Spencer Bailey on monuments, memorials and minimalism - and why it really is time to stop putting people on pedestals
No one is going to forget about Spencer Bailey. The 35-year-old American writer, editor and journalist has contributed to the New York Times, Esquire and Vanity Fair; from 2013 until 2018 he was first editor-in-chief, then editorial director of Surface, the prominent design magazine, during which time he interviewed an incredible variety of subjects, from Kanye West to Zaha Hadid. In October 2018 he joined Phaidon as editor-at-large for our architecture and design books.
However, this autumn, Bailey turns our attention to the elegant public process of collective remembrance in his new book. Entitled In Memory Of: Designing Contemporary Memorials, the book is an extraordinary and moving collection of more than 60 exceptional structures that commemorate some of the most destructive events of the 20th and 21st centuries, including war, genocide, massacre, terrorism, famine, and slavery. In this exclusive interview Bailey explains why he chose Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial as his starting point, how some fairly esoteric contemporary art influences fed into these large public displays of mourning and what a Covid-19 memorial might look like.
When did it become clear to you that there was an untold story around the creation of contemporary memorials? In researching the history and culture of nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century memorials, I realized that most of the texts on the subject have tended to focus on Confederate monuments, Holocaust memorials, the National Mall, and 9/11. While there’s significant academic scholarship on the subject of memorialization—I reference several great university-press books in the Introduction, including James E. Young’s the Stages of Memory (University of Massachusetts Press) and Erika Doss’s Memorial Mania (The University of Chicago Press), and am indebted to this work—there was, until now, no global survey exploring contemporary memorials.
What criteria did you use to draw up the inclusions in this book? I wanted to focus on abstract memorials built over the past forty years, starting with Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was a catalyst for so much of what came after. When I started selecting the projects, I had a list of around one hundred fifty memorials; in the end, sixty-three were published in the book.
I gave significant thought to the subjects, scales, and typologies of the memorials included. I especially wanted to find a balance of subjects—genocide, slavery, natural disasters, war, etc.—while also keeping in mind geographic diversity. I also wanted to emphasize the blurred lines between art and architecture.
What especially stood out to me was the dearth of built memorials in Africa—an indication, I think, about how a complex web of social, cultural, financial, and political powers bring memorials into this world. While I considered six memorials in Australia, the book also doesn’t feature any on that continent. I wanted to include the 2001 Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial in Sydney, but it has not been well-maintained and sourcing quality photography for it proved difficult.
What were you sure should go in? These are the standouts for me: Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.; Stanley Saitowitz’s 1995 New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston; Hans and Torrey Butzer’s 2000 Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum; Rachel Whiteread’s 2000 Judenplatz Memorial in Vienna; Daniel Libeskind’s 2001 Jewish Museum in Berlin; Peter Eisenman’s 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin; Michael Arad’s 2011 Reflecting Absence at the World Trade Center in New York City; Paul Murdoch’s 2011 Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania; Louis Kahn’s posthumous 2013 Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park on Roosevelt Island in New York City; Sir David Adjaye’s 2016 Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.; and MASS Design Group’s 2018 National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Which choices were the most difficult? From the Introduction: “Two examples in particular I was pained to cut, and I wish were featured. One is Elyn Zimmerman’s 1995 World Trade Center Memorial, which honored those who were killed in the 1993 truck bombing. Because it was destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the available imagery was limited. (It’s one of the more haunting examples of memorialization I’ve come across: a shattered remnant of the memorial, found in the Ground Zero rubble, is now displayed in a velvet-lined, casket-like wood box in the 9/11 Memorial Museum—a memorial within yet another memorial.) The other is James I. Freed’s 1992 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., a striking, category-defining project.”
In the introduction to the book you talk about how a large global memorial culture has morphed over the past few decades. Could you describe that change? In simple terms, I’m talking about a shift away from figurative monuments and toward abstract Minimalist memorials. Maya Lin wasn’t necessarily the first to do this—look at Brancusi and Noguchi’s work earlier in the twentieth century, or Bogdan Bogdanović’s memorials in the former Yugoslavia, or unbuilt projects by Heinrich Tessenow, Giuseppe Terragni, and Louis Kahn—but she certainly ignited a conversation around it with her Vietnam memorial. That project was a turning point for memorialization.
