SEEING MEMORIALS

 

Historic calamities are often experienced as a loss of innocence: “We had no idea that something so awful was even possible.” This “innocence” is often more like blindness to pre-existing conditions, whether colonial expansion, competitive empire-building, anti-Semitism, or neo-colonial control of states. In the aftermath, however, a more genuine loss of innocence may adhere to objects, words, signs, and scenes that are otherwise ordinary – “trench”, “shower-bath”, “train”, even the remnants of a wilderness forest-fire.

Emily Dickenson wrote: After great pain a formal feeling comes --. When tragedy affects a large group this feeling typically finds expression in solemn monuments and in the preservation of sites and structures. Such commemorations, intended to honor victims, bear witness to their suffering, and educate future generations about mistakes they should avoid, also have a subtext – tidying up the past. They attempt to contain overwhelming horrors within well-maintained borders and carefully scripted narratives.

Some of these photographs represent formality, some a loss of innocence. Others propose that monuments can render histories hard to see and somewhat illegible; they suggest that engaging such material with empathy and understanding is always a struggle. Another group presents questions about preservation and the authenticity of sites in the face of decay. These various threads are connected, parts of a larger inquiry into events that refuse to be contained by commemoration, catastrophes that continue to roil our contemporary world and re-shape our understandings of ourselves.

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