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The modern memorial

How public memorials are becoming more democratic and more interesting

Charlie McCann | September/October 2015

John Lennon is an airport, in Liverpool. So is George Best, in Belfast, and Ian Fleming, in Jamaica. Queen Elizabeth II is a terminal at Heathrow and an aircraft carrier. In Birmingham she’s a ring road, in Merseyside she’s a dock, and in London she’s a conference centre, an Olympic park, a pier, a gallery, a concert hall and a clock tower. Around the Commonwealth, she is a national park in Uganda, a mountain range in Australian Antarctica and a power station in Saskatchewan. All this, and she’s not even dead yet. This September, she will become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, toppling Victoria, who is herself a sponge cake, a prison, half a museum, two states, three stations and dozens of parks, streets and squares.

Monarchs and presidents, soldiers and statesmen, the rich and the pious, celebrities and scholars, artists, athletes and engineers, deities and other fictions: we stitch the names of those we wish to honour into the fabric of our everyday lives. Their names are emblazoned on buildings, from the Walt Whitman mall in Long Island to the Rosa Parks bus depot in Detroit and the Henrik Ibsen garage in Oslo, and on maps (Bolivia, the Philippines, America). Laws get named after people (you can thank Ernesto for your Miranda rights), as do charities (Marie Curie, Susan G. Komen), awards (Samuel Johnson, Alan Turing), moon craters (Jules Verne, Michael Jackson) and Crossrail’s giant tunnelling machines (Victoria and Elizabeth still get landed with the world’s most boring jobs). Even people get named after people. My mother wanted to call me Charlotte after the Spanish queen; my father gunned for Chevy after Louis Chevrolet, the founder of the company – and the model of his first car. And then there are the names carved on to plaques, busts, statues and monuments; remembrances that serve only to remember.

 

Not for turning? The controversial Plaza Margaret Thatcher in Madrid, dedicated in September 2014

In Madrid, you’ll find a name you wouldn’t expect. In the well-heeled district of Salamanca, ten minutes’ walk from the Prado, is a small, concrete square. It’s bordered on one side by a Bank of Madrid and on the other by a five-star hotel whose ground floor, leased to a Hard Rock Café, is thronged with diners. Fixed about 20 feet up, either end of the bank, are two navy-blue signs; a third, hanging from a nearby pole, flaps in the wind.

The square was named through the efforts of the councillor who represents Salamanca on Madrid’s city council. Fernando Martínez Vidal is an affable, courteous man. When I meet him at the Hard Rock Café, he looks as if he’s cut short a lazy day of shopping. Dressed in olive-green chinos and a brown quilted jacket, with a large Armani bag by his side, he orders us some beers and fries – greeting the staff by name – and then, matter-of-factly, proceeds to tell me how the Iron Lady won his heart. “We admire Margaret Thatcher. And we admire Margaret Thatcher because we admire the British political system, the liberalism that she represented… She was very controversial, but she transformed the political life in the UK.” He pauses. “The most important thing is not what she did in the UK, but her influence in the world, how she contributed to pacifying the world and introducing freedom.”

“After she died” – Madrid commemorates only the dead – “we started to consider to put a place in Madrid, and in this area, because this area is conservative.” He adds, “It was impossible in the centre of Madrid because everything was already named. But we found this place” – he gestures to the square. “This place is not a public place; it’s a private place with public use.” Martínez Vidal had to secure permission from the Bank of Madrid, the owner of the unnamed square. This was the first step in a rather complex approval process that he had to explain to himself a couple of times before he could explain it to me. (Just to be on the safe side, he presented me with that Armani shopping bag; much to my disappointment, all it contained was a sheaf of paperwork.) Despite all the red tape, the gentleman was not for turning. Last September, in a ceremony starring Madrid’s mayor Ana Botella, the British ambassador Simon Manley and Thatcher’s son Mark, the square was dedicated to Maggie.

