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Monuments that Move Us / Julia Keren Turbahn

“There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument. They are no doubt erected to be seen – indeed to attract attention. But at the same time they are impregnated with something that repels attention […] One cannot say they ‘de-notice’ us, they elude our perceptive faculties […]. Anything that endures over time sacrifices its ability to make an impression”[1], wrote the author Robert Musil in his essay “Monuments”. Even though he refers to stereotypical statues of the 19th century one can identify this problematic issue in our current culture of remembrance. Monuments transcend time, and yet remain silent in space. They are so quiet and unobtrusive that they are inconspicuously able to attach themselves to the city. We, as observer, are one day surprised to realize and question, of whom and what this monument actually wants to remind us. We begin to question its right to exist in this space. We can currently see exactly this problem in the United States at the removal of Confederate monuments in many states. Furthermore in the media the people who stand before the monument and their interaction with it are questioned: Is it for example appropriate to take smiling selfies at a Holocaust memorial?

After an introduction to the definition of a monument within the context of our culture of remembrance, as well as an elaboration of the abovementioned topical issues, I would like to demonstrate how the relationship of the body and the monument in the face of the development of our culture of remembrance can and should be constantly updated, questioned and reinvented in order to make us more sensitive to the (in)visibility of monuments. I will do so by taking different artistic positions into account. In this way, this text follows the current of thought which I developed in collaboration with the artist Tal Alperstein in our project monumentalise which will be addressed at the end of this text.



About the invisibility of stone

The French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs mentioned the importance of the social dimensions of memory after the Second World War. He speaks of a “collective memory” that is constructed through socialization and communication. Under the auspices of commemorative memory is to be understood the collective and subjective perception of historical relationships.[2] A monument is erected in order to commemorate a specific person or historical moment.[3] The cultural theorist Jan Assmann notes, that monuments are a form of our public commemorative memory, a part of our cultural memory, that not only manifests itself in remembering persons but also in things, texts, pictures and actions.[4] The art historian Alois Riegl distinguishes between “intentional monuments”, that is, those which were set up in order to commemorate (the memorials) and the “historical monuments” which were erected for a different purpose and only acquired a commemorative value over time such as for example famous buildings or works of art.[5] Temples, statues and monuments can be seen as a form of demonstration, as part of the visual media to a commemorative culture. Through them, the cultural memory of the respective society is organized and articulated in the public space and fixed points in the cultural memory are expressed. Next to their deictic function, of not letting a certain person of event be forgotten, monuments can also, through their content, give, by means of their specific construction and positioning in the public space, clarification about which collective worldview and perception were important at the time of their construction.[6]

Robert Musil continues in his text: “Every day you have to walk around them, or use their pedestal as a haven of rest, you employ them as a compass or a distance marker; when you happen upon the well-known square, you sense them as you would a tree, as part of the street scenery, and you would be momentarily stunned were they to be missing one morning: But you never look at them, and do not generally have the slightest notion of whom they are supposed to represent […] They repel the very thing they are supposed to attract.”[7] The author not only describes the invisibility of monuments in the public space, but also posits that rather than reminding us of something, monuments can in fact have a distancing effect, and in so doing can become a ‘monument to forgetting’. According to Musil monuments become a certain backdrop to our everyday life. If one follows this line of thought, one must wonder, if when visiting a monument as a tourist, because a point of focus is laid on the visual aspect of the monument, the actual content and story of the monument loses its significance. Is the touristic consumerism being pushed into the foreground while the openness to content and understanding pushed to the background?[8] Furthermore, is it possible to see Musil’s thought as a critique of the format of monument? In the 21st century, do we need a new form for the monument in order to counteract the distancing effect, of which Musil previously spoke, so that monuments can once again support memory and not forgetting?




About the need for flexibility- moving stones and thoughts

A topical example for the importance of the debate about the message monuments transmit within the public sphere is the removal of Confederate monuments in many cities of the United States.[9] Holland Cotters, art critic to the New York Times writes: “We Need to Move, Not Destroy“[10]. Moving a monument as well as moving forward in our intellectual debate in our culture of remembrance. He does not want the monuments to be destroyed, for in so doing one avoids the symbolic reminder of our history of inequality. His suggestion is to find a new place for the monument: “to change that context, break its spell, rouse these things up from the slumber of false nostalgia, and wake ourselves up. Plus, if you move them, you can put something in their place, introduce new stories.”[11] To Cotter, an appropriate alternative place of location for the monuments would be a museum, although here it is important that this does not become a ‘hall of fame’ but also a ‘hall of shame.’: “For this to happen, though, museums will have to relinquish their pretense of ideological neutrality. They will have to become truth-telling institutions.”[12]

