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The problem of memory in contemporary art

Pierre Nora is the first one who coined the term ‘lieux de mémoire’. You could translate lieux de mémoire as places of memory. These places, however, can be real or abstract. A lieu de mémoire can also be a national symbol. It is something that exists in the collective memory of a certain group. Nora explains in his theory that memory is something different from history. Hegel believed history had the form of a river and Heraclitus said ‘You can never step into the same river twice’. It seems that the concept of history is just as fluent as the description of history itself. What we learn as ‘history’ differs from country and era. What function we give history also changes. We are now in ‘l'ère de la commémoration' according to Nora, the age of remembrance. An era in which we have the need to commemorate our past and re-interpret history in the now.


I agree with Nora. I am not a historian, anthropologist nor philosopher, but as an artist I feel this need. I think the explanation of this need can be found partially by analysing art.


Why didn’t we live in l’ere de la commemoration in the past? I think the answer is complex. There is not one reason for this change of historical awareness. Nora gives the fact that he is Jewish as a reason to think of the concept of lieu de mémoire. There was lying such a burden on the collective memory of Jews, that it was more obvious for him than for a member of another group. [1] Another explanation for why we need these places of memory now, is because of the pace in which we move forward in history because of and fragmentation in society. We used to have memory literally everywhere. This changed, nowadays we need to mark these places.[2]


Pierre Nora his work ‘Les Lieux de Memoire’ which consists out of 7 books, has been inspiration for various scholars to write their own theories. The work of Pierre Nora has been called ‘chauvinistic in a typical French way’ and compared with the later work of the German scholars Etienne François and Hagen Schulze. According to Sara Delva the German work, that has been considered equipollent, is more down to earth.[3]


I also experienced the work of the Dutch historian Frank Ankersmit to be down to earth. He explains that we have come to a time in which history becomes a personal story for everybody. It is privatized. Because of this, it gets the properties of memory. The commemoration actually changes the historical awareness.[4]


“[T]he commemoration has no pretensions regarding what is the essence of the past or what was brought about by great social forces and has no need to make a distinction between the trivial and the sublime. The decisive factor is what we find worthy of commemorating artists, institutions or historical events.”[5]


Commemoration does not prescribe how we have to think of the past, or what national history is prescribed to us. Therefore, it opens up a lot of possibilities. It makes it possible, for example, for Jews to commemorate their own history. It gives to possibility to open up old wounds that did not heal well.


History does not reveal itself immediately. Like explained in the text of Maria Poprzęcka, the artist who experienced the war, wanted to forget about it.[6] It is the 2nd or 3rd generation who have the ‘luxury’ to open up the wounds, because they have to ability to live with the history. L'ère de la commémoration gives these generations the ability to do this. People are able to look into the past and re-interpret it, thereby create lieu de memoire and heal trauma.


Unknowingly I did what I describe in the previous paragraph, with a performance. Whilst reading the book ‘Bloodlands’ by Timothy Snyder I came across a chapter about the Holodomor, the intentional starvation of Ukraine by Stalin in 1932 and 1933. I was baffled that I did not learn about this in history class and completely struck by the story. Hannah Arendt describes this “as the most important event that underlies the formation of a modern 'fragmented' society in which all are alienated from all”[7]. During a whole day performance I commemorated people that starved to death. For me it had the form of a prayer. For the spectator it could be deciphered on different levels. The nature of my performance was understood differently by everyone. One person asked me if I had the right to touch upon this history. Some people saw it as a political artwork, where my intentions where spiritual/humanistic in this sense that I wanted to heal something that, I personally felt, was broken. For Hannah Arendt also described this as an event touching all of us. Just as a prayer, I am free to commemorate what I feel right. When I met an Ukrainian person a little while ago, she became emotional when hearing about the performance and thanked me for it.


Another scholar dealing with memory is prof. Krzysztof Czyzewski. To heal trauma in society, he thinks we should work on it in the everyday live. He created the project ‘Borderland’ in Sejmy, a Polish town on the east border. About his project he says ‘In order to come closer to reality we constantly needed to refer to memory, which turned out to be an integral part of the contemporary world.’ and ‘We had to find a way, mostly

through art, to excavate these memories and bring them into the light of present relationships.’[8]


From the east, I would like to go to the west border of Poland where, in Kostrzyn,  ‘Dialog Loci – Bastion Sztuki’ took place. Kostrzyn it is pre-eminently a place of commemoration, because of its rich past as a fortress and the fact that war-demolished city lies in new borderland. Old Kostrzyn was bombed and only 10 percent remained in the ruins. Kostrzyn was suddenly a Polish ruin, never having been a Polish city. Nowadays it is the plain of border narratives.


