade on from the liberation of the concentration camps, the British sculptor Henry Moore was unsuccessful in his attempt to judge a competition to build a monument at Auschwitz-Berkenau. “Is it in fact possible to create a work of art that can express the emotions engendered by Auschwitz?” he questioned. Clearly it is not possible, and perhaps Moore was asking too much of a monument. The limitations of a monument should be understood. Invest too much ambition in your memory marker and you invite unwelcome, ill-informed, and potentially dangerous polemics. There is little doubt that there is a need for such markers. Yet what we are left with is a horizon of ladders planted by an aged and befuddled Jacob trying in vain to document that which should have remained only dreams.
This does not mean that like Victorian children, art should be seen and not heard–far from it. Art’s mandate is to be rude yet refined, essential but belligerent. It should be free from committees, compromises, and comparisons. To know its place, which it should, it must first know its purpose, which Eisenman’s marker resolutely does.
The real story is that it has taken several years for this memorial to prove itself a success and that this achievement–albeit limited–is based on two quite different, yet mutually resilient properties. Set across a 19,000 square meter plot of land between the Brandenberg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, the sight used to be part of the GDR death-strip in no-mans land. Prior to that Joseph Goebbel’s ministry had flicked and spat propaganda from it. In a re-unified Berlin, it’s a prime piece of real estate, but early criticism of the project was less about its specific placement, and more about its lack of overtly Jewish symbolism. Detractors say it is too abstract. Many felt that it would feel too artificial a gesture being surrounded, as it is, by so many literal architectural and archaeological remnants. Perhaps the most forceful and difficult criticism to defend was that it should honor all the victims of the Third Reich, not just the Jewish victims.
The fact that in the early days of the project Eisenman had Richard Serra on board meant that it was always going to conform to a minimalist ideology. This is evident not only stylistically, through the use of industrial materials and neutral, albeit ever so slightly cracked surfaces, but also in the huge repetitive grid of blocks that form a pattern gallery. The illusion of rhythmic certainty forces one to relinquish thoughts of particularity. Tribe or creed become insignificant as the gestalt purges all metaphor and leaves only the inevitable tragedy of our end. The vast scale forces on us abnormal, monumental, unfathomable–yet anonymous–loss. This is minimalism in a utilitarian epoch, DIA Beacon morphing from factory, to gallery, to showroom. Eiseman would have been acutely aware that the title of his work could never have limited its reach.
The other way this memorial works is through time and familiarity. After almost three years it has become part of the furniture of Berlin’s public spaces. This might sound dismissive, but it should be glimpsed through the bat of a windscreen wiper, or used as an unselfconscious reference when directing a tourist to the Potsdamer Platz Starbucks. It should speak to bystanders with a horrid honesty as they catch an unsolicited reflection of it in a shop window. As familiarity breeds contempt of that which is contemptible, the confluence of beauty, necessity, and gangrenous history will allow this work to age with vitality.
Most European cities are festooned with equine sculptures with their great sons whose daring would nowadays land them lengthy prison sentences in The Hague. We tolerate them because they are antique. They do not exorcise the culpability we may feel for our past, as the stories they tell have become inaudible whispers. There is nothing mute about Eisenman’s work. It is already hard to imagine a Berlin without it. This said, what set of circumstances would allow for its demolition? Indeed, what circumstances would allow for the destruction of Auschwitz, only an afternoon’s drive away? Perhaps this is the true measure of a memorial, the hex that will always keep it constant.
Unfortunately this does not mean that the machinations of modern commerce could not impose on this sight as indeed they already have. Approached from the Brandenburg end, the blocks start off shallow, ankle high with planted saplings. One is drawn in slowly, in a process that is reminiscent of accounts by allied soldiers, who have described their incremental comprehension of their situation as they came upon silent camps in unremarkable eastern woods. However, at the Potsdamer end, the subtle gradation that would return the blocks to ankle height is stopped abruptly by a narrow road across from which is a row of souvenir shops, cafes, and a restaurant complete with a viewing balcony on which to eat you lunch. Berlin authorities have explained that these were built last year to stop people from picnicking on the memorial slabs.
Constantin Brancusi’s masterpiece ensemble at Tirgu Jiu, Romania was constructed in 1937 as a memorial to the men, women, and children of the town who died in the First World War. The first element in the ensemble is the Table of Silence, which consists of twelve limestone chairs and a table. Brancusi was actively encouraging social interaction and communal contemplation, while at the same time utilizing a visual language that had largely been the reserve of the chattering classes. Eisenman’s intentions are the same, and I hope some day to be able to eat my sandwich while sitting on a block, cracks or no cracks.