The fact that we not only need to question the sculpture, the materiality of the monument but also our positioning toward the object, is demonstrated by the website, which the satirist, Shahak Shapira, created in 2017. On this website we can see tourists visiting the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The people pictured on this website are juggling with bright balls, are taking selfies or are jumping over the grand stone platforms of the memorial. If one moves the mouse over the picture, the background of these images is transformed into images of Nazi concentration camps. This website has received a massive response, which vacillates between receptivity and criticism for tastelessness. Two and a half million people visited the page until the twelve people who are seen in the pictures demanded the content to be taken down- content which Shapira found on Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and Grindr. Shapira conceded to this demand but attached the following statement: “I didn’t mean to dictate to anyone; I wanted people to talk about whether it’s right or wrong to behave like this at such a place.”[13] A less provocative, yet similar approach to this theme can be found on the website, which consists of a collection of Tinder profile pictures in which the users are positioned in front of the Holocaust memorial. The question that these project raises, among others, is how one interacts with a monument. Peter Eisenmann, the architect of the memorial reacted to Shapira’s Website as follows: “[P]utting those bodies there, in the pictures, that’s a little too much if you ask me […] [T]here are no dead people under my memorial. My idea was to allow as many people of different generations, in their own ways, to deal or not to deal with being in that place. And if they want to lark around, I think that’s fine.” For Eisenmann the monument is a ‘daily occurrence’ and not a ‘holy ground’.[14] Eisenmann here mentions an important aspect of our commemorative memory: each generation has its own form, own rituals for remembrance. Where do we draw the line, however, between acceptable behavior toward remembrance and tastelessness? Uwe Neumärker, the director of the Foundation for the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, agrees with Eisemann’s standpoint about the selfie-problem. He sees them as a way of appropriating the world. Not only by young people but also by older people. Even on cemeteries and concentration camp memorials the selfies are a form to express: ‘I was here’.[15] Hence it is to ask: Can our selfie-culture become an established means of memorializing and can it be seen as a ritual for remembrance next to the previous, normative ritual of internalization and silence?




About the body – how to perform memory

Jochen Gerz is an artist for whom the format and the interaction with monuments in the public space has, since the beginning of his artistic work, been a guiding question. An example of this is the memorial Platz des Unsichtbaren Mahnmals (Place of the Invisible Memorial), which is located in the forecourt of a castle in Saarbrücken. Its basis is an initiative between the artist and students. Together they secretly began to engrave the names of Jewish graveyards on the backside of cobblestones in the castle’s forecourt- which had been a control center during the Nazi time. In the end, Gerz’s idea was encouraged by the city of Saarbrücken and 2146 stones were engraved with a text and accompanied by a public memorial, constructed in 1993. Today only a sign reminds the visitor of the ‘invisible’ monument. In this way the square functions not only as a monument but also doubly problematizes the issue of avoidance of history. Firstly, it addresses the mental act of evasion, and secondly the form of ‘visual avoidance’ that is represented by making the monument invisible. The overturned stones thus act as a trace of a performative act.[16] In Hamburg there is the Memorial against Fascism, which Gerz, in collaboration with his wife, Esther Shalev-Gerz, constructed. The twelve meter high lead column functions as a place where visitors can engrave and write commentaries directly onto the surface of the monument with a metal pencil provided.[17] Over the course of seven years this column was then lowered in eight phases so that the visitors could have a new space to write. This act metaphorically symbolized the “burial of memory”.[18] Today the column has been completely sunken, as a visitor one sees only the lead plate on the pavement before which lies an explanation with the inscription: “Denn nichts kann auf Dauer an unserer Stelle sich gegen das Unrecht erheben,“ which can be translated to: ‘For nothing can permanently stand up to injustice in our place” meaning in the long run it is the human being itself, who must stand up against injustice.[19] These two examples demonstrate how Gerz redefines the format of a memorial and raises the possibility of co-authorship and shared responsibility of the viewer to the memorial by spurring the visitor into interaction with the memorial itself. Thus, the focus is not only on the object itself, but also on the act of remembering as a performative ritual, as well as the interaction between viewer and sculpture. Gerz‘s formats can be seen in an interactive context: Memorial and visitor are moved. Gerz himself formulates the importance of physicalized remembrance: “Because the places of remembrance are people, not monuments. I ask you, where we stand at the end of our century and here something new arises: do not underestimate the quality of the viewer, do not forget the people of today.“[20]