From the introduction: “When it comes to memorial making, it seems that, over the twentieth century, artists and designers realized that abstraction carries power that a figurative statue or literal-minded sculpture rarely, if ever, achieves. Vagueness, when done carefully, with intent and a desired effect, creates a vast array of connections between cultures, individuals, and emotions. Each visitor to an abstract memorial can have their own reading and response. Abstract metaphors allow for messiness, complexity, and contradiction. They embrace chaos. They are, as author Rebecca Solnit has written, ‘bridges across categories and differences.’”
Though Lin’s memorial is cited as the beginning here, there are a few earlier precedents, such as Edwin Lutyens’s Memorial to the Missing of the Somme and Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. How do these fit in? These were early exemplars of a shift from literal or figurative thinking to more metaphorical or abstract thinking when it comes to memorial making. Lutyens’s memorial was one of the primary references for Lin when designing her Vietnam memorial.
You also describe the difference between something we might view as a monument and what we might think of as a memorial. Could you expand on that? The introduction says it best: “‘Monuments’—typically statues related to war and politics, celebrating victory or valor, and often depicting soldiers and statesmen—were largely replaced by ‘memorials.’ These tended to be spatial and abstract, recognizing collective hardship and sacrifice, as well as trauma, tragedy, survival, violent death, and terrorism.”
It’s fascinating to see how quite obscure, minimalist abstract sculptors such as those by Noguchi and Richard Serra, have influenced the look of contemporary public works. Why do you think that style took hold in this sphere? During and after World War II, more progressive strains of thought around religion, spirituality, psychology, politics, and art emerged, and this, in turn, impacted memorial making. In the 1960s and ’70s, with the Vietnam War, social unrest, and a rising counterculture, there was a quite literal movement against “the man.” A growing distrust of monuments—particularly figurative statues—took hold, leading to new, more radical thinking. The second half of the twentieth century also saw the rise of minimalist art and land art—both of which have influenced memorial making over the last forty years.
Sometimes a memorial is aesthetically pleasing despite what it commemorates. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe has appeared in countless selfies, and even in a fashion shoot. In an Instagram age, is it still important to strike a balance between solemnity and aesthetics? I think a memorial can be both solemn and beautiful. That’s not an issue. Abstract beauty can evoke a multiplicity of emotions. The real issue is the intent and specificity underlying an abstract memorial. A memorial can’t be too abstract—it needs to have enough specificity as to make clear what it’s memorializing. But it should also leave room for interpretation, allowing the visitor to bring their own experience. A visitor should be able to relate or respond to a memorial in their own way.
What are memorials for? A means for public grief for those directly affected by a tragedy? A way to remember a certain event? Or something else? And is there any hard evidence that they actually effectively serve these purposes? All of it. Memorials are for mourning, grieving, remembering, healing, loving, crying, smiling, connecting, sharing, ruminating, hoping. They’re for never forgetting our past. They help us, on some level, not make the same mistakes, but also remind us of what humans have done—the good, the bad, and the ugly. They’re about feeling. They are a form of un-forgetting.
Have you ever forgotten an abstract memorial you’ve been to? Chances are you haven’t. I’d say that’s evidence enough that they’re effective. They’re loaded with meaning, and that meaning becomes a part of our memory. Memorials are indelibly, physically, ingrained in the minds of those who experience them.
Though we often think of a memorial as a permanent work, some of the ones referenced in this book were actually temporary. Does that impermanence lessen or increase their effectiveness? I don’t think so. Although permanence increases the chance of more people getting to experience a memorial. So, over time, permanent sites have a greater impact than temporary ones.
For me, when it comes to loss, the most stirring memorial was artist Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss installation at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, in the fall of 2016. Comprising eleven towering concrete pipes designed by Shohei Shigematsu of OMA, inside of which thirty professional mourners from around the world performed for half an hour each night, it was effectively a built memorial to mourning itself—an overpowering, all-encompassing meditation on loss. I left feeling both distraught and, somehow, astonishingly relieved.
Not every inclusion in the book commemorates a tragedy. Could you highlight one or two of the more positive works in the book? Isamu Noguchi’s A Bolt of Lightning . . . Memorial to Benjamin Franklin (1933/1985) in Philadelphia, celebrating the life and ingenuity of Benjamin Franklin. Cheryl Barton and Susan Schwartzenberg’s Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Richmond, California, recognizing the often-overlooked contributions of American women to World War II.
