Arts Week 2017: Landscape and Power

Memory Wound by Jonas Dahlberg

Memory Wound by Jonas Dahlberg

Those of us who signed up to the Landscape and Power lecture during Birkbeck Arts Week 2017 would have seen an arresting image posted on the event flyer. In the talk in Room BO3 of 43 Gordon Square we learn that this image is computer generated. It is of a proposed memorial, entitled ‘Memory Wound’, to the victims of the mass murder by Anders Breivik on the island of Utoya, Norway which formed part of a discussion by Joel McKim (Birbeck) on memorials and landscape. Swati Chattopadhyay (University of California Santa Barbara) also spoke on the cultural landscape of British Colonialism in Bengal, India. David Haney (University of Kent) discussed architecture and German landscape history.

We see how humans have shaped their cultural and political identity by way of landscape in a journey that  took us around the globe and through time. Chattopadhyay’s presentation focused on architecture in Lucknow in the 1850s, in particular Dilkusha Palace. Dilkusha was built in the 1800s as a hunting lodge in an English Baroque style. In 1857 it was the scene of an Indian uprising against the British, a battle which is now considered a precursor in the campaign for Indian independence. The building was damaged in the siege and later abandoned by the British and left to decay. Later on though, the gardens were replanted and nurtured, and visited by British residents and tourists. Lucknow is known as the city of gardens. It’s well documented by Victorian novelist Edith Cuthell in her book ‘My garden in the City of Gardens’.

David Haney’s presentation looked at the Nazi cultural landscape, strengthening territory through earth–rooted monuments. Haney discussed Hitler’s decentralization of Nazi power away from Nuremberg by building Order Castles, such as Ordensburg Vogelsang built in 1936 in Eifel (North Rhine-Westphalia). Ordensburg Vogelsang was primarily a training ground for Hitler youth but was also visited by working people at the weekend for moral edification. This masculine composition, based on a medieval fortress, appeared to meld into the landscape, as if it was hewn from a rock face, emerging from the soil. In truth, a great deal of state of the art Nazi technology was used during its construction. The building has since been erased and is referred to as a Third Reich ruin.

Birbeck’s Joel McKim observed that, overall, contemporary memorial design has shifted from objects to memory spaces in the landscape. This shift has come with a secularisation of memorials, away from monuments stretching towards the heavens with celestial themes. He cited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, designed by architect Maya Lin which has an edge to the earth, an open side.

Fresh Kills (kills is the Dutch word for stream) on Staten Island, formerly a landfill site visible from outerspace, is being restored as a public park in memory of 9/11.  The attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11 represented a direct attack on home soil, a violation of the national body. In this case this memorial must have a direct relationship to the landscape. The memorial at Fresh Kills is underway, but it’s expected to take at least 30 years before completion. Matters have been further complicated because Fresh Kills is where forensic teams are sorting through remains, including human debris, from 9/11.

In 2014, Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg’s artwork ‘Memory Wound’ was selected as the  memorial to the Utoya massacre, whereby a 3.5 metre slit is cleaved into the Sørbråten Peninsula, pointing towards Utoya . Memory Wound signifies a wound in the landscape, within nature itself in memory of the 77 people that were killed.  The memorial is sanctioned by the Norwegian government but has given rise to serious objections from the local artistic community and residents of Utoya because of its extreme nature. Survivors of the massacre and family members have mixed views towards the memorial.

The panel members were questioned about the growth of ‘trauma tourism’ and the ethics behind it during the Q and A that followed. They agreed these memorials should invoke a sense of respect for the deceased and for their suffering. At the end of this informative discussion it was highlighted that taking selfies around these memorials is entirely inappropriate.

Sonali Jayetileke is an alumna of Birkbeck’s Certificate of  Journalism, 2012 (www.fifthplinthwriters.co.uk)

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Thinking Historically: Professor Hayden White

This post was written by Madisson Brown, a PhD Candidate, Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London

In this animated lecture on 22 February, Hayden White – Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz – discussed what it means to think historically. This was part of a series of events at Birkbeck College featuring White. Blogs on the other events can be read here and here.

With the danger of oversimplifying what was a wide-ranging and entertaining lecture, White suggested two aspects needed to be considered when thinking historically: 1. Contextualising sources. 2. The process of writing. The two are inextricably linked and together they make up the historian’s craft.

The first aspect – contextualising sources – familiar to any history student who’s taken a ‘research skills’ course, or read one of the numerous books on historical methodologies. White used Saul Friedlander’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939 (2007) to demonstrate how this works in practice. White described how Friedlander opens his book with a detailed discussion of a single photograph. The image – which White displayed on screen – shows David Moffie receiving his doctorate in medicine. On his left sleeve, Moffie has a Jewish star that is inscribed with ‘Jood’ – ‘Jew’ in German.

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A defence of meta history: Hayden White Masterclass Day 3

This post was written by Guy Beckett, a research student in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology

The final day of Hayden White’s public masterclass began with a promise to “bring order to the wandering improvisation” of the previous two days. Considering ‘What’s wrong with mixing fact and fiction?’ White once more headed straight to the limits of the question, taking up the topic he and Carlo Ginzburg first debated in 1989 – how to write a history of the holocaust that rejects the closed narrative structure embedded by the Nazis (final solution). For White asking whether there are “any limits on the kinds of story that can responsibly be told” about the holocaust has become a way to consider the broadest questions about the writing of history. In the heyday of post-modernism this was a lively and crowded debate – a conference at the University of California in 1990 (collected in Probing the limits of representation, Nazism and the “final solution” (1992), edited by Saul Friedländer) brought White and Ginzburg face to face with major thinkers of the day such as Perry Anderson, Martin Jay, Dominick LaCapra and Geoffrey Hartman.

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Violence, Memory and Commemoration: Perspectives from Southern, East and Central Africa

This post was contributed by Sarah Emily Duff, who graduated with a PhD in History from Birkbeck, in March 2011. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. She writes about food, history, and culture at Tangerine and Cinnamon.

On Friday 9 December, Birkbeck hosted the latest workshop in the Societies of Southern Africa: History, Culture, and Society seminar series. The series is organised by Wayne Dooling at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Rebekah Lee from Goldsmiths, and Birkbeck’s Hilary Sapire, who chaired Friday’s session.

The seminars focus on new research, and are a space for rethinking familiar themes within the scholarship on southern Africa. I presented a paper at the first workshop held to launch the series at SOAS in December 2009. Titled ‘Identities and Imaginaries in South Africa’, the workshop considered the construction of national, regional, and raced identities in South Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since then, the series has dealt with cities, urbanisation, and the anti-apartheid struggle. Friday’s workshop, ‘Violence, Memory and Commemoration: Perspectives from Southern, East and Central Africa’, was the first to broaden its scope beyond southern Africa. Each of the four papers focused on the politics of commemoration in four African nations, and the similarities between the examples were often more striking than the differences.

The first speaker was Rachel Ibreck from the University of Limerick. Her paper, ‘The Time of Mourning: The Politics of Commemorating the Tutsi Genocide’, looked at the ways in which the official annual mourning period for the 1997 Rwandan genocide, 7 to 13 April, is used and contested by a variety of groups both within and without Rwanda. For the Rwandan state, it is an opportunity to assert his legitimacy as a stable, democratic, and orderly government. State ceremonies emphasise unity and reconciliation, even if they privilege one memory of the genocide over others. But at regional ceremonies, the week is used to instil order and discipline in the provinces. For many Hutus, particularly those who live abroad, this is a week where non-participation is an act of resistance: a refusal to buy in to official narratives of remembrance which elide the ruling party’s involvement in the genocide.

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