Hand-painted hearts or Captain Tom in bronze? Memorialising the fallen of Covid-19 | Sculpture

Maya Lin was a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale University when, in 1981, lacking professional experience, she submitted a class project to a design competition for a memorial for Vietnam war veterans on the National Mall in Washington DC. Her winning design, influenced by the minimalist sculpture and earth art of the New York art scene of the 1960s and 1970s, marked a transformation in how communities acknowledge loss and remember the dead.

Two large curved surfaces of gleaming, polished black granite emerge from the ground, like a wound in the earth, and meet at a point. The names of all 57,000 missing or killed veterans are engraved on the stone. Yet although memorials around the world continue to pay their respects to Lin’s work, the backlash was immediate and a battle emerged between conservatives and modernists. Politicians deemed the work nihilistic, a “black gash of shame”. As a compromise, the traditionalist sculptor Frederick Hart was commissioned to create a bronze statue of three soldiers, placed to one side of Lin’s memorial.

Unlike the 1918 flu pandemic, for which there were few memorials, local councils in the UK have already begun planning, commissioning and throwing their weight behind funding campaigns for permanent memorials to the victims of Covid-19. And there is every indication that the designs will, once again, take the form of either bronze statues or more abstract, open structures or spaces. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has opened a memorial garden in Stratford with a tree for each London borough, and similar projects are being explored in Birmingham. St Paul’s Cathedral is fundraising to construct a physical memorial to those who died.

Meanwhile, Bradford council is supporting a crowdfunded campaign for a statue of Captain Sir Tom Moore, and in Barnsley the council has commissioned a heroic bronze statue of key workers. This indicates that, again, the main choice will be between celebratory figuration and a contemplative sort of abstraction. Why have these become the main options in memorial design?

Non-figurative memorials became widespread in an attempt to comprehend the vast scale of death in the first world war. “Traditionally, a war would be commemorated with a statue of a general on a horse,” says Dr Nicola Clewer, a lecturer in the school of humanities at the University of Brighton. “With the arrival of mass warfare, together with a growing sense that the lives and deaths of ordinary soldiers needed to be marked publicly, there was a need to find a language to represent large numbers of soldiers. The difficulty of doing this figuratively is one of the reasons for the shift away from figurative to abstract forms.”

The Endless Column in Târgu Jiu, Romania.
A forceful meditation … The Endless Column in Târgu Jiu, Romania. Photograph: Special View/Alamy

For the most part, then, instead of bronze generals we have great slabs of stone, sombre lists of engraved names, memorial gardens, open empty structures for contemplating the scale of loss, and, occasionally, genuinely important modernist sculpture. Constantin Brâncuși’s radical Endless Column (1938) in Târgu Jiu, Romania, part of his memorial to the Romanian soldiers of the first world war and a forceful meditation on infinity, is an enormous totem-like pillar comprised of stacked, undulating rhomboids. Edwin Lutyens’ massive Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (1932), a memorial arch structure, juxtaposes thick stone walls with a hollowness, a vulnerability, standing exposed on the Belgian hillside. This growing abstraction was partly down to the large numbers of unidentified war dead: tombs to unknown soldiers sprung up in Paris and London, taking on a more universal significance.

At the same time, trauma was being understood in new ways. Freud, who had famously argued that dreams were the fulfilment of wishes, wrote in 1920 of being startled by his patients who dreamed of being back on the battlefield. They dreamed of war, he theorised, because what they had experienced was so frightening that they were unable to think about it while they were awake. As trauma came to be considered ineffable, memorials began to express the difficulties of expression itself.

The Holocaust accelerated this movement. Many felt that, although the crimes went beyond the power of language or visual representation, their seriousness required some form of material, tangible witness. Rachel Whiteread’s memorial in Judenplatz, Vienna, resembles a concrete bunker, with the outside forming a reverse cast of library shelves with the book spines facing inwards. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005) in Berlin, designed by Peter Eisenman, consists of a sloping site on which 2,711 concrete slabs of different heights have been placed at irregular distances. Recognising the inability of words or images to do justice to the events, these works harnessed the basic, blatant characteristics of concrete to simply stand and be present.

Temporary memorials were also experimented with. Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz’s Monument Against Fascism (1986) was a 12-metre tall lead column erected in a Hamburg suburb, upon which the artists encouraged people to carve their names. As the lower part of the column filled up with people’s writings and scribblings – including a number of swastikas – the column was gradually lowered into a chamber of corresponding size in the ground between 1986 and 1993, finally disappearing from sight altogether. It remains underfoot, covered with a plaque on the ground that announces: “In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.”

