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PRINT March 1992

The Emperor's New Monument

IN OCTOBER 1986, when there were still two Germanies and one Eastern bloc, a fairly unconventional public monument was inaugurated in the Harburg district of Hamburg. Jointly conceived by Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz, Mahnmal gegen Faschismus (Monument against fascism) initially consisted of no more than a stark lead-coated column, nearly 40 feet high and just over 3 feet square. But as a temporary inscription explained (in German, French, English, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, and Hebrew), passersby were invited to sign their names in the lead in a common gesture of commitment “to remain vigilant.” And once the signatures began to fill the accessible space, the column was to be lowered gradually into the ground, until the surface was entirely covered and the monument would disappear altogether, leaving only a flat commemorative plaque on the empty site.

The column has now been lowered six times and is about 16 feet high, but the inscriptions it carries into invisible eternity are hardly limited to the neat rows of signatures that were expected: like a magnet, the monument has accumulated a sweep of the expressions of approval and outrage, of violence, confusion, ignorance—and run-of-the-mill graffiti—that are to be found in Harburg, in Germany, and in all of Europe at a time of flux and uncertainty. Almost immediately after the inauguration, swastikas and “foreigners get out” slogans began to appear, signatures were scratched out, and there were even attempts to chisel away the lead coating.

As the column continues its descent (already outpaced by the Berlin Wall, and by innumerable statues of Lenin), Gerz has begun a new monument, which, for the time being at least, bears the title 1958 Steine—Mahnmal gegen Rassismus (1,958 stones—a monument against racism). Unlike the Harburg column, this is not a public commission but his own initiative, and it will not disappear because it is invisible to begin with.

The idea began to take shape in 1990, when Gerz became visiting professor at the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste in Saarbrücken and enlisted the participation of 15 students under the rubric of a “special project” for a public space. An extensive search for a suitable location ultimately led them to the Saarbrücker Schloss, the historic castle that served as Gestapo headquarters during World War II and that now houses both the local government and the Regionalgeschichtliches Museum Saarbrücken, the region’s historical museum.

In the museum wing, Gerz recalls, was a tiny detention cell preserved from the Gestapo era. Its graffiti-filled walls provided a jarring link with the Harburg column, and prompted him to settle on the cobblestone plaza in front of the castle as the site for the new monument. But in this instance, and on this site (with its competing ghosts of Nazi parades and local celebrations), invisibility appeared a singularly appropriate form for evoking the invisible past.

To concretize this metaphor, Gerz decided to inscribe the underside of the cobblestones in front of the castle with the names of all the Jewish cemeteries that existed in Germany before the war. “Where there are people, there are burial places,” he explains. “When there are a lot of cemeteries and no people, it’s an almost mathematical metaphor for saying that something’s wrong.” Gerz’s students began tracking down the names of the cemeteries in April 1990; to date, 1,958 have been identified, largely through the efforts of the 66 remaining Jewish communities in Germany, which have also provided financial support. (The project had to be limited to Jewish cemeteries, Gerz indicates, because the other targets of the Nazi genocide—gypsies, gays, communists—did not maintain their own burial places.) But information is still being received, especially from the former GDR, and Gerz estimates there may be as many as 2,200 cemeteries, each of them to be recorded on a separate stone, along with the date when it was identified.

For well over a year, the project was carried out in total secrecy. As the names started coming in, students began a clandestine digging and carving operation, and by the end of July 1991, 67 stones had been set back in place. At that point, the need for funding prompted Gerz to go public with the project and subsequently, with the support of Saarland president Oskar Lafontaine, to seek official approval from the Saarbrücken parliament. This was obtained late last August, but not without considerable negative reaction. Apart from uneasiness (ostensibly esthetic) about an invisible monument, the prevailing question has been, “Why Saarbrücken?” The Christian Democrats in particular, who walked out of the parliament en masse when Gerz appeared to present the project, charged that it did not represent the city’s historical situation. For his part, Gerz replies that the intent is not to accuse but to recall, in order to come to terms with a collective past. At the same time, he points out, it is somehow fitting that a monument against racism should be situated in a city like Saarbrücken, which is on the French border, for it is border that creates the Other.

In any event, the Platz des unsichtbaren Mahnmals—“The square of the invisible monument,” as it is to be known should be inaugurated in April 1993. The date has been chosen to coincide with the completion of the Museum Saarbrücken’s reconstructed wing, which will be exhibiting photographs of the 1,958-plus stones. According to Gerz, the Harburg monument may well become invisible around the same time. In the face of a European Community that will likewise have made its internal borders invisible (as of January 1, 1993), the message of these absent presences could not be more timely, for, as the temporary inscription on the Harburg column concludes, “In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.”
Miriam Rosen

Miriam Rosen is a writer who lives in Paris. She contributes regularly to Artforum.