Some interesting works during Dialog Loci where the realisations of Zbigniew Sejwa ‘Door’ (2004), Krescenty Gładzik ‘View from the Window’ (2004) and Roland Scheffersky ‘Enclave’ (2004). Three separate works that communicate with each other, but, more importantly, go into dialog with the past. Zbigniew Sejwa placed a door in a ruin, Krecenty Gładzik put a window back in its place and Roland Schefferky placed furniture between demolished walls. Even with doors, windows and furniture, it is very clear there are no houses here, let alone homes. These literal and metaphorical objects emphasize a painful loss.


The door put back by Sejwa, leads up the steps to a house full of vegetation and without walls. ‘Doors can be opened, and because of this, when they are closed, they embody the sense of separation from whatever is behind them much more strongly than a wall.’[9] In this case, the lost city of Kostrzyn is closed from us. Because there is no city, there is no place, here on the map, to commemorate the difficult history.


Krescenty Gładzik created an unreachable window floating on the height of the 2nd floor. With this window you can imagine not only the size and height of the house, you also imagine a view, like the title suggests. Once, people who lived here, where Germans, living in Oderland. The river the Oder that they saw out of their windows, was not a dividing border. Głazik broadens the perspective of the viewer, making him look back in time from a daily and political point of view.


Roland Scheffersky placed modern day furniture inside what used to be a house. The work speaks to our imagination. What kind of people would life here if history would have taken a different path? Maybe the artist did not imagine a Polish mebloscianka, but a German cupboard.


Hester Oerlemans is a Dutch artist who took part in Dialog Loci. As the only one, she focussed on what is left next to the ruins. She made pictures of houses inhabited after unfinished construction with improvisational isolation on the walls and apartment blocks with very empty looking facades. The pictures breath desolation. Inhabitants have a lot of space, not much facilities. People get creative. The pictures form a tour guide with the ironic title ‘Kostrzyn - the Old Town’.


The interesting thing is, that Oerlemans focussed on Polish life in this desolate situation. In some way she documented the settlement of pioneers on new land. The difference is that this land lies fallow with a painful history. Oerlemans shows the emptiness people are dealing with. At the same time she invited tourists, emphasizing the desolating even more. If there are no people re-interpreting the past in this location, do we accommodate history?


I had the chance to get into contact with Hester Oerlemans and asked her some questions. The important thing she told me was, that she made the photographs out of fascination. She was interested in some particular aspects of the town she hadn’t encountered before. The mayor of the town, didn’t think the pictures gave a good impression, though. The tour guide became in itself, according to Hester, a lieu de mémoire. She is happy that the opinion about her work changed, since she was invited back, to exhibit in the town-hall. Hester told me she went to Kostrzyn many times. She had the impression that people have no problem with the status quo. She noticed the town change and become more tidied up, though.


Last summer I attended two lectures at Uniwersytet Adama Mickiewicza by Francois Hartog titled ‘Lieu de mémoire’ in which the historian connected art to the concept of lieux de mémoire. Hartog lectured about the painting ‘Angelus Novus’ by Paul Klee. According to Walter Benjamin, this painting represents the angel of history.


“A Klee painting named 'Angelus Novus' shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”[10]


The angel his wings do not have enough force to withstand the storm of progress. Hartog used the analogy of the wings to explain work by another artist, Anselm Kiefer. Kiefer is mainly recognised for using references to WWII form a German perspective. This is a history that lies heavily on Germany. According to Hartog, the work "Mohn und Gedächtnis", a sculpture of an airplane, is another landmark in art history. The plane is a bomber. It is made out of lead and has heavy (history) books on the wings. In between the books poppies are drying. The poppy is a symbol for death or sleep, in English speaking countries used to commemorate the those who died during the war. [11] This might come from the poem ‘In Flanders Flieds’ by the Canadian soldier John McCrae. Opium, a product made out of poppy seeds, is the reason poppies symbolise sleep.[12] In Germany the poppy has an additional symbolic meaning, namely pain relieve. [13] The plane, a symbol for the war, is unable to lift, no matter how much wind it catches under its wings. It will always be present on the ground, in plain sight. It is present in the collective memory of the Germans all the time. Poppies are needed for relieve, but the pain never goes away.


