PRINT April 2012


absence as memorial

Aerial view of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, New York, 2011. Photo: Joe Woolhead.

LAST FALL, a trio of voids appeared in downtown New York. The National September 11 Memorial, which opened to the public one day after the tenth anniversary of the 2001 attacks, is dominated by two monumental cavities where the 110-story towers once stood. Only a block away, Zuccotti Park’s spare granite landscape also resonates with absence, the crowds and tents that filled it through the early autumn having been cleared by the NYPD during a controversial maneuver in the wee hours of November 15. Like the memorial site, the plaza is now marked by what is not there, by the palpable absence of the community and structures that took root during the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Zuccotti Park in its current physical form is in fact a product of the 9/11 attacks: Having suffered damage that day, the park, then known as Liberty Plaza, was renovated and reopened under its new name in 2006. By the same token, the impetus behind Occupy Wall Street may be traced to the attacks as well. The conditions Occupy seeks to combat—not only the increased concentration of wealth but also intensified surveillance, curtailment of civil liberties, and rampant demagoguery—are rooted in the post-9/11 moment. If the memorial site’s empty footprints invite reflection on the specific human losses caused by the towers’ destruction, Zuccotti Park’s missing figures and tents demand scrutiny of these ongoing political failures. The park’s unintentional staging of absence can thus be seen as a supplement to, or shadow of, the official memorial a block away. Within the mnemonic landscape the two sites establish, the empty plaza confronts us with the lingering consequences of what Paul Krugman, in a much-maligned blog post of September 11, 2011, described as the “irrevocabl[e] poison[ing]” of 9/11’s memory by the false heroism—and disastrous decisions—the attacks enabled.

In the wake of a century marked by inconceivable atrocity, the use of emptiness as a commemorative trope has arguably become a standard tactic, a default style of public memory. The power of the voids at and around Ground Zero is generated by their origin in real historical circumstance rather than such purely commemorative intent: They are indices as well as icons of the losses they mark.

Nowhere is the negotiation between these two possibilities—on the one hand, the co-optation of absence as tasteful mnemonic trope; on the other, absence’s disruptive potential as brute historical scar—more evident than in Berlin, a city whose history, as Andreas Huyssen has argued, can be seen as a “narrative of voids.” Writing in 1997, Huyssen saw this tale culminating in Berlin’s post-wall development, defined equally by an obsessive covering-over of the city’s lacunae—above all in the elaborate commercial projects then proliferating in the miles-long stretch occupied until 1989 by the Berlin Wall—and a carefully orchestrated deployment of absence as memorial device, particularly in the “voids” integrated by architect Daniel Libeskind into his addition to the Berlin Museum, now known as the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Libeskind, who has served since 2003 as master planner for the reconstruction of the WTC site, once recommended leaving the most significant portion of the wall’s former territory untouched. “I suggest a wilderness . . . within which everything can stay as it is,” he proposed in a 1992 discussion of the seventeen-acre empty lot then stretching from the Brandenburg Gate to Potsdamer Platz. Needless to say, this suggestion—founded in a desire to preserve the material impact of the city’s historical traumas—went unheeded. The accidental urban prairie Libeskind praised, a product of wartime saturation bombing and Cold War geopolitics, was by mid-decade in the process of being rapidly, almost maniacally, filled.

This job is now more or less complete. With massive corporate logos towering overhead, the erstwhile minefield and overgrown vacant lot of Potsdamer Platz has become a mess of chain stores and theme restaurants, complete with its own Disneyfied casino and dedicated Blue Man Group performance space. While celebratory fragments of the area’s pre-Nazi past have been sparingly integrated into this development—a century-old building restored, a prominent clock tower designed to recall a Weimar-era traffic light—there are few markers of the site’s more tumultuous recent history. The Berlin Wall itself is present only in a strip of cobblestones, determinedly discreet, that weaves artfully through the area, barely noticeable to those not actively seeking it out. The fact that this site was once an impassable no-man’s-land has been all but struck from view. Triumphalist development has been tasked with the suturing, and obscuring, of history’s wounds.

Yet just as the memorialization of 9/11 and its aftereffects has taken shape through a dialogue of absence, so, too, has Potsdamer Platz’s complicated history materialized in a literal blank at its margins. Right outside the area’s subway stop, immediately adjacent to a Starbucks knockoff and dwarfed by a nearby Daimler-Benz-funded Renzo Piano office block, stands a worn granite pedestal, its top cracked and empty, bearing the inscription FROM THIS SPOT, KARL LIEBKNECHT CALLED OUT ON MAY 1, 1916, FOR BATTLE AGAINST IMPERIALIST WAR AND FOR PEACE. A second inscription on the other side reads PEDESTAL FOR A MONUMENT TO KARL LIEBKNECHT, 1871–1919. Virtually unnoticed by the thousands of daily passersby, its surface discolored and lined with moss, the pedestal appears to have fallen from the sky like a meteorite, a fragment of another world.

