Memorial

In the conversation between Cedric Price and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the two touch on the issue of labeling works, referencing a specific exhibit by Price in which the usual blurbs in an exhibit were replaced by expressive symbols like a man with an umbrella or a metronome. This gets at the essential questions of legibility. What makes a piece legible? The work itself? The label next to it? The space it is in? The symbol idea is a charming compromise between the conflicting urges of the viewer to be simultaneously told what to think and to puzzle it out for themselves. It provides a point of reference between the work and the viewer, which allows for a more confident independent interpretation without throwing the game out entirely.

I thought this was a particularly interesting concept when brought up against Maya Lin’s “Making of the Memorial.” What struck me so much about this piece was how matter-of-factly and unequivocally Lin managed to be about attempting to create an apolitical monument. As though that was a simple matter, an easy answer, rather than the largest looming question. Knowing little about the Vietnam memorial myself, it seemed obvious to me that anyone attempting to create an apolitical aesthetics would run up against controversy and crisis. Particularly when their gender, race and position in the academy are read as being antagonistic to the project. It came to me as no surprise that the pro-war contingent saw the monument as disrespectful and the anti-war contingent saw her as traitor (regardless of which camp she would place herself in). The story is, if anything, a very instructive lesson in the politics of aesthetics. In the absence of content besides “mourning” and “respect” the void would of course be filled by the viewer – a political subject.

Certainly, the stakes are different in the creation of a museum exhibit and a public memorial, but Price nonetheless provides us possible a way out while Lin only laments the shameful politicization of her work. If the work does not speak eloquently on its own, if the two party interaction of viewer and piece does not produce meaning, then inserting a third, opaque if suggestive, reference point may point the way.