PRINT February 1999


Was the Holocaust “special”? George Segal’s extraordinary memorial proposes a line of inquiry strikingly different from the familiar exercise—at once useless and obscene—of comparing the Nazi murder machine to other mass exterminations in order to establish a hierarchy of historical horrors. Appropriately, the artist’s investigation takes the form of a perceptual itinerary: To see his work would seem to involve entering a private and protected area within a public space. The eleven figures in Segal’s tableau, surrounded on three sides by a poured-concrete palisade, have been installed on the summit of a slope in Lincoln Park in San Francisco, slightly below a parking area and just to the side of a road leading to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. From the road we can see only a solitary standing figure. The work in its entirety is usually first viewed from the walkway above, a position from which, however, the whole group, though visible, cannot be fully apprehended. We can see well enough the ten figures who lie in a pinwheel structure and represent the Holocaust’s murdered victims, but the standing figure—a man turned away from the group, who holds on with one hand to the barbed wire that connects the two poles framing him and the entire scene—gives us his back.

To see him better (and to walk among the bodies), we descend a few steps; but once we place ourselves in front of the barbed-wire fence and look in at the group, thereby facing the figure we will call the witness, our spectatorial status changes, significantly. No longer looking in the same direction as the one living witness to the massacre behind him, we are, curiously, more like him: looking through the wire, framed by the two poles, seeing, and perhaps even being seen—but by whom?

What is behind us—spectacular views of the bay and the hills just to the north—is quite different from the heap of dead bodies before us. And yet Segal’s work communicates—easily, naturally—with that larger space. If the reassuring landscape of which these figures have become a part nowhere repeats (at least within our field of vision) the violence they have suffered, we are perhaps beginning to suspect that one can “lead” to the other—not, to be sure, as from cause to effect, but at the very least as a rather ordinary event of spatial syntax. Nothing can be merely inside that illusory frame, and nothing is really outside it.

Segal’s Holocaust is close to us: easily entered, recognizable, even familiar. His figures—strong and healthy-–looking in comparison to the skin-and-bones corpses that haunt the documentary record—only just evoke the emaciated frames of Auschwitz’s inmates. Furthermore, for the most part they appear to be peacefully sleeping, and while their positions suggest a certain haphazard throwing together of bodies, there are parallelisms, couplings, structural repetitions that announce the work’s artful composition. We are, then, in the midst of a complex system of exchanges, a “solidarity” of presumed opposites in contact with one another, touching: inside and outside, the spectator-subject and the art object, order and disorder, horror and serenity.

Each of the figures on the ground touches (or very nearly touches), either directly or through the relay of another body, the central male figure. The human solidarity thus figured in Segal’s sculpture is far more than a merely consolatory note in this spectacle of devastation. It is, rather, the visual metaphor for a solidarity that erases spatial, conceptual, even human uniqueness (these bodies from our time also go back in time, to evoke, for example, the crucified Christ). In so doing, it prevents us from seeing in the Holocaust an alien horror we can view and read “from above,” confident of being able to transform it into an object of knowledge—and of memory.

The Holocaust is invariably evoked as something to be remembered. “We will never forget . . . ”is repeated four times in the memorial plaque accompanying Segal’s sculpture. His work makes a rather harsh judgment of that imperative—not only by its defiantly unrealistic representation of the victims' bodies (these are certainly not the corpses we must never forget), but also by his imprisoning a truly faithful memory within the terrifyingly unreadable figure of the witness. The witness is “looking,” with what seem to be closed eyes, to the side and toward the ground, but it is a look inward, absorbed in a scene that leaves no legible traces on his features. He is wholly occupied by an unrepresentable event irreducible to the domesticating terms of memory.

What can be shown—what Segal shows us—is not the Holocaust as we might remember it, but rather the Holocaust as we must learn to see it for the first time. We can’t forget—or remember—that which we have never known. What is principally to be “remembered” about the Holocaust is its perpetually renewed, and perpetually new, sense—a sense Segal’s work compels us to discover physically by bringing us down from a privileged perspective and into the work, into its frame. We can’t see it fully without being implicated in it.

It was of course the Nazis who insisted on absolute difference, on the uniqueness both of themselves and of those they slaughtered. A fitting memorial to the victims of that murderous illusion must perhaps include a certain blurring of the Holocaust’s distinctness, even a forgetting of its specialness, so that we will be unable to ignore our closeness to it. Everything communicates within the universal solidarity of being—a truth that may inspire efforts to reimagine the human community, but that should also alert us to the proximity of horror. There is only one space, and everything is “in touch” within it. The Holocaust’s space is our own.