The American art historian Mechthild Widrich defines the term of ‘performative monuments’ as: “an emergent genre of interactive actions, rests on a new notion of agency in public space, in which political responsibility is performed by historically aware individuals in acts of commemoration“[21]. Widrich argues that the performance art of the 1960s[22] was an important impetus for a new form of remembrance that arose in the 1980s in Europe. According to Widrich, the format of a live performance should, despite its ephemerality and immateriality, be seen not as an antipode to the monumental, but as something that reimagines the relationship of the body to the monument, in that it actively pulls the person in.[23] Widrich understands not only official execution of ritualized remembrance in the public space as involvement, but includes all forms that are part of the act of remembrance as active involvement. For example, interviews or historical texts could, according to Widrich, be an example of active involvement. In this way, the activation of remembrance is not limited to visitors who are physically present in front of a memorial. [24]

How ‘heavy’ commemorating can be Christian Jankowski visualises in his work Heavy Weight History using a sense of humour that is typical to his work.[25] Jankowski invited a group of professional weightlifters to lift a row of massive public sculptures in Warsaw. Dressed in patriotic colors, the weightlifters attempt to lift the monuments, which are made of bronze and brick. Metaphorically, this can be read as carrying the burden of history on their shoulders.[26] The Romanian artist Alexandra Pirici lets performers not only interact with the monuments but also complements and replaces the fixed materiality of the monument with the flexibility of the human body. The idea behind it was to reduce, de-monumentalize, update the monuments, intervene in their history and symbolism or to alienate them.[27] In her work Monument to Work Pirici conceptualizes the act of remembrance through a performative work in which the physical disposition of the working body is recontextualized and the existing possibilities of remembrance and memory are investigated.[28] Pirici asked factory workers to demonstrate their routine activities, and then used this movement material as the basis for her performative monument which is located in public space.[29] Pirici has been re-interpreting memorials since 2011 by incorporating the human body and already garnered international attention at the Venice Biennale in 2013 when, together with choreographer Manuel Pelmuş, she asked dancers to physically reset previous iconic works of past Biennales in her work An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale. Related to Pirici’s idea of transforming existing movement material into a form of performative sculpture the Israeli artist Yael Bartana uses an already existing performative ritual and translates it into a collective performance in the public sphere that then for her functions as a transformed ‘social sculpture’.[30] Hereby the artist does not criticise the materiality of the monument but questions socially learned routines and rituals of commemoration. In her work Two minutes of Standstill which was part of the Impulse Theater Biennale 2013, she calls for a symbolic interruption of the everyday life asking the people to collectively stand still in public places for two minutes referring to the the Yom Ha Shoah, the Israeli day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. The question for Bartana is: what does it mean to grow up with this collective ritual? As the sirens sound, the entire land of Israel stands still for two minutes. Bartana argues that the act of remembrance is often presented and experienced as a ‘predetermined routine’[31]. The artist claims that, long before one has contextualized or intellectualized the participation in the ritual of Yom Ha Shoah, one has been forced into a physical experience. For Bartana the project Two minutes of Standstill is, above all, a direct request to change the present and initiate a debate about how active remembrance is and should be in the future.[32] On the project’s website is written, in large letters on a red background, „Halte an und denke“, which can be translated to ‘Stop and think’: Remembering as a collective performance to arrest the visitor in a double sense, on a physical and mental level.[33] The art theorist Christina von Braun writes about the quality of silently standing still: “Maybe silence and stillstand are the only common language we have. They offer everyone a possibility: the one who wants to speak, like the one who finds no words for the feelings, the grief, the joy. Silence is the most difficult language of all – and the only one we can all share. Standstill is the most difficult movement – and the only one to which we are all capable. Both are registered in us – our thinking as well as our bodies – in an indelible way. Therefore, two minutes standstill contain the promise of eternity. That’s not very little.”[34] In June 2013, by physically standing still, pausing within the public space, the dancer and choreographer Erdem Gündüz became a certain symbol of a performative monument for still and peaceful protest.[35] His image circulated throughout worldwide media channels as he stood immutable in the middle of the clearance of Istanbul’s Gezi Park only to be spurred into movement in order to avoid physical violence at the hand of the police forces. The ‘Body-Monument’ was ephemeral and yet it especially circulated in digital media. With the hashtag #duranadam (in Turkish standing man) people posted pictures of themselves standing still at various places all over the world in order to show solidarity with Gündüz. Being united in standstill: A movement that, as Christina von Braun puts it, can be understood by all and reproduced locally.[36]




