Thursday, June 16, 2016

Two Holocaust Memorials: Two Views of Civic Art

I saw two holocaust memorials in Vienna, based on very different views of what civic art should be.

One is the Kindertransport Memorial, honoring the British for saving almost 10,000 children by transporting them from Nazi controlled areas to foster homes in Britain. The memorial, Für Das Kind by Flor Kent (2008), is at Vienna's Westbahnhof, where most of the children transported from Vienna began their trip. It shows a Jewish child sitting on a valise, as he might have sat there waiting for his train before World War II broke out.

It is a very moving and human sculpture. You can see that the child is trying to be brave but is deeply lonesome and sad at being taken away from his family. Looking at it is heart-breaking, just as it would have been heartbreaking to look at the actual children in that station fleeing from the Nazis.

The second is the Holocaust Memorial commemorating the 65,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis, in Judenplatz, which used to be the center of Vienna's Jewish neighborhood. The memorial by Rachel Whiteread (2000) is meant to represent a structure made of books, with the spines turned inward so you cannot see the titles on the spines, supposedly symbolizing the fact that every life is a story and we will never know what stories these lost lives contain.

It is an attempt to be clever, a sort of visual pun. There is some visual impact because the building is cold and forbidding, but the main impact is purely cerebral, not visual or emotional. It is conceptual art, but the concept is not clear to the viewer. No one knows that it is supposed to be books or what the books are supposed to symbolize until they read it in their guide book. There is no humanity to it, just an abstract idea.

This approach is common. For example, Daniel Libeskind designed the Freedom Tower in New York to be 1776 feet high, supposedly symbolizing American independence, but  the symbolism is purely cerebral, not visual or emotional.  No one knows from looking it exactly how high it is.

The two memorials in Vienna represent two approaches to civic art: the holocaust memorial is conceptual and abstract, while the kindertransport memorial is emotional and humanistic.

The holocaust memorial was chosen by a prestigious panel of architects, and it represents the establishment's view of what civic art should be - which is why art no longer has the cultural resonance that it sometimes had before the twentith century.

The kindertransport memorial could be a model for renewing civic art in the twenty-first century. It is very different from the most conventional civic art of the nineteenth century - nothing like a general on horseback. It draws on the humanistic tradition of representational art to make a moving visual statement about what happened on its site.