By Stephanie Bailey and Mark Woytiuk
When a gravel parking lot was built on a watershed in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 2013, a flock of geese were forced to seek sustenance elsewhere. They moved on to nearby Thornton Park and nested in the national women's monument, Marker of Change. Here a 300-foot circular lawn, circumscribed by fourteen pink granite benches, commemorates each victim of the 1989 École Polytechnique shooting in which a gunman in Montreal murdered fourteen female engineering students. Each bench is marked with a textured, oval depression where water naturally collects. These collection pools are as much a yonic emblem as they are a symbol for tears. An inscription dedicates the monument to “all women who have been murdered by men.” The message is lost on the birds. They made the space their home and the benches have been covered in goose excrement ever since.
In 2015, the derelict state of the monument became a popular subject in local news, highlighting the limitations of monument-building as a means of keeping memory and intention alive. The unexpected side effect of the controversy is that it gave the monument new life, allowing it to emerge (if only for a moment) from the shadowy parkscape into which so many permanent urban memorials disappear. The media attention, focused on its natural defilement, calls for a reconsideration of the aesthetics of remembrance and asks us to speculate on the possible futures of feminist memorials.
Feminist modes of commemoration have historically served a dual purpose: to facilitate mourning and mobilize change. In their various forms—art exhibitions, vigils, monuments, sculptures, the creation of a safe space to honour the Polytechnique victims, a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women—they are a focal point for grief and catharsis. But their impact and intent is oriented towards the future. They ask questions that persist: How do we commemorate the victims of ongoing, systemic forms of misogynistic violence? How do we begin to work against beliefs and behaviours perpetuated by colonial and patriarchal frameworks? How do we commemorate something that is not gone?
The Limits of Emblematization
In her analysis of the national Women’s Monument written in 2000, sociologist Sharon Rosenberg explains that the memorial makes use of a commonplace reading of the Polytechnique tragedy which renders the fourteen victims into symbols of universal gender oppression. Rosenberg labels this strategy “emblematization,” and notes that it proved to be a highly effective rhetorical strategy by heralding the importance of violence against women as a “social and political issue in the domain of public discussion.” (1) This political traction, however, was gained at the expense of effacing the crucial differences between various victims of patriarchal violence. For example, the monument is sited in a neighbourhood where the Indigenous community is subject to poverty and violence, particularly against women. At the time of its unveiling, the monument was severely criticized by activists working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. They argued that while the monument claims to be “for all women who have been murdered by men,” it highlights the fourteen white, middle-class victims from 4,000 km away and overlooks the residents of the neighbourhood who continue to be subject to targeted hate crimes.
According to Rosenberg, emblematic memorials foreclose “the possibility of encountering and facing the very shock of the murders.” While rhetorically effective, emblematization fails to capture the loss and grief of the murders, thereby recapitulating the systematic refusal to address the “horrors of oppression that pass as normal.” (2) Ultimately, she proclaims the need for a feminist “counter monument” that stages a “difficult return” to the original event. Unlike monuments that rely on reductive symbology, the pedagogical intent of the feminist counter monument is to provoke “uncertainty, anxiety and self interrogation” in the face of past atrocities. (3)
The Counter Monument
Rosenberg’s concept of the counter monument is based on the work of Jewish studies scholar James E. Young. In Young’s account, the conventional historical monument fails to keep memory alive because it externalizes the responsibility of remembering onto a physical site and thereby neutralizes the affective charge of the loss. One of the strongest examples of a counter monument, according to Young, is the Monument Against Fascism by Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz in Hamburg-Harburg, Germany. In 1986, they erected a 12 m aluminum pillar, plated with lead. On each corner, hung a steel-pointed stylus. A panel in installed outside of the plaza containing the monument invited visitors to add epitaphs to the monument. As more names and inscriptions were added, the column was gradually lowered into a chamber below the surface of the plaza. (4) