Dossier | Immediate Memorials: The Implicit Celebration of Communal Mourning

  • Norman Craig, Princess Diana tributes at Kensington Palace, Kensington Gardens, London, 2007. Photo: © Norman Craig

Immediate Memorials: The Implicit Celebration of Communal Mourning (1)
By Harriet F. Senie

At first glance they resemble a celebration: large crowds bringing an array of objects, clustering together and exchanging words, thoughts, feelings. Widespread and regularly reported, this familiar gathering is a contemporary mourning ritual at sites of sudden death that is expressed in aggregates of flowers, candles, crosses, stuffed animals, photographs of the deceased and personal notes and cards. Variously described as spontaneous or makeshift memorials or shrines, these assemblages reflect a social need to find solace in a shared experience of shock, grief and perhaps anger. As close to the site of sudden death as possible, implicitly they celebrate community in the midst of the chaos of loss—of local victims of roadside accidents or drive-by shootings; of celebrities suddenly gone; or of the larger numbers lost in more public deaths like 9/11.

Since this practice is predictable, it can no longer be called spontaneous. Rather, its salient characteristic is immediacy. Sudden public deaths rend the social fabric in shocking, tragic ways. They shatter the illusion of safety, destroying expectations of continuity and prompting a pervasive impulse to do something. Describing the array of objects that people leave to mark the place of death as makeshift belittles the poignancy of individual contributions as well as the visual and emotional power of the whole. Rarely, if ever, discussed in the context of art, immediate memorials reflect inspirations shared by many artists and offer a visual vocabulary appropriated by some in their installations.

Celebrity Mourning: Princess Di
Be they stars of the entertainment industry, noted politicians, athletes and the like, celebrities embody individual fantasies and cultural myths. They serve as time markers incorporated into personal histories as people relate significant dates in their lives to publicized events in the life and death of the famous. Feelings about celebrities are of a complex nature;(2) their basis may be suspect but the experience nonetheless feels authentic to many. Celebrities serve as powerful social connectors. By definition they are celebrated and when they die, especially if that death is sudden and unexpected, communal grieving ensues.

When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash on 30 August 1997 at the age of thirty-six, she was the most famous and most photographed woman in the world.(3) The scale of the subsequent public response was unprecedented. People, by both bearing witness and making individual observations, became participants in and commentators on an historical event that felt personal to them. While the floral tributes were generic and assumed a communal aspect (comparable to the American flags post-9/11), the written words, once signed, were unique. The Place d’Alma, the public space closest to the spot where the Princess died, was already identified by a replica of the torch held by the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the French people from the International Herald Tribune on its centenary in 1987. This intended symbol of French-American friendship was appropriated by the public as the focal point of an international tribute to Diana. (4) The artist Thomas Hirschhorn, discussed below, was attracted to the way the public appropriated this official memorial and cited it as an inspiration for his monuments. Notes in French, English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and other languages clustered around the base of the sculpture and messages were inscribed on top of the low barrier walls above the sunken highway. Most addressed Diana directly. A combination community bulletin board and autograph book, the Place d’Alma for years served as a site of communal remembrance, a validation and celebration of Princess Di and her public.

Mass Murders: Immediate Memorials after 9/11
As New York City below 14th Street was closed off after the 9/11 bombings, many people gathered at Union Square, the closest open public space to Ground Zero, and created a large, interactive immediate memorial. (5) Smaller versions sprung up throughout the city, especially at places where the suddenly dead had once lived. But on 11 September 2001 there was one profound difference in the nature of these sudden deaths that, for a time, changed the nature of the practice. When people gathered initially and in the days that followed, the number and identity of the casualties were unknown.

Since the missing initially were hoped to be just that, there were few personal relics or gifts, no obvious objects of shared experience, only the photographs of the missing, usually prefaced with a heart-breaking query, have you seen . . . ? But evidence of commentary was everywhere, transforming the site in part into a communal gathering place for political statement, an echo of the role Union Square once played in the city’s history. American flags, which soon became ubiquitous throughout the city, appeared draped in front of the statue of George Washington and in his hand. The Henry Kirke Brown sculpture, the second equestrian monument to be cast in the United States and the city’s first outdoor bronze sculpture (dedicated on 4 July 1856), functioned on 9/11 as the symbolic locus of political commentary. Washington’s boots were coloured pink and a blue peace symbol was taped onto his outstretched hand. His horse was covered with anti-war graffiti, and notably with a prominent peace symbol on his rear flank. The statue’s base was filled with comments of love and peace. Altogether it conveyed a decidedly mixed but somehow reassuring message.

The crowds that gathered around the clock at Union Square appeared intent on creating a communal space, thereby providing comfort in numbers in the most uncertain and frightening of times. Early on, the Department of Parks in consultation with the city’s Art Commission decided to remove the graffiti from the George Washington statue and restore Union Square to its pre-9/11 state. This process of desacralization exemplifies what Kenneth E. Foote calls, in Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, “the rectification of a site,” which implies that no lasting positive or negative meaning will be associated with it. Other categories for the treatment of such sites are sanctification, designation and obliteration. And while there are no remaining visible signs, the transformation of Union Square in the wake of 9/11 and the weeks that followed are an indelible part of personal memory. Undoubtedly, it will figure in subsequent written histories of the event and of the site. Described as an outdoor memorial to loss and grief,(6) the immediate memorial at Union Square was able to accommodate opposing political views about the appropriate response to the terrorist attacks. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman saw it as “a true modern war memorial . . . a strange blend of patriotic flag-waving and Vietnam-era protest.”(7) In this melange of diverse opinions and forms of expression, there was, it seemed, room for all and everything.

