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Architectural notes: Monuments, mirrors and a black cube

Sergiusz Michalski
Wednesday 06 January 1999 01:02 GMT

MOST PUBLIC political monuments commemorate specific historic events or personalities. But, being static, they stand in sharp contrast to the flux that is society. As the 20th century has progressed, public monuments have witnessed a move away from the traditional allegorical or celebrated figure on a plinth to more abstract means of commemorating events. Many innovative artistic stratagems have been employed in response to horrific catastrophe.

Sol LeWitt's Black Form Dedicated to the Missing Jews is in many ways emblematic of 1980s thinking about the Holocaust. Though not intended in the classical sense as a monument, the work's underlying raison d'etre devolved from the public sphere. Designed for a sculpture exhibition in Munster in 1987, it was placed in the middle of an elaborate baroque palace courtyard.

The cube was positioned in a place traditionally reserved for equestrian monuments and where indeed an equestrian figure of Kaiser Wilhelm had stood before the Second World War. This position bestowed on the cube the aura, if not the function, of a pedestal - but with no figure to support. The black cube suggested a lack of function through both its form and its colouring; as a sombre parody of a plinth, it stood in stark contrast to the courtyard's festive baroque atmosphere.

The sheer incongruity of the cubic shape evoked the break in civilisation caused by the Nazi genocide, the black colour constituting an obvious symbol of mass death, of the disappearance of the figure into nothingness. Annihilation was thus equated with cultural disjunction, the cube acquiring the trappings of anti-matter. It was hailed as the ultimate conceptualisation of the black abyss of the Holocaust. Black was celebrated not only as the colour of mourning but mainly as an evocation of the non- representational nature of darkness and annihilation.

Of course the effect of a black cube, in contrast to that of a mirror, is to absorb light rather than to reflect it. The idea of mirroring has recently taken root in the domain of public monuments to varying effect. It has been used in an active sense, to elicit a statement or at least a reflection (in the other sense) on the pertinence of the monument's original message. Almost 20 years ago, the East German sculptor Klaus Schwabe tried to produce such an effect by inserting a mirrored segment into a projected monument to Ernst Thalmann, which was intended both as a testament to anti-Fascist struggle and to herald a brighter future for East Germany. The concept clearly overtaxed the mental capacities of Party bureaucrats, who aborted the project.

Mirroring is a powerful and circumstantially very poignant artistic ploy, but it can also become - when overused - semantically irrelevant. In Berlin's Wall Monument, inaugurated last summer, one of the few surviving sections of the Berlin Wall has been turned into a symbolic rectangular enclosure by the addition of two connecting metal mirroring walls. In good weather, the intended effect of reflection transforms the wall segment into a nirvanic castle. It is debatable whether such an impression conveys a sense of the human suffering inherent in that blood- and tear-soaked edifice. In coming of age artistically, another inspired stratagem has lost its directness of approach.

Sergiusz Michalski is the author of `Public Monuments: art in political bondage 1870-1997' (Reaktion Books, pounds 14.95)

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