Annie-Rose Strasser wrote a fascinating article that came out on Think Progress today about the act of memorializing the dead who are lost in massacres or tragedies. On the third anniversary of the mass killing in Norway by a racist fanatic, she recounts the moving, artistic tribute that is being created to memorialize the event.
The article got me thinking about the most powerful memorials I have ever experienced. To me, the two that I have found most profound are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the NAMES project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt.
The common element in both those memorials is the act of naming, but I don’t think that’s essential to all memorial artwork. The magnificent Tribute in Light that commemorated the World Trade Center’s destruction was entirely abstract. I have not yet seen the new WTC memorial so am unable to describe it.
What the effective ones do have in common, I think, is that they are works of art, and are conceived as such. Even the AIDS Quilt, while not a work of art in the more traditional sense, draws upon the traditions of folk art and the loving acts of beauty created by many hands to achieve its power. The Norwegian memorial is so striking because it is, paradoxically, so beautiful. It takes a horrendous event and in its beauty renders it tragic, rather than simply horrible.
Likewise, the Vietnam memorial is not just haunting; it’s a fully realized work of landscape sculpture. The World War II Memorial just up the Mall from the Vietnam memorial has never had the same effect on me, even though I lost a relative in that war and it was an event that profoundly affected my family. You can sense the difference between the two memorials simply by walking around in them. At the Vietnam memorial, voices are hushed, and there is an air of solemnity; at the WWII memorial, people stroll around, chatting, taking photos as they would at any tourist attraction. I think it’s the artistic coherence of the Vietnam memorial that gives it its power.