An angel gazes reverently toward the heavens.
His eyes may be made of stone, but they are full of emotion. The
sculptor who created the statue was talented.
The angel, along with a variety of other monuments, resides in the
Berlin Lapidarium; but don’t look for it in the "attractions"
section of any German tourist guide.
The Lapidarium is the city’s storage and salvage site for
dismantled monuments. When that fact is known, some of the stone
clutter in the background of the photograph "Discarded Angel"
takes on more meaning. The crack in his wing becomes more visible.
The photograph is the first one a viewer sees on the left wall of
the Woodruff Library’s Corridor Gallery. It serves as an introduction
to the exhibit "Memory Sites: Destruction, Loss and Transformation,"
a presentation of words and images by Angelika Bammer.
The placement of the photograph, like most everything else having
to do with the project, is symbolic. Following the angel’s
eyes upward, they appear to be fixed on the title slide of the panel
set next to it: "In the Wake of Loss."
Further down the wall are memorialized images of German soldiers.
Photographs whose dark titles—"Into the Valley of Death,"
"The God of War is Hungry"—starkly contrast with
the ordered look of the marching young men.
Mixed in is a photograph of the grave of a Jewish German soldier
who died in World War I, and a couple of views of a war memorial
in Hamburg, Germany, commemorating victims of Allied bombings in
1943. Another part of this large memorial, one that is not pictured,
honors Jewish victims of a boat accidentally sunk off the coast.
None of the 17 photographs hanging on the walls of the Corridor
Gallery tell a complete story. They are pieces. Glimpses. The full
context isn’t always there.
And that is precisely the photographer’s point.
"I’m interested in exploring the memories of difficult
pasts," said Bammer, associate professor in the Graduate Institute
of Liberal Arts (ILA). "Specifically the places and ways in
which processes of remembering are distinct from the process of
historicizing. There are things people remember about the past that
are entered into the public record, but then there are many things
that are not said. When I was a child growing up, I thought it was
simple—just a matter of telling it. It’s not, and I’m
realizing that now."
The exhibit is cosponsored by the ILA; the Program in Culture, History
and Theory; and the Center for Humanistic Inquiry (CHI). Bammer
was a CHI fellow in 2002–03, and she is quick to credit the
fellowship for giving her the time and funds to more thoroughly
work through the complex way she intends to tell her story.
"What is my story and what isn’t?" said Bammer,
who was born in Germany but moved to Canada with her parents when
she was 5. She returned to Germany as a teenager then came back
to this continent for college and has been here ever since.
"It’s not simple, because I’m German and not Jewish,"
she continued. "It has framed my entire history. My entire
life. What does this have to do with me? How far do I pull back
to tell it objectively? These are intriguing and compelling methodological
questions. How do I write this?
To help answer these questions, Bammer took lots of notes. And a
lot of pictures, too.
"Memory Sites" sprung from Bammer’s research for
a book she is writing on the creation of memory from difficult pasts.
Its working title is Memory Work: Remembering and Memorializing
Difficult Pasts. Much of it already is written, and Bammer
said she aims to have a finished product in 2004.
She began by looking at Holocaust memorials in Europe. One of the
most chilling photos in the exhibit, "Wasserberg Family Grave,"
is a closeup of a gravestone in a Jewish cemetery in Krakow, Poland—the
scrolling surname is listed seven times, all but one for people
who died in the Holocaust.
"There wasn’t a point where I decided, ‘This is
what I’m going to do,’" she said. "Sometimes
you start something and you don’t realize you are ‘working
on it’ until it suddenly gels, and that was when I decided
to visit other places."
Bammer was already in the middle of research for her book when the
terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 took place. She knew immediately that
she would have to go see Ground Zero.
"When that happened, it was already clear in my mind that I
was already interested in the specific links between an event, the
place where it happened and what different groups of people make
of them," she said.
As part of the Terrorism panel set, Bammer has included four images
from New York in the wake of the terrorist attacks. One is of the
subway, two are of a delivery boy’s bicycle turned into a
makeshift shrine for the owner and many others killed when the towers
fell, and the other of Ground Zero itself.
Over the last two years, Bammer has made several trips to the site
of the former World Trade Center, a place that fully encompasses
the themes she has been exploring. Destruction. Loss. Transition.
"The first time I took a picture of Ground Zero it was a pit,"
said Bammer, whose most recent visit was just a few weeks ago. "An
open wound. Now, it looks completely different, and I think that
coincides with the way the quality of the memory has changed.
It’s all cleaned up and white and smooth, kind of the way
a wound is when it is bandaged.
"We’ve gotten control over the chaos," she continued,
speaking specifically about Ground Zero but symbolically about many
other things. "Initially the roads that led into it were messy,
muddy and rocky. Now asphalt is down and things have stabilized.
We have taken control over the situation."
The exhibit has spawned further programming. Bammer and Cheryl Crowley,
assistant professor of Japanese language and literature, co-organized
a poetry reading in the Jones Room last week that brought together
faculty members and graduate and undergraduate students as readers.
The submitted poems all dealt with destruction or loss, grief or
transformation—somber feelings all, but ones that directly
relate to Bammer’s work just outside the door and the Hiroshima
exhibit down the hall in the Schatten Gallery (which Crowley was
The event was not a simple reading; there was a bit of a twist.
The poems first would be read in their native languages, then an
English translation would follow. The point of that is related to
the wider theme of Bammer’s work.
"When I hear a poem in Japanese about Hiroshima or [Cheryl]
hears one in German about the Holocaust, we really don’t understand
anything," Bammer said. "When we then get a rendering
in a language we do understand, like English, we understand something,
but it’s not the same as what the native is saying. There
is always something that doesn’t get communicated.
"Making an attempt to communicate as best we can the partiality
of what we understand—I know that’s what I felt about
my exhibition," she continued. "That’s the best
we can do. Ever."