In a way, it has. The memorial for which the base was intended was initiated in 1951 by East Berlin mayor Friedrich Ebert Jr., son of the first democratically elected president of the Weimar Republic, to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of Liebknecht’s birth and to serve as a symbolic protest against the just-initiated rearmament of West Germany. Liebknecht had been an early and vociferous opponent of Germany’s aggression in World War I, and, during the postarmistice months, a fierce far-left critic of the senior Ebert’s efforts to establish a centrist Social Democratic government. He came to advocate armed rebellion against the nascent state’s leadership, and in January 1919, along with Rosa Luxemburg, he was murdered by far-right militants tacitly backed by Ebert and his cabinet. Three decades later, Liebknecht’s memorial—supported by the onetime president’s son out of whatever strange admixture of guilt and calculation—ran into its own difficulties. First delayed by the intense political instability of early Cold War Berlin, the project was abandoned altogether when construction of the wall began in August 1961. For the next thirty years, the planned monument’s base stood stranded in the groomed minefield separating Berlin’s eastern and western halves, a lone figure on what for a time was the most charged political ground on earth.

Having withstood a three-decade stint at the very fulcrum of the Cold War, Lieb- knecht’s empty pedestal barely survived the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz. Its barren patch of land now privatized, the granite block was removed and warehoused in 1995 to make way for new shops, restaurants, and offices. In 2003, the pedestal returned with the support of Berlin’s new culture minister, Thomas Flierl, a parliamentarian from the far-left Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to Mayor Ebert’s East German Socialist Unity Party. As was to be expected, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats found the reappearance of the “hideous pedestal” a scandal, and accused Flierl of being beholden to East German party directives from the early 1950s.

We can be grateful Flierl held his ground. For however inadvertent the effectiveness of its symbolic program, the hobbled monument stands as one of the city’s most potent historical artifacts. Indeed, its very status as an empty base speaks directly to the spectral power of Liebknecht himself as a signal martyr of Germany’s revolutionary left. Stubbornly poisoning relations between the governing Social Democrats and their far-left critics during the Weimar years, the shameful circumstances of Liebknecht’s and Luxemburg’s deaths—which helped prevent the coalescence of a unified front against Hitler’s National Socialists a decade later—were a grave injury to the fledgling republic.

Beyond such specific references, Liebknecht’s empty pedestal—worn and stained and presenting, quite literally, nothing—is a monument to historical catastrophe. Invoking Liebknecht’s unheeded call for peace, the pall cast by his gruesome murder, and the egregious sullying of his memory by a state that left his dirtied cenotaph stranded among trip wires and claymores, the pedestal’s symbolic resonance results from its own fractured past rather than from any calculated intent. Accordingly, it confronts us not with the triumphs of instrumentalized history but with the tragedy of alternate futures left unrealized: a Germany in which Liebknecht’s 1916 call had been heard, or in which the irrevocable split between Communists and Socialists had not doomed the interwar republic before it found its footing. The empty base also confronts us with the failures of the landscape of orchestrated forgetting surrounding it, within whose celebratory spectacle its broken form appears as an inassimilable rupture. Distilling Berlin’s trail of voids into a singular absence, the incomplete memorial emblematizes the failures and discontinuities of history—as of memory—itself.

The accidental void at Zuccotti Park is both less conspicuous and less historically resonant than that of Liebknecht’s empty pedestal. Indeed, the plaza itself remains manicured and well formed, its granite benches, towering sculpture, and carefully pruned trees aiming to obscure any perception of emptiness. But together with the orchestrated absences of the 9/11 memorial nearby, it too speaks of missed chances, wrong turns, and avoidable tragedies. The Occupy Wall Street movement itself, in refusing to settle on a list of demands, is built around an indeterminate platform, thus elevating deliberative possibility over established program and protocol. Such open-ended deliberation, we can imagine, will be the now emptied plaza’s historical legacy, long after specific details of recent events have been forgotten—and in contrast to the Ground Zero memorial, whose planned interpretative center promises to reassure visitors with a legibly bounded message. Like the dilapidated granite pedestal standing at the center of today’s redeveloped Berlin, the vacated park will be a place to ask: What happened here? Why? And where have we gone since?

Graham Bader, Mellon assistant professor of art history at Rice University in Houston, is the author of Hall of Mirrors: Roy Lichtenstein and the Face of Painting in the 1960s (MIT Press, 2010).