There have always been men like Martínez Vidal, eager to make their mental maps of the world real. The so-called great men of history have done so from time immemorial. Romulus gave his name to Rome; Constantine to Constantinople; Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist, to Rhodesia. Names, of course, don’t last for time immemorial. Revolution makes a virtue of re-naming: in Paris after 1789, 1,400 streets received new names because the old ones contained some reference to a king, queen or saint. When revolutionaries swing out of favour, old names swing back in: St Petersburg became Leningrad which became St Petersburg. In April, Ukraine’s parliament passed a bill banning communist symbols. In what has become known as “Leninfall”, activists have torn down more than 100 monuments to Lenin across the country. Thousands of street signs are to be replaced and several towns and cities may have to change their names.

To walk the streets of Paris or Madrid is to be given a local history lesson – by the winners, whether big or small. Martínez Vidal could pay tribute to Thatcher because his party, the conservative People’s Party, was in power; with its support, he could ignore the voluble protests of the opposition when his petition came to a vote in the city council. (These voices of dissent may still triumph. In May, Madrid elected a left-wing mayor, who promised to scrap Thatcher’s name.) Considering the support he had this time last year, why didn’t Martínez Vidal go for something more ambitious? Street names get into your address book, sure, but statues, monuments – they have gravitas. “The Margaret Thatcher Foundation offered us the possibility of a bust,” he says. “But because she is controversial, they may put a statue and the statue would suffer. It could be attacked, injured.” So they stuck with the square. Still, as Martínez Vidal told me earlier, “Hay que tener huevos para ponerle una Plaza Margaret Thatcher.” You have to have balls to dedicate a square to Margaret Thatcher.

Britain has dedicated no squares to Thatcher. She has one plaque in her hometown of Grantham; Isaac Newton, Grantham’s most famous son, has three. Many of Thatcher’s fans are embarrassed by what seems like a failure to honour Britain’s first female prime minister, especially one whose influence has proved so enduring. But Martínez Vidal was right about the risks. In 2002, Paul Kelleher, a 37-year-old theatre producer, decapitated an eight-foot-tall, white marble statue of Thatcher, on display at the time in Guildhall Library in London, with a cricket bat and a metal stanchion. It “looked better that way,” said Kelleher, who also said he wanted to protect his two-year-old son from the ills of global capitalism. (A bronze replica was placed in the House of Commons five years later.)

Kelleher was tapping – smashing – into a long tradition of waging war against artistic expressions of the human form. In this war, there are two kinds of combatant: zealots, from the 16th century’s Protestant reformers to Islamic State, who see iconography as heresy; and those whose hatred is directed not at the form, but at the individual portrayed. When American soldiers toppled that statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the message was clear: we have overthrown him. When a student at the University of Cape Town threw excrement at a statue of Cecil Rhodes in March, his point was just as clear. Across South Africa, statues of colonialist figureheads like Queen Victoria and Paul Kruger were vandalised, set alight or covered in paint. Since the massacre in Charleston last June, symbols of the Confederacy have been getting similar treatment. Statues and monuments have a symbolic force that invading armies have to contend with as much as the guards at Guildhall.

It’s hard to say no to a war memorial – there are over 60,000 in Britain. But if you want to get one made, don’t expect much help. “People think it’s a grateful nation that puts them up, in recognition of people’s sacrifice,” says the sculptor Philip Jackson. “But there really isn’t such a thing as a grateful nation. Memorials are almost always put up by private individuals, either on behalf of a regiment or some body of people that wants to commemorate some person or event.” Jackson should know. He makes both public sculptures and gallery works, which he tells me is “a bit like playing classical music and then jazz”. Some of these public sculptures are war memorials, including the RAF Bomber Command Memorial sculpture (2012) and the Gurkha Monument (1997), both in central London. They’re in fine company – over 300 statues and memorials jockey for space in Westminster – but they were made far away from London’s hustle and bustle, in Jackson’s studio in West Sussex, near the market town of Haslemere. On the dull, overcast day he shows me around, it is suffused with a clear light. A small clay maquette of David Lloyd George, caught in mid-jig, stands on his worktable. Full-length posters, photos of the finished Bomber Command sculpture of seven strapping aircrew, hang from the cream walls.