The Aesthetic Language of Immediate Memorials
Although they have been denigrated in the press as makeshift and confined to discussions of folk or vernacular art, immediate memorials themselves or their aesthetic elements have prompted various artists working in different media to respond to their authenticity. Photographers have long been attracted to roadside and other immediate memorials. Some installation artists, inspired by their ethnic heritage, have created art from the same sources that are evidenced in immediate memorials. Others have appropriated their formal vocabulary for theoretical ends. Indeed, immediate memorials exhibit many characteristics that are consistent with contemporary art concerns. They are fragmented, non-hierarchical, collaborative efforts and, as such, a genuinely democratic form of (public) art.

Immediate memorials typically reflect the mourning customs of different ethnic groups. Hispanic, African, Caribbean and other cultural heritages also inspired artists to create works that incorporate similar forms and images. Amalia Mesa-Bains (born 1943 in Santa Clara, California) was among the first and most consistent artists to use her Chicano heritage in this way. In creating her personal altars to Dolores del Rio, Frida Kahlo and her grandmother she followed traditional Mexican altar-making practices, making her own paper cut-outs and flowers, and screening her own altar cloths. She considers these works “ceremonial centers” that enable her “to reach a spiritual sensibility through aesthetic form.”(8) In the 1989 catalogue accompanying the exhibition Contemporary Hispanic Shrines David Rubin defines the artist’s mission as universalizing the altar by transforming it from church-related structure into generic vessel for spiritual expression and thus able to engage an audience regardless of their religious beliefs.(9) This is precisely how culturally specific expressions of mourning are experienced in immediate memorials. Secularized by their public presentation, they apparently engage a wide general audience.

More than any other contemporary artist, Thomas Hirschhorn (born 1957 in Bern, Switzerland) has appropriated the visual language of immediate memorials. He created what he calls altars for artists Piet Mondrian and Otto Freundlich and writers Ingeborg Bachmann and Raymond Carver. He chose his subjects because “they have all tried to change the world. They have all led lives and produced work that inspires admiration, not in terms of success or failure, but through the pertinence of their inquiry.”(10) His (formal) inspiration is immediate memorials (called variously spontaneous shrines or altars, or makeshift monuments), “familiar from the deaths of celebrities (Lady Di, Gianni Versace, Olaf Palme, François Mitterand), but also of the unknown, such as young people who have committed suicide, car-accident fatalities, or victims of crime.”(11) He sees his altars as similar personal commitments, as expressions of love that reflect the importance of bearing witness. Composed of candles, flowers, stuffed toys, photographs and notes, Hirschhorn’s unlabeled temporary interventions, which typically last approximately two weeks, could easily be mistaken for immediate memorials. Indeed, the public is free to add or to take things away. For Hirschhorn, these altars question the contemporary status of monuments by virtue of their form, location (which might be anywhere, since people may die anywhere) and duration.

Both Mesa-Bains and Hirschhorn meld the personal and the political, as do participants in immediate memorials. This contemporary public mourning ritual manifests the potential of democratic public life as it was once experienced or at least imagined. An authentic expression of emotion and public engagement, often lamented as lacking in contemporary art, it has served as a thus far unrecognized attraction to artists. Immediate memorials reflect the power of the public to fashion their own meaningful rituals; this is their underlying celebratory element.

NOTES
1. I discuss a different aspect of immediate memorials in Harriet F. Senie, “Mourning in Protest: Spontaneous Memorials and the Sacralization of Public Space,” in Jack Santino, ed., Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 41–49.
2. Zoe Sofoulis, “Icon, Referent, Trajectory, World,” in Ien Ang, Ruth Barcan, et al., Planet Diana: Cultural Studies and Global Mourning (Kingswood, Australia: University of Western Sydney, Nepean, 1997), 13. Sofoulis observes that “figures like Diana are more than mere images . . . they are diagrams on which people map their own lives and which they put to work in narrativising [sic] or fantasizing about their own histories. . . .” She concludes that “distinctions between mediated and actual emotions break down the closer one examines the psychology of emotions and identifications. The feelings about Diana’s death, like feelings generally, were both mediated and real.”
3. Tony Walter, ed., The Mourning for Diana (New York: Oxford, 1999), 40.
4. See Craig R. Whitney, “Paris Adds a Garden to Diana’s Thriving Memorials,” New York Times, 30 August 1998. People were still visiting and leaving flowers and notes at the Place d’Alma in June 2009 when I last visited the site.
5. A more detailed analysis of this phenomenon appears in the author’s “Difference in Kind: Spontaneous Memorials after 9/11,” Sculpture, web special issue, http://www.sculpture.org/documents/scmag03/jul_aug03/webspecial/senie.shtml; reprinted in Area (Spring 2003): 56–59.
6. Andrew Jacobs, “Peace Amid Calls for War,” New York Times, 20 September 2001, A20.
7 . Michael Kimmelman, “Offering Beauty, and Then Proof That Life Goes On,” New York Times, 30 December 2001, AR 35.
8. Amalia Mesa-Bains as quoted in Linda Weintraub, Art on the Edge and Over (Litchfield, CT: Art Insights, 1996), 95.
9. David Rubin, Contemporary Hispanic Shrines (Reading, PA: Freedman Gallery, Albright College, 1989), n.p.
10. James Rondeau, Thomas Hirschhorn: Jumbo Spoons and Big Cake; Flugplatz Welt/World Airport (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2000), 30.
11. Hirschhorn: Altar to Raymond Carver, 7–26 March 2000 (Philadelphia: Godie Paley Gallery, Moore College of Art), 2.

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