 About infinitely moving on

The works of Gerz, Bartana, Jankwoski, Pirici and Günduz demonstrate how an artistic interaction, especially one that uses the body, can point to the existing forms and rituals of surrounding a monument as well as the materiality of the monument itself. Moreover they imply that newer formats can perhaps more effectively counteract the  aforementioned distancing effect against which Musil warns us. The questions in which way time, location and the human body stand in relationship to memory is also central questions to the project monumentalise. monumentalise is the result of a collaboration between Alperstein and I within the frame of the project en/COUNTERs that enabled an artistic exchange between Israeli and German artists. Through the reconstruction of the form of a monument with human bodies we developed choreographic scores. These scores were translated into illustrations by the artist Dan Allon, in order to explain the construction of physical monuments. Similar to an Ikea furniture piece, this step by step guides demonstrate how the monument itself can be reconstructed with human bodies.[37] On this website we also encourage the visitor to rebuild a monument, at a place of their choosing and to share a picture of it with us. These ‘Physicalized- Monuments’ can be built up at any time whatsoever. They do, however require a certain amount of physical effort and concentration in order to build what one could call an ephemeral ‘Community of Remembrance’. The selection of the ‘reconstructed’ monuments is based on the places we worked during the project development. Seemingly ‘invisible’ monuments are made visible again– they are experienced through the body and brought to new locations. How long a specific monument stands is dependent upon the endurance of the body. In one video work that is part of the project, the performers stand at the Rabin Square in Tel Aviv for thirty minutes. Their muscles begin to shake until they can’t stand any longer and free themselves from the position. The monument disappears from the square, the experience, however, of collectively holding a position is imprinted into the body and mind. Although the reproduction of monuments inevitably presents certain content-related aspects of a culture of remembrance that can be critically questioned, the project focuses on the investigation of the ‘how’ of remembering. We do not suggest a new monument format, rather a sensibility to the format of the monument that triggers a reflection on the act of remembrance. In so doing we literally hope to set older formats of the culture of remembrance in motion, activating a movement in society physically and intellectually. How can we stop the inevitable habits of remembrance and critically examine them? Perhaps not only through physical stillness but also through movement, not only bound to one place but by mobility? , “[P]ersonal involvement is necessary if we want memory to be relevant in the political future“ Mechthild Widrich writes. [38] In our media-driven society we can find numerous channels for remembrance, thus monumentalise does not limit itself to the live performative act but also shares the instructions, pictures and videos of the act online. And yet, in my opinion, the physical engagement and physicalized memory plays a tremendous role in the future preservation of our commemorative culture. Especially as we ask ourselves about the importance of the materiality, temporality and location of our monuments, it is important to also think about the viewer. And as we think about the viewer we must think about the activation of the human body so that monuments, in whatsoever form, can remain an important aspect of our commemorative memory.














[1] Musil, Robert, “Monuments,” in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, trans. Peter Wortsman, Hygiene, Colorado 1987, p. 61.

[2] Erll, Astrid : Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskultur. Eine Einführung, Stuttgart 2005.

[3] Jahn, Johannes/Lieb,Stephanie: Wörterbücher der Kunst, Stuttgart 2008, p.188-189.

[4] Assmann, Jan: Thomas Mann und Ägypten: Mythos und Monotheismus in den Josephsromanen, Frankfurt, 2006, p.69.

[5] Riegl,Alois: “Der moderne Denkmalkultus: Sein Wesen und seine Entstehung” Wien/Leipzig 1903, S. 172.

[6] Assmann, Jan: Kollektives Gedächtnis und kulturelle Identität in Assmann, Jan/Hölscher Tonio: Kultur und Gedächtnis, Frankfurt 1988, p. 9-19.

[7] Musil, Robert,”Monuments,” in Posthumous Papers of a living Author, trans. Peter Wortsman, Colorado, 1987, p.61.

[8], Georgios: ” Über die Wörter ‘fire’ und ‘oven’ komme ich nicht hinweg. Interview mit Constanze Kaiser über das Thema Nationsozialismus unter Jugendlichen. [29.01.2017]

[9] The discussion about the removal of memorials dedicated to the Confederate States of America began after after the Charleston Church shooting in 2015 and accelerated in August 2017 after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The removals were mostly driven by the belief that the monuments were build in order to glorify white supremacy as well as memorializing a government whose founding principle was the perpetuation and expansion of slavery. [29.01.2017]

[10] Cotter, Holland, “We Need to Move, Not Destroy, Confederate Monuments”, New York Times, [29.01.2017]

[11] ibid.