A memory in bronze: the Bomber Command Memorial, in Green Park, London

Jackson has a neat white beard, a considered manner and a surprising guffaw. He gestures to the posters. “If you take something like Bomber Command, now, you think that the nation will be particularly keen on thanking 55,500 men who died serving their country. But no. It’s taken 60 years and people of 80 or 90 years old deciding that they really want to do something to commemorate their comrades. And so they set about raising funds, and that’s very typical of the way that a lot of memorials get put up. It’s the effort of a few people that think, ‘Jesus, we really need to commemorate these people before it’s too late. Because once we’ve gone, their efforts will pass into history and it’ll be sort of forgotten.’”

Jackson strives to ensure that their efforts are remembered, and accurately. “It’s a little bit like you writing an historical book, and then in the evening going and writing a novel.” He is partial to analogies. “If I did a sculpture on something like the Korean war [as he has], you have to read about it, you have to look at photographs, you have to look at film, you have to talk to people who were there. You have to come up with your own idea of what it was like, because obviously you can’t go there yourself, you can’t experience it. But you have to experience it through other people. Very often, you’ll get a completely different picture from one person to another, particularly in a war situation…But you listen to it all.”

He gathers his source material, makes an interpretation: this sculptor is a historian. But few historians have to endure watching their subjects mark their work. “With Bomber Command, I was asked to do very quickly a design of what I had in mind.” So he made a small, rough model over the weekend – a far cry from the finished piece. “Somehow the Telegraph got hold of it and took a photograph of it. And I got this mailbox full of really quite hostile letters, saying the Mae Wests [inflatable life vests] are too short and the jackets are this…You’re talking about 80- or 90-year-old men who really probably have never looked at art in their lives. And for 60 years, they’ve been guardians of their memory, of their service in Bomber Command, and of the comrades that died. And at the end of the war, the country turned its back on them really, and they always were very resentful of the way they were treated…And then 60 years after the event, this memorial was going to go up, and it was now in the hands of some hairy sculptor who wouldn’t know a thing about what they went through. And they weren’t going to put up with this. They were hostile because their memory was going to be put up in bronze, and it was going to be wrong.”

Jackson invited some 25 of these veterans to his studio to see the first figure, the Navigator, a barrel-chested man wearing a flying jacket and helmet, with his hand over his heart, clutching a life-jacket strap. “They came together in a sort of phalanx, ready to do battle again.” Jackson ushered them inside and “you could see the hostility just draining out of them. Because yes, this is right, this is what we’ve been waiting for. It does justice to our comrades; it does justice to our memory. And then we became great friends after that. They came down and had lunch when it was finished.”

The pilots wouldn’t be the only people Jackson had to win over. “Obviously the clients are your first audience,” he says. “For memorials, they’re generally veterans and people like that, so you need to satisfy them.” In this instance, a successful memorial will “bring closure to people that have served through very traumatic periods of their lives…With something like Bomber Command, if you see people standing in front of it crying, you know it’s worked. Because that’s what it’s about.”

The second audience, as Jackson sees it, is “the general public of today. They have to be able to look at it and understand what it is about.” Bomber Command shouldn’t just move viewers, it should instruct them. “It’s also a way of marking our history in a public domain for people that won’t go into a museum. There is history in the street for them to see and assimilate as they just walk past it. It shows just who we are, where we come from, what we’ve done.” Which brings Jackson to his third audience: one not yet born. “In 200 years’ time, people will look at that and say, oh, that’s what they looked like in such and such a time. So you’re setting up an historical milestone that needs to be recognisable.”

Jackson made the seven figures of Bomber Command look as if they had just disembarked from their aircraft: their flying jackets have creases, their trousers bag round their legs. One bows his head wearily; another holds his hand up to shield his face from the sun. Touches of humanity – yet, standing on a plinth, they tower over the viewer. Their physiques are powerful, their stances firm, and their exhaustion only underlines their commitment.

