Have you ever been moved to tears by a monument? Have you ever been angered? Moved to action? Encouraged to rest in gratitude? How have monuments impacted you, and what have your relationships been to them? What levels of empathy have you experienced with your various encounters with various monuments? What cities have you seen the bleeding heart of? Personally, I can think of many moments with monuments that have shaken me to my core. The MLK Memorial in D.C. The Vietnam War Memorial, also in D.C. The Holocaust Memorial in Boston. The Killing Fields in Cambodia (arguably a monument/memorial site).
The latter was perhaps the most uncomfortable. For me, it was about a deep uncovering of lies I had been taught to reside in. It was learning about the U.S.’s involvement in facilitating the rise of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. It was coming to terms with the lies we read in the history books to cover, silence, ignore, and erase the Cambodian genocide. It was looking my privilege and perpetuation of oppression in the eye when I met survivors on the streets of Phnom Penh. It was letting myself grieve the dead at each and every site. It was deeply unsettling and absolutely necessary.
Professor Jeffrey Schnapp spoke to us of the Bolzano Monument, helped us question what a (modern) monument was, how an anti-monument could be conceived, and what it meant to be behind the scenes of monument making. Some claim, such as Lewis Mumford, that this built environment should be in service of the living and not the dead. But, I wonder, whose life gets to be monumentalized? Who—living—gets to be serviced? In what ways can monument making be a step in the long, quietly destructive process of the erasure of history?
Moreover, Professor Schnapp showed us what it might mean to create “possibilities for transformation beyond replacing or destroying.” This Bolzano monument lives in the cracks and crevasses of this possibility and clearly draws in thousands of tourists every year. Questions should be asked—and have been—about the sustainability of this monument. But this should, certainly, be asked of every monument. Is it still doing its job? What is its purpose? What is trying to be evoked in its creation and resurrection? How does the past get communicated through the architecture of a monument and through the curatorial choices laid down brick by brick?
I am curious about the answers to all these questions for the Killing Fields. In what ways might it need to be revitalized? It has a simple, subdued, grieving purpose. It is not meant, most likely, to invoke revolutions. (Though great revolutions have come out of grief, I’m sure). Rather, the monument here is one of remembrance. It—in negation to Lewis Mumford—does seem to pay more service to the dead. It is a place for the living to go and to learn and to remember, but it also seems to be about honoring the dead. Those who, to much of the world, were invisible.