American Imago 62.4 (2006) 419-433
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Loss as Vanished Form:
On the Anti-Memorial Sculptures of Horst Hoheisel
Ellen Handler Spitz
University of Maryland
Baltimore, MD 21250
We are so much better at forgetting than at remembering.
How seductively the present lays its pungent, voluptuous hand on us, tempting us with narcissistic pleasures, and, as Nietzsche and Freud have warned, weaning us away from the frailer touch of ghosts.
What do we do with the dead?
What do we do with the past? Our own and that of the world around us?
In Memory, Countermemory, scholar James Young (2002) sympathetically describes the contempt of many post-Holocaust German artists for traditional heroic monuments. Deemed passé, these edifices, he tells us, not only carry the dead weight of cultural mythology and false history but also relieve us, in fact, of our own responsibility to remember. They permit us to take it easy. Once in place, such monuments stand in for our duty to study history. They stand in for our need to stumble and to try, however feebly, however fragmentedly, to make sense of what has occurred. They give us license merely to feel . . . something. They even make it possible for us to feel, superficially, good. As substitutes in this sense, such monuments, I would argue, assume the status of cultural fetishes, even of cultural perversions. They offer us false closure and premature satisfaction concerning that which might better remain unassuaged. In place of fitful ambivalence burdened [End Page 419] by shame and guilt, they offer their positive concrete forms, their aesthetic answers. To invoke Freud's classic 1917 paper, "Mourning and Melancholia," they offer manic solutions to the misery they would rescue us from enduring.
Yet how can we remember the past without distorting it in some way? In his eloquent lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, delivered in 1909, Freud cites the example of London's "Charing Cross," a corruption of the original "Chère reine" ("Cherished Queen"), a thirteenth-century carved stone monument made to commemorate one of the stages in the funeral cortège of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. No one, Freud avers, pauses any more to weep in front of this column or even remembers the sorrow that once caused it to be erected. One might say it has lost its memorial function with the passage of time. And thus Freud raises, without pausing to consider the problem artistically, the question of how one might create an effective memorial that could withstand the ravages of time. Memorial work that lionizes and aggrandizes the human beings who have been lost, or that ennobles the causes for which they perished, enables us to make transitions from grief to celebration, from losing to keeping. But is this suspect? What, we may wish to ask, might be the purposes of memorial sculptures, over time, vis-à-vis their changing spectatorship?
In the following pages, I want to examine the work of a contemporary German artist, Horst Hoheisel of Kassel, in light of these considerations, for this sculptor creates memorial art that is self-consciously anti-memorial, as he puts it. Over several decades, he has approached this difficult subject by staring down the abject terror of abandonment that lies at the root of our anxiety over loss and that causes us, in so many cases, to erect memorials that assuage this terror. A non-Jew who has resided in Germany for many years with his family, Hoheisel's parents came from Riga in Latvia, and he himself was born in Poznan, Poland, during the final years of the Third Reich. Over the years, he has been deeply moved by what he slowly discovered about the terrible fate of the Jews of Europe, particularly of his own city of Kassel, and by themes involving Jewish experience under the Nazi regime, as well as by other instances of human loss and devastation. [End Page 420]
Before the artist's birth and while his mother was still carrying him, Hoheisel's father, fighting...