Another German artist dealing with the past is Gregor Schneider. Schneider rarely talks about his work. There is however one statement I found that explains his whole oeuvre. ‘Schneider is interested in places that become charged through traumatic events, and says that although things might be over, they leave their traces’[14] Gregor Schneider often works with houses as a medium. For example his family house, or the house of Joseph Goebbels, who was in the same town (Rheydt- Mönchengladbach). When you visit his artwork ‘Haus ur’, you will encounter slowly spinning rooms, ceilings that move in on you so slowly the naked eye can’t see, fake daylight behind the windows. One of the rooms is called ‘Wir sitzen, trinken Kaffee und schauen einfach aus dem Fenster’, which implies a normal visit at the artists house. However, a whole array of modifications has led to a uncanny environment. The place is unheimlich. One of the rooms of ‘Haus ur’ has been turned into an isolation-cell with lead-covered walls. The room is completely cut off from the world.


Gregor Schneider bought the house of Joseph Goebbels. The house was taken apart and served as an installation in Galeria Zachęta in Warsaw in 2014. About this work Schneider says he had concerns the house could become a shrine for neo-Nazis.[15] By taking it apart and exhibiting it elsewhere he ‘wants to remember the millions of victims of the Nazi dictatorship’[16], hence creating a lieu de mémoire.


During the attendance of the classes ‘Architecture and Politics’ by dr. Alexandra Paradowska, I came to know about Hitler his home. Hitler used his villa in the mountains as a tool for propaganda. ‘Hitlers “private” life had been carefully orchestrated for public consumption.’[17] His house was a place of pilgrimage with school classes of children climbing up the mountain to take pictures with Hitler – the man (in opposite of Hilter – Der Führer). However, his mountain getaway did not only serve as a backdrop for photo’s with children. Hitler felt very attached to it. ‘It was Hitler’s favourite place to be – about a third of his time in office was spend on the Obersalzberg. In July 1944, Joseph Goebbels confined to his diary that he was relieved that the Führer had decided to transfer his military headquarters from his mountain home to the Wolf’s Liar on the eastern front. While Hitler had spent months planning battle strategies from his living room, the Allied armies had pushed ever closer to Germany’s borders’[18]


With these two previous examples I would like to show the ambivalence between the private and the public realm, especially when the public realm is WWII. My awareness of how the private and the public realm are intertwined, was raised by Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition, 1968) and I see the previous two subjects from this point of view.


Most of us feel aversion towards the normality of a life like that of Goebbels with the trauma he inflicted in millions of other lives. Hitler his war strategies planning is hard to imagine in a homey living room. It seems odd that the Führer worked from home and it didn’t work out for him. Gregor Schneider brings these realizations to light. He opens up these houses, giving access to them. These works are a monument for the negative. Commemorate how such horrible thing could have come to life in homes.


It seems that l’ere de la commeration opened up a need for artists to go after their own memories. Thereby they are healing the wounds of the groups they belong to. It became truly meaningful to use art in ‘community projects’ as a bridge to memory or the other.

Wings became a symbol of the direction in which history was going. Lead symbolised the burden of history we are unable to free ourselfs from. The works I described represent houses. I would interpret them in the following way: lieu de memoire that are opening up the private to the public and the past to the present.



[1] TAUVOD (25-05-2014) Mr. Pierre Nora - History and Memory: Between the Personal and the Public. Retrieved from

[2] TAUVOD (25-05-2014) Mr. Pierre Nora - History and Memory: Between the Personal and the Public. Retrieved from

[3] Delva, Sara, (2017) ‘Lieux de mémoire’ en ‘Erinnerungsorte’: hoe het Duitse taboe op nationale identiteit vervaagt. Retrieved from: 24-01-2019

[4] Ankersmit, Frank (2003) De toekomst van het verleden, Groniek historisch tijdschrijft, nr 161 (pp. 457-464)

[5] Ankersmit, Frank (2003) De toekomst van het verleden, Groniek historisch tijdschrijft, nr 161 (pp. 457-464)

[6] Maria Poprzęcka, "Foreword: Non-memory," RIHA Journal 0104 (31 December 2014), URL: (24-01-2019).

[7] Arendt, Hannah, (1968) The Human Condition. Utrecht/Antwerpen: Het Spectrum

[8] Czyżewski, Krzysztof, (2014) The culture of coexistence in the logue duree, On practising the ethos of the borderland. In Jacek Kurczewski, Reconciliation in Bloodlands (pp. 300 – 301)

[9] Georg Simmel, Ruina. Próba estetyczna, w: Idem, Most i drzwi. Wybór esejów, tłum. Małgorzata Łukasiewicz, War-szawa 2006, s. 171.

[10] Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History", Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969: 249.

[11] (24-01-2019)

[12] (24-01-2019)

[13] (24-01-2019)

[14] Racz, Imogen (2015) Art and the Home, Comfort Alienation and the Everyday. London: I.B. Tauris

[15] (24-01-2019)

[16] (24-01-2019)

[17] Stratigakos, Despina (2015) Hilter at Home. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

[18] Stratigakos, Despina (2015) Hilter at Home. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

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