Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Buffering the Dead

Last night, Ellen and I attended a fascinating lecture by the always marvelous Ed Linenthal on War and Remembrance, taking place on the 69th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Ed discussed, among many things, the transformations that the hexagonal Hall of Remembrance structure at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington D.C. underwent, from its original design by James Ingo Fried. The original design had envisioned a larger structure, encased in red brick, consistent with evocations of the Ghetto and with the red brick of the death camp evocations of the main building of the museum. This design was critiqued by the National Capital Planning Commission as too grim for a space fronting onto the National Mall; one commissioner even expressed a desire for a degree of "hope" emerging out of the Holocaust story. Thus, the Hall of Remembrance is smaller and in a lighter stone, more consistent with the alabaster tones of the nearby Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

As Ed spoke, an alternate reading of this design shift occurred to me. In addition to the avowed aim of integrating the museum into the larger American democratic narrative of redemption, progress and hope, might there have been a less conscious impulse at play? Might there have been a desire, in a sense, to protect the symbolic core of the nation from the profoundly disturbing and uncanny presence of the Dead, especially the millions of Holocaust Dead? I am reminded of the analysis of Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine by Klaus Antoni, who argues that the shrine does not simply honor or venerate the military war dead, but rather, in a profound if unarticulated sense, seeks to protect the nation of the living from the potentially wrathful influence of the unquiet, unsettled dead. Might something comparable be happening in and around the USHMM--are the Dead of the Shoah being honored, yet also be held at a safe distance, in a symbolic sense, from America's shores? Does the light-colored exterior of the Hall of Remembrance serve, in effect, as a protective buffer zone, guarding the shining City on the Hill from the darkening clouds of mass death and the Old World?

Ed also touched on the multiple iterations of the photographic image of Oklahoma City firefighter Chris Fields holding in his arms the dead or dying baby Baylee Almon, a young victim of the terrorist bombing of the Federal Building. In the weeks and months after the bombing many persons proposed memorial designs that incorporated in one way or another aspects of this endlessly reproduced image. The most intriguing and uncanny of these images Ed showed us was a sketch showing a skeleton kneeling before the fireman, arms raised as if taking the baby. In the image, if I saw it correctly, Fields is shown pushing back against the skeleton with one hand.

During the Q & A, we had a fascinating discussion of the image, which continued into the reception. My initial reading had been that drawing was a kind of raw and wounded expression of the terrifying presence of death, which was (as in the USHMM Hall of Remembrance) being buffered against-- but artist Steven Anstey thoughtfully noted that there was a quiet peacefulness to the image, that unlike the standard image of the Grim Reaper this was not an ominous rendition of death. Ellen suggested that the image paradoxically signals the ambiguous status of the baby, suspended somewhere between life and death, in a way that is reminiscent of Roland Barthes' mediation of a photograph of a condemned prisoner on the eve of his execution: "He is dead and he is going to die." Historian Roberta Wollons suggested that the image might show a sequence, first of Fields' tireless sruggling to save the baby and resist Death (pushing him away), and then the peaceful relinquishing of the baby into the domain of the Dead.

The image is rendered still more puzzling by the reported fact that the artist was filled with guilt and shame that his home state of Michigan had been a staging base for the attack. So perhaps his making of the drawing and sending it to Oklahoma City was meant as an act of expiation; this could be consistent with the readings of the image as a kind of ritual process of transformation, that the picture is a kind of sacred offering meant to ease the passage of the martyred baby from this world to the other world. I remain uncertain how to read the fact that the skeleton is shown kneeling in front of the standing fireman: is Death paying honor to the dead or dying infant and to the heroism of the Living?

1 comment:

Stephan Anstey said...

It truly was a special event. The presentation was incredible and the after-conversation will give me years of material to consider as I write, paint and draw. I really appreciated your thoughtfulness as you considered the enormity of the thoughts that spring from such a complex theme - and as you've developed them further here I imagine we're all forever changed when confronted with ideas as big and important as these.