Monuments are Vehicles of Meaning. Elizabeth Sikiaridi and Frans Vogelaar research how to negotiate monuments’ narratives and how to bring criticism.
Elizabeth Sikiaridi and Frans Vogelaar: In recent years we have developed several projects for the reinterpretation and transformation of historically loaded and controversial monuments, cultural and memory sites: from the “Humboldt Jungle” and “Humboldt Vulkan” projects for the transformation and appropriation of the Berlin Humboldt Forum to the unfolding of the traumatic multilayered dimensions of the landscape at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). In the context of the “DMZpace” project, we also organize an exchange between Korean nature conservation, art and cultural experts and the initiators of the “European Green Belt” project, which runs across Europe along the entire former “Iron Curtain”.
With our work we aim at cultural innovation, at developing ideas that contribute to positive societal and environmental change. Our working method is interdisciplinary. This allows us to come up with unexpected artistic solutions that enable us to interpret and develop spaces in new unexpected ways. We have repeatedly experienced that in controversial situations creativity can help to deal with conflict landscapes and break through the negotiation stasis.
We are currently witnessing a surge of iconoclastic actions against monuments and symbols glorifying controversial, exploitative, and unresolved history worldwide. Responses range from fears that damaging such statues poses a threat to the collective memory itself, to outrage that these actions are too little, too late when confronted with the magnitude of suffering that systemic oppression and exploitation have been inflicting for centuries. It is therefore most urgent to develop inclusive community tools and methods to reckon with unresolved historical wounds and controversial past.
Monuments carry and symbolize past history in a tangible way, even if this past is unresolved and controversial. Monuments are therefore vehicles of meaning that influence the public negotiation of narratives. There are many approaches to convert a monument into a memorial by placing it in a new context, for example with the help of temporary interventions that accompany and support the unfolding of enlightenment, reckoning and processing and with the help of counter-monuments.
In this vein, we have been been devising innovative, participatory methods that support collective memory-making and processing without physically touching the monuments involved. With such tools it is possible to deal with monuments and heritage sites of different sizes and types, even on the scale of a city or a landscape.
The “Voiced Space” project researches Rotterdam’s and Amsterdam’s post-colonial traces – and how these have been integrated in the city’s quotidian experience. The urban landscape is analyzed in the light of its historical relationships with former colonies: when reading the city, which relations and voices are prioritized and which are excluded? Such a discourse is only underrepresented in architecture, urban planning and landscape studies.
The Amsterdam canal houses and waterways are rarely seen as a result and as a necessary infrastructure for maintaining colonial relationships. When researching western metropolises, the architectural discourse mostly lacks a more global perspective, i.e. reading the urban landscape in the context of international interactions that include (post) colonial relationships.
Another example is the icon of Dutch modernism and Unesco World Heritage, the Rotterdam Van Nelle factory for processing the traditional colonial goods coffee, tea and tobacco. The colonial and post-colonial heritage of the city can be investigated with the colonial goods tobacco as a “filter” – and also to what extent this still shapes the current conditions of urban segregation.
“Valle de los Caídos”, the large Franconian monument close to Madrid, encompasses an entire landscape. The megalomaniac complex is a mass grave with the remains of over 33,000 fallen from both sides of the conflict, that were moved there from mass graves across the country. The “Valley of the Fallen” was partly built by forced labour by republican political prisoners who carved a 260 meters long underground basilica out of the granite rock.
It is the most controversial active monument in the world since the Benedictine monks said the mass every day – in Franco’s honour and at his grave, until Fraco’s exhumation last October. To date, visitors to the “Valley of the Fallen”, which continues to function as a tourist destination, have no information about its complex, painful history.
In 2018 we organized a first interdisciplinary workshop with international and Spanish participants, with artists, architects, landscape architects, curators, ethnologists, (forensic) archaeologists, historians, political scientists, psychoanalysts, specialists in digital technology and other experts.
The workshop derived its potential from an ‘outsiders’ approach, bringing new perspectives to an indissoluble conflict situation – a method that has proven to be helpful also in other historical cases. During the workshop we analyzed the surrounding landscape and developed proposals for viewpoints and paths and that help unfold the holistic historical context of the site. At the same time, we developed ideas and concepts for the conversion of the Valley into a Research Center and a Global Peace Center, partly with the help of temporary art projects.
The project was very well received both in Spain and internationally, particularly the strategy of transforming the monument without first transforming it physically. We are currently developing a prototype for an “Augmented Reality” application, in which real and virtual worlds merge, with which visitors can on site explore the hidden layers of the complex, controversial history of the monument.
This would make visible what Franco tried to hide here, in order to break through the monument’s totalitarian narrative and transform it into a polyphonic memorial. Experiencing the invisible layers of the place could help pave the way from recognition to reconciliation.