Together with the growing taste for abstraction was a sense that permanent memorials would erase the complexity of memory as it evolves over time. The French artist Christian Boltanski, when asked in 1994 whether he would make a Holocaust memorial, stated that “if one were to make such a memorial, one would have to remake it every day”. The Guardian recently echoed this sentiment in an editorial, calling for “impermanent, delicate and transitory” memorials to the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Warsaw.
Grand style … Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Warsaw. Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP

Memorials that seek to express the unspeakable, ungraspable dimensions of loss have been criticised for failing to depict real events with enough literalism. Many Holocaust survivors, resistant to abstract memorials, felt the need to communicate the reality of their experiences as clearly and accurately as possible. Though popular when it was unveiled, Nathan Rapoport’s Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (1948) in Warsaw, depicting Jewish resistance fighters in a grand style, was later lambasted for its crudely figurative socialist realism. Yet figurative memorials respond to a need for empathy, for a wish to remember victims as real embodied individuals with agency.

Graham Ibbeson is the sculptor commissioned by Barnsley council. “My design is accessible, for the community, about the community, with input from the community,” he says. “It is a memorial to reflection and hope, and one that literally puts ordinary people, who have done extraordinary things, on a pedestal.”

The French writer and resistance fighter Robert Antelme, incarcerated in several Nazi camps towards the end of the war, wrote that the word “unimaginable”, frequently used to describe the experiences of Holocaust survivors, was a “shield” – an easy way to avoid confronting the reality of the crimes. It is easier to call something unimaginable than to grapple with how, and why, it happened. Abstract memorials that are grounded in the idea of the inexpressible nature of loss risk dissolving into vague neutrality, and, given a central failure in the pandemic was a lack of preparedness, it is clearly necessary to remember the events in as much literal detail as possible.

There is also the issue of holding power to account. “What will be remembered in future memorials to the victims of Covid-19 will be both the terrible, massive loss of life and the reasons for such massive numbers,” says Prof James Young, the founding director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, “including, in the American case, at least, the failure of political leadership during the Trump administration to act aggressively against the spreading pandemic by all scientific means available. Whether governments like it or not, Covid-19 memorials will remember both loss and who was responsible for much of this loss, necessarily bending memory toward justice and accountability.”

Symbolic memorials can also be effective in this regard, of course: the tens of thousands of hand-painted hearts on the National Covid Memorial Wall along the south bank of London’s River Thames was organised by bereaved family members. While it represents an expression of love, it also comes from a wish to hold power to account. “We’ve placed it at the heart of our capital so that the government never loses sight of the personal stories at the heart of all this,” says Matt Fowler, the co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice.

A woman adds a heart to the National Covid Memorial Wall in London.
‘Different communities will respond in different ways’ … the National Covid Memorial Wall in London. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Disagreements between supporters of figuration and abstraction may reflect collective swings in feeling, at least since the first world war, around catastrophic loss. Shuttling between emphasising the devastating permanence of loss and wanting to maintain personal relationships with the dead, we switch between a desire to hold on to the material reality of the people lost and a wish to acknowledge the void of their absence. “The debate over the purpose, form and remit of a memorial can, in many ways, be more important than the memorial itself,” says Clewer.

Plus, there is no single aesthetic language of public art that can embody these emotional shifts. “My sense is that different communities will respond in different ways,” says Young. “Some embracing a contemporary vogue for memorial gardens, remembering life with life, and some communities will embrace the understandable impulse to glorify and celebrate in bronze figuration the first-responders and healthcare workers whose sacrifices helped save lives. I don’t see the Covid-19 memorial landscape as a zero-sum competition but as a composite of many different kinds of memorial needs, reflecting all kinds of local, regional and national aesthetic sensibilities.”

“I think the abstract-figurative polarity has run its course,” adds Young, “and with the evolving additions of new media in minimalist, earth and landscape art, water art, virtual, digital, installation and durational arts, communities are finding all kinds of ways to open up spaces in the landscape, galleries or digital sphere where the victims of Covid-19 can be remembered and mourned according to any given community’s needs.”

It would be a shame, then, if commissioners of memorials to the victims of the pandemic were to lose sight of the power of memorials – whether permanent or temporary, abstract or figurative – to hold and to deepen contrasting feelings around loss.

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