Magazine article The Spectator

Impatience on a Monument

Magazine article The Spectator

Impatience on a Monument

Article excerpt

Peter Carrier on how Berliners cannot agree on plans to build a memorial to Holocaust victims Nearly every street or square in Berlin bears the scars of 20th-century history: gaping holes between buildings, rows of monotonous high-rise blocks from the GDR, but also monumental sculptures, inscriptions, memorials, museums and information centres marking sites of the Wilhemine Empire and Weimar Republic, Nazi crimes and resistance, or the 1948 airlift and the Wall. In 1993, the Neue Wache, or central memorial `to victims of war and tyranny', was inaugurated, and a new Jewish museum will be opened this year.

The idea to build a central monument to Jewish victims of the Holocaust was launched in 1988, and an area of 20,000 square metres (the approximate dimensions of Trafalgar Square) has been reserved in the heart of Berlin between the Brandenburg Gate and Leipziger Platz.

But does Germany need another war memorial? After a decade of painstaking negotiations, few people today seem to want the monument, apart from the three promoters (the initiator and campaigner for Jewish affairs Lea Rosh, and commissions from the local Berlin and federal governments). At a time when existing museums are under-funded, it is considered too big and too expensive at DM16 million (6 million). It will be financed half by the federal and local governments jointly, and half by private donations. It has provoked the wrath of representatives of other victim communities, including gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and the mentally handicapped.

Not even Helmut Kohl is convinced. He personally intervened to reject the model designed by Christine Jackob-Marks (a bronze slab inscribed with names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust) which was selected in 1995. The second batch of proposals, currently on show at the Marstall Gallery in Berlin, testifies to the city planners' cautious attempt to find a form of urban art which causes as little political fuss as possible. But there is much opposition in the art world and Jewish community. The president of the Academy of Arts, Gyorgy Konrad, condemns the `didactic kitsch, arrogant insinuations, pretentious symbols, ideas, concepts'.

Despite public and political resistance, Berlin is nevertheless destined to receive this `Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe', situated only a few yards from the future British embassy in Wilhelmstrasse. Keen to avoid the humiliation of another postponement of the project ten years after its inception, the senate has announced a stringent set of deadlines. The final winner will be announced this month, the foundation stone laid on 10 June, and inaugurated on 20 January 1999, the 56th anniversary of the Wannsee conference. Rosh is adamant that `we cannot afford to repeat the fiasco of the first competition'.

The hot favourite is the project put forward by the architect Peter Eisenman and artist Richard Serra: a forest of 4,000 square concrete pillars with regular gaps of 92 cm between each of them. Its abstraction is designed to neutralise any political aspirations. `Our monument,' claim its proponents, `has no goal, no end, and no path can be found in or out . . . It evokes no nostalgia, no memory, no commemoration of the past, but only the living memory of individual experience.'

The three other short-listed proposals include a fragmented star of David made of 18 concrete panels (Gesine Weinmiller), an assembly of concrete 'voids' cast from the symbolic inaccessible spaces of the new Jewish Museum (Daniel Libeskind), and a collection of 39 lampposts each bearing the word 'why' in different languages (Jochen Gerz). …

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