There’s a really wild array of artists and architects in this book. Whose work did you discover via the editing process and whose did you gain a deeper understanding of? Due to the global, far-reaching nature of the projects featured, there were nearly thirty architects and artists whose work I wasn’t familiar with prior to writing this book. Someone whose work I discovered during the writing process—and whom I interviewed as part of my research—was Paul Murdoch, the Los Angeles–based architect who designed the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I believe Paul has one of the most astute minds when it comes to understanding memorialization, particularly as it relates to abstraction. Not surprisingly, the Flight 93 memorial is also among the most powerful, subtle, and deeply considered modern-day memorials.
The great controversy in public art at the moment doesn’t lie in the erection of new memorials, but the toppling of old statues. How should we think about commemorative art, changing political views, and the permanence of the public space? The solution, I think, lies in abstraction. When it comes to memorialization, I believe we need to move past our obsession with the “hero” figure and the human form. Figuration is limiting and, by its very nature, hierarchical, prioritizing certain individuals over other peoples, species, and the planet. It’s time we stop literally putting ourselves on pedestals.
Community involvement is also important. At the Flight 93 Memorial, for example, there’s a culture of local docents who help maintain an intimate personal connection to the site and the tragic event it commemorates. Local communities need to be involved in the memorial-making process. It’s why there shouldn’t be a rush to memorialize after a tragic event. Memorial making should be a slow, thoughtful journey that considers the needs and wants of multiple constituents.
Are three dimensional, solid memorials slightly anachronistic in an age of shifting truths and fake news? No. Abstract memorials, at their best, don’t dictate, and have enough specificity to carry deep meaning—the kind that can resonate for a lifetime. We need more of those. We need to stop erecting statues of old white men who typically have done not-so-great things. I also think the online sphere is a fascinating space for memorialization. One example is the National Gun Violence Memorial (not connected to the MASS Design Group one of the same name) that’s basically a live, crowd-sourced log of gun-violence victims in the U.S. Another is Maya Lin’s What is Missing? extinction memorial to the loss of various species.
Which of the works in the book are the most beautiful, do you think? Louis Kahn’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park on Roosevelt Island in New York City. It’s an elegant, poetic work, a profound synthesis of city, sky, sea, and earth. It may well be the most ethereal public space I’ve ever been to.
Which ones most effectively memorialize their chosen event? The O.G. of contemporary memorials: Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorials in Washington, D.C. Of Lin, the critic Martin Filler has written, “The test of time has proven the validity of her insights into the wellsprings of mourning in the modern age.” I couldn’t agree more.
I also find Alberto Burri’s Cretto di Burri in Gibbelina, Sardinia, a memorial to the 1968 Belice earthquake that flattened the town, incredibly affecting. It’s among the projects in the book that I have yet to visit, and I can’t wait to go there in person.
What thoughts go through your mind when you look at the one in which you yourself figure? Is it a very personal series of thoughts, intrinsic to the effect of the crash on your subsequent life or are you able to compartmentalize and view it is a public sculpture first and foremost? It took me decades—and also making this book—to truly wrap my head around what it means to be memorialized. In a way, I’ll always be processing it. But I now realize that the Flight 232 Memorial as a whole fails to achieve the full emotional scope of what should be felt there. It also fails to recognize each individual who was on the plane that day. It tells a rather monolithic story and does not reflect the multiplicity of experiences from July 19, 1989. To me, The Spirit of Siouxland statue is projective of a hero story, not reflective of the tragic event it’s intended to commemorate. I do not see myself in it.
It may be too soon for this as we are in the thick of it, but imagine you were commissioned to create a memorial for Covid-19. Where would you put it, who would you ask to tender for the job, and what would you want the final work to encapsulate? I would never accept a commission to create a memorial. I’m not an artist or architect. But I have thought about how to memorialize Covid-19. Perhaps I could be helpful as an advisor to such a memorial.
I think it would be interesting to consider making an abstract, globally coordinated, uniformly designed Covid-19 memorial, installed in parks in cities and towns impacted around the world and featuring the names of the local dead, with a digital searchable component also listing those names and their locations. The design could be simple enough in construction so that it can be shipped to and built anywhere, aesthetically singular enough that it stands out but not too much so, weighty enough that it has physical heft and presence and cost-efficient enough as to actually be realizable or even crowd-fundable.
This worldwide memorial could be a physical, universal reminder of how connected we all are as a species—that there really are no borders, that this disease impacts all of us and that tremendous loss from the coronavirus is everywhere.
While that Covid memorial might not have made the new book, you can see almost all of the works that Spencer has mentioned, by ordering a copy of In Memory Of here.