Abstract Critical


Written by Alison Hand

How do we represent that most slippery of things, memory? How do we harness a collective memory, or an idea, and turn it into a public monument? What effect do monuments have on memory and ideology, and how does this change from the representational to the abstract?

Monuments are there to represent the victorious and the dead, they can be symbols for revolution and new utopias, and for things lost, demarcating a site where something once stood. The contemporary monument is often controversial, since the shift away from triumphalist objects post Second World War, towards a more complex set of representational considerations, opening up the monument to the abstract and obliquely metaphorical.

The ideological monument seems at first inexorably tied to representation, with statues and figureheads becoming powerful symbols, standing in for regimes or even transmuting into the dictator, to be later banished or torn down with a furious violence. In Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest, a gang of socialist realist statues from the Soviet regime stands around, looming and defunct. Wandering amongst them, these giant thrusting youths with flaming torches, striding forward, you can picture them surrounded by seething crowds – oppressive overlords, crushing with their bronze weight. Now they stand on a scrubby patch of land – hardly a park – looking at each other, a curiosity, a forlorn memento. They have become a memorial to the rise and fall of a regime. The hulking figures now seem excessive and ludicrous, testament to a set of ideas gone wrong.

Abstract monuments, however, can also be ideological. In many ways abstraction was the 20th century language of social change, and there are thousands of abstract sculptures littering housing estates, parks, and civic spaces. Variously seen as a Wolfian ‘turd in every plaza’, 1 or powerful symbols representing a new kind of public life, one of the best must be Victor Pasmore’s 1969 Apollo Pavilion in the Peterlee Estate. 2

Pasmore intended it to be a ‘free and anonymous monument’, 3 and it’s a bit like a shelter, or a bridge, or a sculpture. Anything but anonymous, it’s a controversial object, variously covered in (Pasmore endorsed) graffiti, 4 planted allotment-style, or scrubbed up gleaming. It is a brave monument to social utopias, to the belief that streets in the sky and modernism for mass housing would transform society, that people would love living up in the air and prefer communal gardens and landscape over private space. The challenge of Pasmore’s monument is just that – that it represents a struggle between hope and reality, between the dream of modernism and the ruin of it – the distrust that seeped in like water into concrete and floored it forever.

However, the monument to ideas doesn’t only belong to a less conceptually fractured time. As we speak there is a new commission out for a ‘Monument to Freedom and Unity’. 5 Sounding more than a bit 1930s, this is in fact a international call out to artists to design a contemporary national monument for Leipzig in Germany, that ‘address[es] a wide democratic public and above all, future generations through its political and artistic demands’. 6 As I wait eagerly for the shortlist, I can’t help thinking how much we still seem to need public objects that stand in for intangible ideas.

In contemporary regeneration culture, monumental sculptures are popping up everywhere Angel of the North-style to briefly mourn a lost industry and excitedly point towards a fuzzy future. In St Helens, an enormous, weirdly elongated girl’s head entitled ‘Dream’, 2009, stares over the now defunct Sutton Manor Colliery. Intended to be a healing object that represents the future, it veers off toward the absurd and makes me ask, is representation still credible when it comes to the monument? Perhaps it depends on what you’re trying to represent. I think that representation can be used satirically to reveal the hierarchies and histories of monument building itself. Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle  for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square 2010, 7 is an intelligent critique of the colonial mentality and the representation of power. It is also sweet, funny, and wistful, puncturing the bombast of the glory monument.

When it comes to the war monument, the combination of abstract stone slab and list is a familiar model, soberly attesting to the sheer quantity of casualties – exemplified at Lutyens’ 1928 Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme with its 72,000 names engraved onto its stone surfaces. There’s some slippage with these slabs – Lutyen’s 1919 Whitehall Cenotaph has shifted from memorialising the First World War to standing in for all later (British) conflicts – this blank, tomb-like monument can be seen as a heroic symbol, or one of absolute futility, or a ‘pile of peace-complacent stone’ 8 depending on who’s looking at it.

Yet even the familiar shape of these slabs can be seen as too abstract. At the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall, thousands of names are carved onto a darkly reflective wall of coarse granite, running off in to the distance. Even though you could argue that it stays pretty close to the Lutyens model, it was highly controversial as people saw its abstraction as nihilistic, put off by the vast, utter slab-ness of it. To deal with this opposition a figurative bronze sculpture of soldiers was shoehorned in nearby. Why was it too reductive for contemporary eyes? Was it the abstraction, or the list?

On the one hand the abstract monument is seen as cold and conceptual; on the other it’s viewed as a fluid site of meaning, countering a single national interpretation of the past, and, in the face of catastrophe and atrocity, the only possible response.

Peter Eisenmann’s 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is made up of thousands of huge rectangular stones, each one different, undulating down a sloping site in Berlin. At first they look like a city, or a field of tombs, but in fact I think the point of them lies somewhere else, away from representational echoes and equivalences.

