Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 4, 2023
Mechtild Widrich Monumental cares: Sites of history and contemporary art Rethinking Art's Histories. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2023. 256 pp. Paperback £25.00 (9781526168115)

Mechtild Widrich’s new book offers an argument and a demonstration: To engage with public art today—whether in a scholarly or a public forum—requires a “multidirectional method” attentive to how, within a single site, “multiple historical references reinforce one another and build connections” (14). Monumental Cares: Sites of History and Contemporary Art presents a significant intervention in the art history of public art that makes site-specificity its key term. The book is also a bold contribution to contemporary debates about monument activism. Widrich emphasizes that Monumental Cares is the product of both “research and public engagement” (15)—she is, amongst other public-facing activities, part of an expert committee in Austria that has called for artistic proposals to recontextualize a monument to Karl Lueger in Vienna, the city’s “anti-Semitic mayor of the late nineteenth-century” (2)—and the book effectively interweaves rigorous research with a convincing first-person position. “The task for theorists of monumentality today, as much as for monument-makers,” Widrich proposes, “is to understand how an ethics of care can meet and interact forcefully with a politics of taking responsibility” (207). At the intersection of art history and public engagement, Monumental Cares offers a number of insights into how such understanding might be cultivated and, as such, will be of interest to a wide audience, including scholars, curators, artists, and activists.

Chapter one, “The sites of history,” reassesses the art historical discourse of site-specificity, proposing the connected yet alternative model of “site multiplicity” (43). This term crystalizes a concern that traverses the book, namely, that today more than ever, every site and every audience is mediated. At the same time that she carefully attends to the materials and material conditions of specific works of public sculpture that occupy specific sites, Widrich embraces mediation—from photography to social media—as part and parcel of sculpture and site. This is an important continuation of an argument Widrich makes in her book Performative Monuments: The Rematerialization of Public Art (2014), which brilliantly elucidates how the monument—far from being a stable material object—is a “practice” that relies, as much as performance art does, on audience participation. The two books complement each other well and can be read together as a productive overview of current transdisciplinary discussions about public art, in particular as they are staged in the United States and across Europe. Both Monumental Cares and Performative Monuments engage the Historikerstreit (historians’ dispute) in the German public sphere of the 1980s and contend with the intersections of memory culture and contemporary art, exploring in unique and exciting ways how debates in postwar Austria and Germany about Holocaust commemoration and the use of public space resonate across the globe into the present, and especially in former communist countries in Eastern Europe.

Widrich develops her central concept of site multiplicity from Michael Rothberg’s reflections on “multidirectionality.” Contra tendencies in contemporary political culture to privilege particular historical events over others, Rothberg argues in Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009), that memory is not a zero-sum game. Memory is better understood as a complex process of continual collective negotiation, marked by displacement and contingency. Widrich draws the consequences of this way of thinking for public art: “the end result of multidirectional study of sites,” she proposes, “is not a deterritorial free-for-all of references or audiences, but concerted efforts to bring distinct histories and traditions into dialogue” (43). Chapter two, “Cold War in stone—and plastic,” and chapter four, “Reversing Monumentality” are devoted to case studies exemplifying this approach.

Chapter two focuses on Steinplatz, a modest city square in what was formerly West Berlin adjacent to the Berlin University of the Arts. It is the site of two understated yet, in their very proximity, contentious commemorative attempts: a memorial to the victims of Stalinism from 1951 and a memorial to the victims of National Socialism from 1953. Widrich approaches this site by reflecting on the displacement of the present, asking how each memorial stages “access to history, and in particular this traumatic history of the twentieth century, in a contemporary migration society” (60). Chapter four takes a compelling look at the “urban art geography” of Bucharest, showing how performative, ephemeral, and materially precarious practices propel the programmatic effort in Monumental Cares “to reexamine hardened lines and narratives in (post-) communist (art) history” (123). It is a pleasure to read Widrich’s fascinating analyses of Dan Perjovschi’s performances “reenacting” political violence (including Historia/Hysteria with Alexandra Pirici in 2007) and Ana Lupaș’s staggering Memorial of Cloth (1991), a work composed of more than a dozen parallel laundry lines draped in swathes of dark cloth coated heavily with asphalt.

