By Victoria Grace Walden

An exploration of our sense of embodiment in memorial spaces and how this relates to remembering the past.

In my MA thesis I outlined seven modes of Holocaust commemoration. One of these modes I called the “affective mode” which I defined as: “memorials designed to engage the spectator with a sensuous response to the Holocaust; memorials that provoke affect” (Walden, 2011).

One of the memorials I explored was the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europäs, Berlin (The Memorial for the Murdered Jews in Europe).

Denkel

I have visited this memorial on several occasions and every time it strikes me that it is impossible to make sense of this space cognitively. If one tries to analyse the geometric pattern of the memorial or the uneven shapes of the large blocks one is left perplexed than before attempting analysis. Walking through the confusing arena is a reflective but chaotic and uncomfortable experience.  The memorial’s designer Peter Eisenman says:

I watched people walk into it for the first time and it is amazing how these heads disappear… like going under water. Primo Levi talks about a similar idea in his book about Auschwitz. He writes that the prisoners were no longer alive but they weren’t dead either. Rather seemed to descend into a personal hell. … I wanted people to have a feeling of being in the present and an experience that they have never had before. And one that was different and slightly unsettling. The world is too full of information and here is a place without information.   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   (http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,355252,00.html)

Eisenman’s memorial is a truly haptic experience as we walk in between the blocks there is no set path, we can zigzag, we can turn back on ourselves or we can attempt to walk in a straight line – whatever logic we try to bring to our route it is disturbed by the unevenness of the space. We become consciously aware of our bodies’ placement in space and begin to adapt to the confusing nature of the memorial by turning corners and back on ourselves sporadically creating a maze-like experience by the choices our body makes. In one moment we can see clearly over the top of a block, the next a block towers over us with a looming shadow. This is a space without logic and order. A space that provokes us to remember –through the body- that the Holocaust was a chaotic, nonsensical experience; one that we can never attempt to apply reason and rationale too and one we can certainly never recreate in museum spaces or memorial. But yet, memorials can embody a sense of remembrance – a sense of the space our bodies occupy in the present (in this chaotic memorial surrounded by the busy city streets of modern Berlin) and the striking difference between this present and the bodies of the past (those absent from the memorial – victims are not pictured – and also absent from our world).

Cognitive theorists in film studies, Carl Plantinga for example, tend to focus on narrative, characters and genre in order to understand how audiences emotionally engage with texts. But what about when there are no bodies? Or bodies are abstracted? Many museums and memorials follow historical narratives or represent victims through text (name and date of death) or photos. These re-presentations petrify the victims much like the popular Victorian book of the dead. They have an element of stillness about them – as if time has stopped. Affective Holocaust memorials recognise that time has not stopped, that society has progressed and thus we must remember in order for such atrocities to never happen again. They do this by taking their spectators / participants / visitors out of their comfortable surroundings and momentarily embodying them in the space in-between – the space between past and present. Phenomenologists believe it is from inbetween (spectator and text) that meaning emerges. I would argue that the text of affective Holocaust memorials is the past – the Holocaust – and the space created becomes a portal not into the past but into the inbetweenness.

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Denkel 2

(Photos copyright Victoria Grace Walden, 2005, 2011, 2011 and 2005)

 

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