The style of Jackson’s gallery works differs. With names like “Serenissima” and “Bowling with Boccherini”, they’re what the characters would have looked like in “The Nightmare before Christmas” if Tim Burton had set it in Venice: sinister, skeletal and elegant. One style of sculpture is as different from the other, then, as classical is from jazz – Jackson’s analogy again. “Jazz is the gallery work, because that is freer. I go to the studio there, and no one tells me what to do, I don’t have to discuss it with anyone. And I can come up with an idea, and if it changes while I’m doing it, it doesn’t matter. Whereas [with public sculptures], rather like classical music, you’ve got a score, and your style of playing may make it sound different, but it’s only slightly different.”

Not everybody follows the score so closely. Maya Lin threw it out entirely. In 1981, Lin, aged 21 and still an undergraduate at Yale University, won a public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, beating 1,441 other submissions. Her pitch was radical. “Maya Lin made a break with traditional memorial design,” says Kirk Savage, an associate professor and chairman of the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of “Monument Wars”. “She created this really new model of what a memorial space could be like.”

A space for reflection: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, listing the 58,299 Americans who died

On a chilly morning a couple of days after Thanksgiving, I went to the National Mall in Washington, DC, to take a look for myself. The Mall is America’s symbolic core, and its grand vistas afford views of the Capitol building at one end, the Lincoln Memorial at the other, and the Washington Monument in the middle. To get there, I hopped on the bus; Georgetown, Washington Circle and George Washington University Hospital slid past. I got out not far from the White House and headed south to the Mall’s expanse of green, my eyes peeled. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is just a five-minute walk from Lincoln, but it can be a little hard to find. I passed through a grove of trees, then on to a manicured lawn. I didn’t see anything memorial-y. Most monuments on the Mall are big, boxy, blindingly white – monumental. Only after walking closer in did I realise my mistake: instead of looking up, I should have been looking down.

In an essay for the New York Review of Books, Lin said that she had wanted “to cut into the earth”, to make “an opened side”. You can see what she means. The memorial is composed of two long, slanting panels of black granite that join at an oblique angle. At its deepest, this wall sinks ten feet below ground. If you approach from the south, so that you are level with the wall, you see, neatly inscribed on it, the names of those Americans who died in the war, all 58,299 of them, side by side, row after row. The number of names is overwhelming; a reading in 2002 took over 65 hours. When you get close enough to read them yourself, the wall is so polished, you can see your reflection in the names. So what begins as a collective, public experience becomes a deeply personal one; I got chills. Lin envisaged the memorial as a space of contemplation where “a returning veteran would cry” – and they do. Relatives have said that they sense the presence of their lost ones more at Lin’s wall than at their actual graves.

“This is the first time in the history of the United States that a memorial had tried to name all the US dead in one war,” Savage tells me on the phone. “The design is a vehicle for the display of the names.” Traditionally, war memorials had been composed of “the single hero monument, an object on a pedestal” – Nelson’s Column, for instance. Lin took that tradition and “left out everything except the names”, she wrote. Her design wasn’t without forebears. She has said that her “prime inspiration” was Sir Edwin Lutyens’s massive Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields, erected in 1932 in Thiep­val, which bears the names of over 72,000 British and Allied troops on the stone piers of its arches. But, in America at least, this was the first time that a memorial had tried to include every single citizen lost to a war. And, because Lin really did leave out everything but the names – there are no triumphal arches or heroic symbols – the memorial honours only the war dead, not the war. Ordered not by military rank, but by the date of their death, the names sit next to each other as equals and fellow human beings, not as military heroes. Which is why Lin described the wall as an “antimonument”. Until Lin, most monuments had been overtly political: they argued for a certain interpretation of the events and people they commemorated. Lin’s wall doesn’t argue for anything. It is intentionally silent, so that meaning would “be generated by the viewers themselves, in their experience of the place,” Savage writes in “Monument Wars”.