It’s an oxymoron of a monument – a full void, or maybe a solid emptiness. It represents the cruel absence of life through a strange permanence. The blank, cold stones create a kind of full stop. People have complained that it is too abstract, I imagine because they think it is too open to interpretation, and that the events it represents should not be misread. However, I think it is the very abstraction of it that creates a disruption, a physical, psychological, and aesthetic fissure in the city fabric. With no particular entrance or exit, the disorienting acres of giant concrete pillars attempt to create a memorial that has no link to nostalgia or to heritage systems – this dark field in the city jolts us out of traditional patterns to think, really think.

The ‘full gap’ is also used in a new monument at the Ground Zero site, where two large watery voids are set into the footprints of the Twin Towers. ‘Reflecting Absence’ by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, 2011, was the winning entry to deal with the space left behind, to establish some sort of memorial. It’s a brave thing to leave these abstract voids, this anti-monument. The idea is that they should become part of the city, integrated into people’s urban patterns. I think, though, that the psychogeographic mapping of the skyline and streetscape is a hardwired mental image, and that there will always be a psychological gap, which is where the power of this work lies.

It is the abstraction of subtraction, the concrete absence, the lack of the thing that exists as much in the mind as in physical space, that becomes the ultimate memorial.

Adopting the language of abstraction can also be a way of fudging, or hiding a lack of meaning, as it surely does with Anish Kapoor’s new Orbit monument in the Olympic Park, in that it isn’t really about anything. In fact, it could be a manifestation of the wooly jargon surrounding the Olympic site in built form. It is the perfect monument to capitalism, a gigantic squiggle referencing nothing but its own extravagance, a showy-offy feat of engineering. Perhaps it is a contemporary folly, and will become a cult object, presiding over – depending on which way you think the site will go – a vaguely Scandinavian suburb with ‘apartments’ and well-ordered landscapes, or a windswept non-scape of entropic buildings and circular regeneration initiatives. Maybe it will be the only thing left standing in a new kind of memento park.

1 ‘a turd in every plaza’, Tom Wolfe

2 Grade ll* Listing for the Apollo Pavilion: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/dec/15/apollo-pavillion-peterlee-listed-building

3 ‘a free and anonymous monument’, Victor Pasmore. Britain’s new towns: garden cities to sustainable communities, Anthony Alexander, 2009

4 ‘Pasmore suggested that, if anything, the graffiti had humanised the piece’: http://nevillerae.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/victor-pasmore-peterlee/

5 ‘Monument to Freedom and Unity’ – source as below

6 ‘address[es] a wide democratic public and above all, future generations through its political and artistic demands’, Liepzig International: http://www.leipzig.de/int/en/stadt_leipzig/herbst89/ausblick/denkmal/index.shtml

Ship in a bottle may be on the move:  http://www.london.gov.uk/media/press_releases_mayoral/next-stop-greenwich-shonibare’s-nelson’s-ship-bottle

8 ‘a pile of peace-complacent stone’, Siegfried Sassoon. The Unknown City, Contesting Architecture and Social Space, MIT Press 2002

  1. Ben Kaufmann said…

    Another attempt to purify the symbolism of Qatari monuments comes from Renzo Piano in the form of his recent statements in relation to his Shard (itself 80% owned by Qatar). In place of arrogance, power or economic divide he suggests the building to be a monument to life, poetry, surprise, joy and future planning.


    Of the two approaches at least Serra’s gives the spectator the power to define their own response – from which, in negotiation with wider context a collective meaning can emerge. Piano on the other hand attempts to guard the building’s symbolism at the level of artistic intent – divorcing it entirely from personal experience or wider collective response – and instead imposing a narrow and dreamy Le Corb style symbolism. Such remove seems at once more limited, more prevalent and more dangerous.

  2. Sam Cornish said…

    Last week Richard Serra unveiled a characterically monumental sculpture at the launch of the Doha Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/754394/7-up-richard-serra-unveils-new-sculpture-in-doha. Serra’s comments on the work are interesting: “The content of the work is not the work. The meaning of the work is your experience inside the work. Or when you see if from far away, it has another meaning. But if all those things mean nothing to you, then it’s meaningless.” By focusing on personal experience Serra seems to deny the symbolic, or at least its primacy, for what do all the works that Alison discusses do but aim to appeal in various ways to collective meaning, to something beyond direct individual experience?

    But of course despite his seeming disavowal, Serra’s work is symbolic. For the commissioners it represents Art, or more particularly the possession of Art within a series of changing relations of capital and culture between America / Western Europe and the Middle East: ‘a beacon of art for Qatar’, according to the driving force behind the project, Sheikha Mayassa, the daughter of the current Emir. The extent to which Serra’s (could we say pure) ‘experience’ could survive when permeated by this wider project is perhaps limited.