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3 / History and Memory

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Artist / Origin Peter Eisenman (American, b. 1932)
Region: Europe
Date 1999–2005
Material Concrete
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions (Total) Covers 5 ½ acres; (Blocks) H: 0-13.1 ft. (0–4 m.), W: 37.4 in. (95 cm.), L: 7.79 ft. (2.375 m.) (each)
Location Berlin, Germany
Credit Photo courtesy of Simon Sinek

expert perspective

Lisa SaltzmanProfessor of History of Art, Bryn Mawr College

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

» Peter Eisenman (American, b. 1932)

expert perspective

Lisa Saltzman Lisa Saltzman Professor of History of Art, Bryn Mawr College

In many ways, Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin follows on the sculptural logic of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, although it’s vast in scale—it covers five acres in Central Berlin, right by the Brandenburg Gate. It follows on that refusal of figuration. It follows on a logic of what some scholars have termed sort of ‘counter-monuments.’ These aren’t heroic monuments, they are not figurative monuments, and these are forms that are somehow appropriate to commemorating that which in some sense we can’t commemorate. That losses that are not commensurate with some kind of simple sculptural architectural form.

So if one thinks about that Eisenman memorial in Berlin and thinks about that vast field of what look, from a distance, like grave markers—in some sense, they look like funerary monuments, but funerary monuments arranged in this undulating grid, an undulating grid that takes us into a space, but gives us no center, gives us no point of focus, gives us no representation—one could certainly point to the vastness of it and start to think about the scale of genocide, but there is nothing that’s explicitly figurative, even as it loosely conjures up something of a vast graveyard, something of that memorial form that is the tombstone or the gravestone or the mausoleum. And that refusal of figuration, the fact that these are just obdurately abstract pillars, sculptural forms, monoliths, that force us to encounter space, voids, they force us to encounter, in some sense, the impossibility of encountering that history. That’s a history that we can’t know, that we don’t know, even as we have reams of memoirs, of historical records, of documents, of archives.

But what does it mean to be able to know that history? What does it mean to be able to represent the loss of six million? What kinds of forms can we use to depict? Can we depict that? And certainly there are forms of culture that have tried. We have everything from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which attempts to represent that history, to forms of documentary cinema like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah that absolutely refuse to figure, it’s composed entirely of interviews in the present.

So one could say that Eisenman’s memorial, in some sense, participates in that refusal to figure, even as it gives us a kind of space of memory, of lieux de mémoire, as the historian Pierre Nora referred to these spaces of memory. It gives us a massive space—it interrupts Berlin, so one could say it interrupts the topography, the urban space of the city forces us to contemplate something without depicting it.

But that said, one goes underground and then there’s an information center beneath this monument that refuses figuration, is something like an archive. A museum space—a museum space that offers up documents, objects, names, places—gives us that kind of historical narrative that one could say isn’t possible. And that this monument refuses, even as it figures the monumentality of that loss in its sheer scale, it doesn’t actually depict that history and it leaves to the archives, it leaves to the space of historical museum something of that task.” 

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