When Lin’s design was unveiled, it was the subject of great controversy. Many critics thought this refusal to engage was political – highly so. To them, Lin was up-ending convention: below ground instead of above was taken to mean dishonour, black instead of white meant shame. Conservatives read the wall as anti-war and anti-veteran, and many tried to block the construction of what was called a “black gash of shame”. They failed, but they did force the veterans in charge to erect some nearby additions: a flagpole and statues of three servicemen (which look like larger-than-life versions of toy soldiers). Nonetheless, Lin was vindicated. With more than 4m visitors per year, the memorial quickly became the most popular one on the Mall. And it permanently altered the memorial landscape. “In a way it created a credible form for modernity,” says Savage – one that existed not to glorify the nation, but to help its soldiers heal.

The monuments on the Mall have become emb­lems of the nation: schoolchildren gawp at them for their citizenship classes, film crews shoot them for political thrillers. But most memorials aren’t iconic. They don’t get millions of visitors. Because what happens after the memorial is unveiled, the applause dies down and the government bigwigs have made their escape? When the flowers wilt and the pigeons come to roost? According to Trip Advisor, the Bomber Command Memorial was London’s most popular tourist attraction for one week not long after it opened in June 2012. When I visit on a sunny spring afternoon, a couple meander in and take some pictures. A group of joggers runs by. Not even the pigeons seem that interested. Jackson’s classical realism may speak to many audiences, but few seem to be listening. This isn’t unusual: when the pomp and circumstance of their unveiling dies down, memorials often fade into the landscape. As Alan Bennett put it in “The History Boys”, “There’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”

It doesn’t help that, in America at least, there are more memorials than ever before, something the academic Erika Doss has documented in her book “Memorial Mania”. Thousands of memorials have gone up in the past three decades. Savage thinks Lin’s wall has a lot to do with this. “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial changed the game and did inspire a real resurgence [in public monuments].” The sculpture group “also led to this tremendous resurgence in traditional figure-sculpture war memorials, which hadn’t disappeared by any means, but had certainly declined in importance. Now we’re back at it. There are hundreds of these Korean or Vietnam war memorials that have sculptures of soldiers.” Not only has there been “a tremendous upsurge in military monuments”, Savage adds, but now “there are all these new categories: fictional-hero monuments, celebrity monuments, victim monuments of different kinds…These are types of memorials that just wouldn’t have been erected in the 19th century.” There was a time when we erected monuments only to the Washingtons and Napoleons of history. Now there are memorials to lynched African-Americans (in Minnesota) and women executed for witchcraft (in Salem), and statues to Jimi Hendrix (in Seattle), Rocky (in Philadelphia) and Alan Partridge (in Norwich, England). There are memorials to victims of atrocities in New York, with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and Washington, with the Holocaust Memorial Museum (one of over 70 such museums throughout the world). In London, there is even a memorial to “Animals in War”. “We’ve enlarged the scope of who counts in American memory,” Doss tells me over the phone. “This means we have more and more memorials to a diverse body of American citizens.” Commemoration used to be the preserve of the ruling elite. Now it belongs to the masses.

Remembrance has become more representative. But more remembrances don’t mean that more remembering happens. I ask Doss if the ubiquity of memorials has diluted their power over us. “Absolutely,” she says. “Because once mem­orials are up, they’re gone.” There’s this sense that “We’re done! We’ve done the memory! That’s so not true. Memory shouldn’t be something that we ever reach closure on. James Young [a scholar of German memorials] says the best kind of memory work we can do is constant conversation about the Holocaust, for example, or slavery. Well, that takes a lot of work, and a lot of people don’t necessarily want to be engaged in the bad feelings of history. So you can see why memorials go up, and are out there and then fade into the landscape.”

The Vietnam war produced a cesspool of bad feeling that stagnated for years. That’s why Lin’s critics were so caustic. But the masses embraced the memorial, partly because of its timing: many Vietnam veterans are still alive. But it’s not just that. When I visited, people were queuing up to leaf through the book at the entrance that identifies the locations of all 58,299 names on the wall. A portly ranger from the National Park Service stood nearby, fielding questions from bouncy kids asking what the war was about and from families confused about how the names were organised. He listened patiently while one veteran talked his ear off about his tour of duty. The best memorials inspire the kind of conversation Doss referred to. All around me people were talking about the war and the names they knew. And if they weren’t talking about the names, they were looking at them, the ones they knew and the ones they didn’t, unable to resist the solemn pull of that cut into the earth.

