Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC (Getty/ Win McNamee)

The art of the war memorial: What should a monument to a past conflict do?

A new war memorial in Slovenia and the furor over Confederate monuments in the U.S. got me thinking



Noah Charney
August 27, 2017 6:00PM (UTC)

Slovenia has a new war memorial. This may not seem particularly newsworthy beyond the confines of Slovenia, but work with me here.

In the center of Ljubljana, two white stone walls reach into the sky in the midst of a square. You enter the space sandwiched between a free-standing wall on the left and an ivy-strewn wall on the right. You turn left and pass the second free-standing wall, and face a tree and a line of flagpoles. Bizarrely, the white flagpoles carry gaudy stickers advertising the flagpole company, interrupting any flow of whiteness that the memorial might offer. Opened to much acclaim, a walk through this construct results in a shrug. Meh. I don’t dislike it (aside from the ads on the flagpoles), but it certainly doesn’t do anything for me. It’s also unlikely to spark riots, either in favor or against, or any upheavals resulting in the choice of what to honor. It was a very safe choice, within the realm of abstract memorials. It was likewise a politically neutral choice to have this as a monument to all wars. Keep everyone relatively happy and don’t rock the boat too much. War memorials are, after all, a potentially fiery topic.

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In recent weeks, the brouhaha has brewed and boiled over regarding Confederate war memorials in the United States. A white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted into violence, including a murder, and it all began with a group of angry white folks protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee. Some call Confederate monuments relics of a past time to honor the dead, regardless of their dated viewpoints, and touchstones to recall history. Others consider them rallying points for the sort of racism that fueled the Confederacy. Charlottesville has shown that it can certainly be the latter. It is also the former. We do not want to obliterate history, and the absence of Confederate monuments will not result in the absence of racism. But no one can deny that war memorials have the power to move us, in ways both good and bad.

The greatest of all war memorials is, of course, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (a name that is careful to memorialize those who fought, not the war itself). Designed by Maya Lin, then still a student of architecture, who beat out 1,421 designs in a 1981 competition, it transformed the very idea of what a memorial could be. Past efforts focused on monoliths with the names of the dead, and perhaps a line of relevant poetry (Rupert Brooke being a favorite), or naturalistic statues of soldiers, dead or victorious (like the much-discussed Charlottesville statue of Robert E. Lee), or allegorical personifications. They were meant to bring a tear to the eye in melodramatic fashion. They were also meant to be easy for anyone, regardless of capacity to grasp abstraction, to “get.” The most minimalist were polished granite obelisks inscribed with names. There was little new prior to 1981, and many considered war memorials not the place for experimentation. There was such vociferous opposition to Lin’s memorial that an alternative one was built nearby, figurative with life-size statues of soldiers and fluttering flags. It is a lesson in the power of abstraction to experience the two, side by side.

The concept for Lin’s memorial involves an L-shaped trench dug into the earth and lined on one side with a black, reflective stone. The deeper into the trench you walk, the more you feel buried alive in a tomb of stone, which then recedes as you emerge on the far side of the L. Etched into the stone are the names of U.S. soldiers killed in service during the war and its related events, from as early as 1955 to 1975. In the early and late years, there are fewer names, but the list grows immense at its heart. This is reflected in the chronological nature of the walk through the L-shaped trench, with less of the black stone wall at the start and end, and a tidal wave of names at the lowest point, at the bend in the L, in the middle of the war. At that point, one feels truly entombed, and we see ourselves, ghost-like, in the reflection in the inky stone. We, too, might have been ghosts of that war, had fate dealt us that hand. It is a powerful, visceral experience to walk through this space, as masterful as any architectural creation ever made, and with an honored place in the history of art.

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Lin’s memorial launched a shift toward abstraction, and a focus on the experience of the viewer in relation to the spaces defined by the design, for memorials from that point on. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was divisive because its design was so new and surprising, not what most expected (and easy to dismiss only by those who did not actually visit it) — not because it was not truly great.

And so we come back to Ljubljana, with its Monument to the Victims of All Wars and Victims Connected with Wars in Slovenia — yes, it’s a tortuous title that strives to cover everything and offend no one. But as Charlottesville demonstrated, one must be careful these days. In Slovenia, there are issues with those who favored, or opposed, the socialist government, and so war memorials are loaded weapons, liable to backfire. But in an effort to remain inoffensive, an anodyne design was chosen. One senses the nervousness of the committee in charge of the monument, not only in the awkward name, but also in an aesthetic that is abstract and clean and linear, on the one hand, but also unmoving and a disappointment to experience, on the other. Its blandness stands in stark contrast to the buildings and monuments of the genius loci of Ljubljana, modernist era architect Jože Plečnik, whose imprint is on the city to an extent far greater than Gaudi’s is on Barcelona. One can only dream what a world-class artist might have done. Other designs appeared much more immersive, but in the end, a design that was halfway there, the right direction aesthetically but insufficiently brilliant, was erected. It was met with a collective “meh,” and more grumbling about its cost than mention of what it is or what might have been. Better that than violent riots, of course.

Let no one say that war memorials look only backward. They are stone firecrackers that show that history is not only remembered, but very much alive.

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Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Art Confederate Memorials Confederate Monuments Editor's Picks Monuments Slovenia Vietnam War

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