Gemma Tipton: Designing memorable memorials is harder than it sounds

Art, music and literature are responding to the challenge of remembering momentous events

The Republic of Councils Monument (1969), by Istvan Kiss, at Memento Park, Budapest: the park is an  intriguingly elegant  place to which the plaques and monuments to the icons of the Communist period have been exiled. Photograph:  DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Republic of Councils Monument (1969), by Istvan Kiss, at Memento Park, Budapest: the park is an intriguingly elegant place to which the plaques and monuments to the icons of the Communist period have been exiled. Photograph: DeAgostini/Getty Images

 

How we remember things is an interesting business. Neuroscientists and psychologists describe how even the act of remembering something changes memory. Experiences of where we are and how we feel at the time of remembering overlay the original, so it becomes a three dimensional thing, building through time and space.

That may be so, but when it comes to three-dimensional memorials, we’re frequently less than good at creating them. Anyone who ever felt in need of having a statue erected to themselves – or a person, or any cause dear to them – should read both Shelley’s Ozymandias, and even further back in time, the poet Horace. Shelley writes of “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” found in the desert, with the inscription “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.” “Nothing beside remains,” he adds.

Writing about 1,700 years earlier, Horace was being sarcastic when he claimed for his Ode (number 3.30) “I have created a monument more lasting than bronze”, but he was right. Words outlive the objects we create, and yet the need to make memorials has been to the forefront over the past two years as the Easter Rising, the outbreak of the first World War, and the mind-shattering death toll of the Battle of the Somme are all being commemorated.

Temporary memorials are less contentious. It’s difficult to imagine Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s sea of 888,246 ceramic poppies that swept around the Tower of London in 2014 ever being able to be permanent, and yet they remain in the minds of all who saw them.

More troublesome

Permanent memorial – from the now-forgotten generals on horseback, to those whose legacies are not as straightforward now that history realises slavery and colonisation weren’t really an ideal way of going about things – are more troublesome.

At Oriel College, Oxford, earlier this year, students failed in their campaign to have the statue of Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) removed; and while removing monuments to periods one would rather forget seems the obvious solution, there’s also the problem of whitewashing the past.

In Budapest, the intriguingly elegant solution is Memento Park (mementopark.hu), to which the plaques and monuments to the icons of the Communist period have been exiled. As the park’s designer, architect Ákos Eleöd said: “This park is about dictatorship. At the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”

Those now-clumsy and aggrandising memorials to past heroes also let us see what’s wrong with society and where adjustments, and new experiments in fairness need to be made. At this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival (edinburghartfestival.com until August 28th) the art commissions have come under the heading, borrowed from Horace, of More Lasting than Bronze. These include Roderick Buchanan’s Understanding versus Sympathy (2016), a video looking at Irish historian Owen Dudley Edwards’ take on the ideas of James Connolly. Another is Ciara Phillips’s Every Woman a Signal Tower, a “dazzle ship” focusing attention on lesser known histories of women in the first World War.

Damn Rebel Bitches

It will be good to look forward to a time when the words “lesser known” don’t regularly precede “histories of women”. In Edinburgh, there are more statues to animals than there are to women – and that’s not including any horses on which victorious generals are sitting, but ways of memorialising ideas as well as people are becoming more sophisticated.

On my recent trip to the Edinburgh Festival, I discovered Damn Rebel Bitches at the new Scottish design shop Urban Reivers (urbanreivers.scot). Named in honour of the women of the Jacobite Rising of the 1700s (they were dubbed as such), it’s a delicious perfume that can’t help embolden the wearer.

Is that far fetched? Not if you think of each waft as a timely reminder of both factual events and meaningful feeling. Something similar is going on in the so-far excellent programme of events marking the centenary of 1916. Even as names etched into walls have caused their inevitable, and intensely frustrating, controversies as to who “owns” the grief; art, music and literature are responding with projects that focus on what the ideas and ideals meant, and how to take the best of them into the future.

In 1982, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC broke the mould for future memorials with its sunken reflected wall etched with the 58,307 names of the dead and missing. Controversial at the time, it has now become a template for many memorials in today’s less certain times, when we don’t believe that a war will end all wars, and realise that “good” and “bad” are often a question of perspective, inflected with shades of grey.

In 2007, Leo Higgins’ Home was unveiled at the junction of Buckingham Street and Sean McDermott Street by then president Mary McAleese, to all those who had died as a result of heroin in Dublin. Memorials are no longer simply to the victors, and good ones are more than aggrandising gestures. This September, look out for Composing the Island, a series of concerts a the National Concert Hall, celebrating music written by Irish composers between 1916 and 2016 (nch.ie).

If, in the future, we also remember through sound and scent, we may yet come to make better sense of the past.

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