A brief flowering: ceramic poppies at the Tower of London in 2014, one for each of the British fallen in 1914-18

Last summer, the Tower of London was submerged in a sea of red. In an installation called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”, 888,246 ceramic poppies – one for every British military fatality in the first world war – gently cascaded down the Tower walls, eventually flooding its moat in crimson. On July 17th, 100 years after the war began, the first poppy was planted without fanfare; by the time the last was planted, on November 11th, Armistice Day, they had become a phenomenon, seen by an estimated 5m visitors. The public was so enamoured that, after a national campaign, the poppies were granted a two-week encore. Now part of the installation is to tour the north of England, billed as “Wave and Weeping Window”.

Tom Piper, its designer, thinks it was successful, in part, because it was impermanent: it was an event with a beginning and an end. A slender, thoughtful man with something of the grad student about him, he tells me what he means in the functional West End office of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he is a set designer. The way the installation was made, over the course of several months, “gave it a whole new form of commemoration in the sense that it allowed this ongoing theatre of the planting,” he says. “It became about the process of doing it. And that enabled all the volunteers [there were 21,000, some of them repeat visitors] to feel like they were creating it and investing in it. And it allowed them to go into their own stories…They were able to go, ‘Actually, I have a personal connection to the war: it’s my great uncle. I found out about him and so I’m coming to do this work, and I’m going to dedicate this one poppy that I plant to him.’ So people were very personal about it, and were choosing their moments of dedication.”

The poppy-planters, then, were the players on our stage, and when they weren’t exchanging lines with each other, they were breaking the fourth wall. “There was a very interesting dialogue between the people down there doing the planting and the people watching,” says Piper. “It became this piece of living theatre where the watchers would sometimes applaud the people down below and talk to them, and equally, people who came to see it but didn’t volunteer, a lot of them brought their own memorials, their own memorabilia of relatives.”

“Blood Swept Lands” wasn’t an installation, it was immersive theatre. But all works for the stage must come to an end. “As a theatre person,” says Piper, “I’m completely used to creating something where people are moved by it, they have that moment of shared communication with each other, and then it’s gone. And then you have the memory of it, and you discuss the memory of it. And actually, for me, taking the poppies away was as much part of the theatre of it as the planting of them. The muddy moat with a few poppies left in it was a very poignant sight. When it was completely empty again, people did have a sense of loss, but I think that’s a good thing, in the same way it [the installation] is about loss. So it shouldn’t be there for ever. It’s quite interesting that maybe, by making it not permanent, it actually is more poignant for people. ‘I’ve got to do the memorial moment now. I can’t put this off till next year, I’ve got to go do it now.’”

This ephemerality made Piper’s job easier. He didn’t have to design the installation with Jackson’s unborn audience in mind. But in a way, the brief was more difficult than it was for either Jackson or Lin. Piper had to get a contemporary audience to connect with something that has passed from living memory (the last first-world-war veteran died in 2012). He more than met the brief; “Blood Swept Lands” was a sensation. Like the Vietnam wall, it honours the individual soldier, every last one. Both memorials unsettle: the aesthetic beauty of all those poppies and granite names belies the awful, overwhelming truth of all those deaths. This reality is conveyed with such simplicity that both avoid being didactic. You can read into them what you want about the particular conflicts. To Piper, that was important. “In theatre, I create a space and then people come and watch the performance in that space. Some people see mountains, some see clouds, some see a landscape; some see something beautiful, others something ugly. You cannot tell people what to think. And I suppose the reason it [“Blood Swept Lands”] was so successful on one level was that most people thought the same thing. It was very clear, and I think that clarity made it very moving.”

The metaphor – one poppy, one fatality – was simple. People got it. Piper’s design had a lightness of touch that gave the audience the breathing space to make of it what they wanted. There was no heroic statue talking down to them from its pedestal – people couldn’t even have read the score if they wanted to. The poppies were pure jazz, and they got millions of visitors to hum along. And you never forget a good tune.

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