[12]  ibid.


[14] Gunter, Joel: “How should we behave at a Holocaust memorial?“,[29.01.2017]

[15] [29.01.2017]

[16] v.Jhering, Barbara: “Duell mit der Verdrängung”,, Barbara: Duell mit der Verdrängung [29.01.2017]

[17] [29.01.2017]

[18] Ullheimer, Jens: “Harburger Mahnmal gegen Fachismus” [29.01.2017]


[20] Translated by the author. Gerz, Jochen: “Rede an die Jury des Denkmals für die ermordeten Juden Europas“ (14.11.1997). [29.01.2017]

[21] Widrich, Mechthild: “Performative Monuments: Public Art, Commemoration, and History in Postwar Europe”, Massachusetts, 2009, p.3

[22] Widrich refers to works by Anselm Kiefer, Jochen Gerz, Valie Export, Peter Weibel, Günther Bruns, Marina Abramovic and Brace Dimitijevic.

[23] Widrich, Mechthild: “Performative Monuments: Public Art, Commemoration, and History in Postwar Europe”, Massachusetts, 2009, p.3.: “I claim that performance […] did not neutralize the monumental but reinvented it as a new practice: one that involved the audience explicitly through conventional transactions, best understood through the speech-act theory of J. L. Austin (who coined the term “performative” in the 1950s).“

[24] ibid. p.11: “By ‘activate’, I do not mean only the production of official acts of commemoration or political action, but every act of representing the performance-in rumors, interviews, and historical texts like this one. To think through these public performances, to narrate their stories, is in a sense to re-perform them. Activation is not limited to the audience in its corporeal presence. […]. The documents of this interaction give later audience the chance for continuing the performance. Through this “second” encounter, a reading audience carries the process into the future; the performative act is re-instantiated again and again, creating an ever wider public through the interpretation of photographs. It might be objected that this re-performance implicates all documents, not just artworks with a memorial function. I would agree, adding only that performative monuments make the potential for re-performing the past implicit in all documents explicit.”

[25] Heavy Weight History consists of an installation, a 25-minute long film and a photo series .oto series.


[27] Petz, Linda: “Kunst ist niemals autonom“ [29.01.2017]

[28]Stancui, Elena: “An interview with Alexandra Pirici”, [29.01.2017]: “I like to think of memory as being in movement, so it can never be fixed, it is always transformed. The performer’s relation with the “original movement” is also interesting: I met factory workers from the SKF in Gothenburg and filmed some of their movements, but then I performed my own selection, and I am now passing this on to other performers; the movements flow further and further away from their initiators. I like the ritual aspect of it and this ongoing process of abstraction and re-actualising meaning in relation to the concept of memorial.“

[29] [29.01.2017]

[30] [29.01.2017]

[31] Interview Yeal Bartana und Florian Malzacher [29.01.2017]

[32] Bartana as quoted from her website: “I strongly feel that Germany needs to create alternative moments of commemoration which, for example, also include newcomers – a ritual that refers to the present day and future and not only to the history.”[29.01.2017]

[33] Bartana as quoted from her website in an interview with Florian Malzacher: “People have to find out themselves what it means for them, they have to have their own experiences. I cannot tell people what to think and feel. I am creating a situation. Maybe to some it means nothing and for others it will mean a lot. The responsibility is in the hands of each individual.”[29.01.2017]

[34]von Braun, Christina quoted on [29.01.2017] Translated by the author: „Vielleicht sind Schweigen und Stillstand die einzige gemeinsame Sprache, über die wir verfügen. Sie bieten jedem eine Möglichkeit: dem, der sprechen will, wie dem, der für die Gefühle, die Trauer, die Freude keine Worte findet. Das Schweigen ist die schwierigste Sprache von allen – und zugleich die einzige, die wir alle können. Der Stillstand ist die schwierigste Bewegung – und zugleich die einzige, zu der wir alle fähig sind. Beides schreibt sich uns ein – unserem Denken wie unserem Körper – auf unauslöschliche Weise. Deshalb enthalten zwei Minuten Stillstand das Versprechen der Ewigkeit. Ist doch nicht wenig.”

[35] Here one can refer back to Riegl’s definition I mentioned in the beginning of the text as something can aquire commocorative value even though it was not the intention of the artist.

[36] Seymour, Richard: Turkey’s standing man shows how passive resistance can shake a state. [29.01.2017]


[38] Widrich, Mechthild: Performative Monuments: Public Art, Commemoration, and History in Postwar Europe, Massachusetts, 2009, p.264.

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