October 27, 2003

Memorial work

By Eric Rangus

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 involved).

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."