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Monuments are our response to the collective need to remember, revisit, and delineate the dreams of history. The best memorials are not mere relics, but extraordinarily rich communications from the past, living history books that illuminate societal, political, and cultural values at specific moments in time.
Because consensus about historical events, shared values, and appropriate visual vocabularies is increasingly rare, monuments must find new ways to inspire and console. The unspoken directive today is to read into a memorial what you will. Once proudly ascendant or low and tomblike, the forms of monuments are changing, as are the materials from which they are made. Public works that now are revered created controversy and encountered resistance when their unfamiliar forms were first unveiled. In the last century, abstract art and architecture have allowed designers to sidestep a specific or heroic message. This stance was exemplified by the minimalist design
for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin which, although it met bitter opposition when first proposed, is now recognized as a milestone of commemorative architecture against which future monuments must be measured.
The Evolving Monument
Similarly, marble and limestone, once sacrosanct materials of Western commemoration, are giving way to ephemeral materials such as light and other nonpermanent elements. The genius of the gay rights activists who conceived of the AIDS Quilt in 1985 was recognizing the quilted form as a way to tap into a familiar yet subversive tradition that has existed for centuries in the
shadow of the dominant male culture. Soft, domestic, intimate yet epic, the AIDS Quilt is made of fabric and other materials more vulnerable than stone or steel.
Glass and light have long been employed in buildings to express transcendence, but have been used less frequently in memorial design.
Reflective and translucent monuments such as Luminous Manuscript as well as the Kennedy Space Center’s Astronaut Memorial Space Mirror (1991), which honors the American astronauts who died in the quest to explore space, suggest the wide metaphoric possibilities of glass. Even more ephemeral are works created solely from light, and portable monuments that are no longer
rooted in one place. Some memorials exist only in cyberspace, with increasingly popular online sites featuring photos of and quotes from the deceased as well as virtual guest books for recording remembrances. After September 11, 2001, millions gathered online to express grief, prayers, and political commentary.
The rapidly emerging Web with its seemingly infinite pages, sites, and hyperlinks allows the world to do what it most often needs in order to heal: talk together.
Recent, heavily publicized competitions have exposed the huge cultural and political stakes at play in the manufacture of monuments. The competition’s function is not limited to getting a monument built. In fact, getting something built is often beside the point.
Competitions raise public consciousness about what can and should be built, and expand the notion of what is possible. They also promote the idea that the proposed memorial should be funded and help raise funds. Additionally, they fulfill a significant conciliatory role by helping a potential memorial’s myriad stakeholders come to terms with the event itself. The World Trade Center Memorial Competition, announced in April 2003, was the largest design competition in history, generating 5,201 submissions from 63 nations, most from nonprofessionals who, despite the low odds of winning, were moved to express their feelings.
Excerpted from Monuments: America's History in Art and Memory by Judith Dupre
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