Both Perjovschi’s and Lupaș’s works were presented in proximity to Bucharest University Square in the wake of the revolutionary protests of 1989 and the violence that ensued after the fall of Communism under Ion Iliescu’s government. Widrich interweaves her readings of these works with a demonstration of how to write a multidirectional architectural history of Bucharest’s Palace of the Parliament, known today as the House of Parliament, and colloquially as the “House of the People” (123). As “Europe’s largest structure,” the palace still stands on the University Square like a “symbol of totalitarianism” (123, 125). For Widrich, the possibility of assembling “new sites of power and resistance” is exhibited in the unassertiveness of the work of Perjovschi, Lupaș, and Pirici and consolidated in the way in which their practices occupy sites only briefly and rely on the “instabilities and limitations” of photography for their reception and perseverance (137).

Chapter three, “Materializing art geographies,” and chapter five, “Reflections,” are more capacious in their aims and approaches. Drawing on methods from the discipline of geography, and in particular feminist geographer Doreen Massey’s understanding of places as processes, chapter three considers how an array of works of contemporary art “engage in geographic thinking, debates, and critique” (105). The chapter draws attention to the geographical and geopolitical displacement at the center of certain contemporary artistic practices, including Carey Young’s Body Techniques (2007), uncanny reenactments of canonical performances by artists including VALIE EXPORT and Mierle Laderman Ukeles in airports or vast construction sites around Dubai and Sharjah, and Ai Weiwei’s F.Lotus (2016), an installation of refugees’ life vests collected from the shores of Lesbos in the large fountain in front of Vienna’s Belvedere Palace. Widrich shows how attention to the multiplicity of site activated in these works poses questions at the intersection of social and environmental activism. Such “geographical thinking” is also helpful, Widrich argues, for approaching the topographical and material complexity of commemorative landscapes. In this regard, she discusses the memorial competition for the 2011 terrorist attack on the summer camp of the Social Democratic Labor Party in Norway and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

“Reflections” turns to a stolid modernist discourse in art history, namely, the aesthetics of transparency. Widrich ponders the mediating qualities of glass in works by several artists—including Marcel Duchamp, Ana Mendieta, Catherine Opie, Monica Bonvicini—that complicate “the opposition between modernist transparency and postmodern occlusion” (162). These reflections, which may at first seem incidental to the central discussion of commemoration and care, allow Widrich to develop a concept of realism that is consequential for thinking about work that involves documentary and other modes of historical evidence. Far from offering a transparent presentation of reality, realism, Widrich argues, is transparent about the mediations that afford the very access to reality that the work of art claims to exhibit.

This conceptualization of realism segues to chapter six, “Drawing pain: political art in circulation,” and finally “Caring about monuments: a conclusion.” Chapter six is a challenging attempt to rethink Ai Weiwei’s reenactment in 2016 of “an iconic image of the global refugee crisis” (175), a photograph of a dead Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean the year before. Widrich reexamines the controversy caused by Ai’s work by relating it to Honoré Daumier’s print Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril 1834 (1834), which represents the murder of civilians, including a child, by the French National Guard. For Widrich, both Ai and Daumier are political artists whose realism is boldly trained on political violence and, most significantly, is committed to the circulation of images in public space and their commercialization. While many would have reservations about the artistic and political implications of Ai’s provocation, especially his choice to first present it in a commercial context, Widrich insists on the way in which such political art draws attention to the mediatizations and circulations that define the public sphere today.   

Throughout Monumental Cares, Widrich confronts the difficulties posed by public art that grapples with political violence, touching on polarizing contemporary concerns about migration, climate change, and state sanctioned as well as ongoing everyday violence against people across the globe. Ultimately, the book is a plaidoyer for the careful maintenance of public space through monuments and markers that help audiences—past, present, and future—to navigate the multiplicity of sites that articulate shared and multidirectional histories. Monumental Cares also makes the case for the importance of multidirectional art history, opening the field, it is to be hoped, for more to follow.

Caroline Lillian Schopp
Assistant Professor, History of Art, Johns Hopkins University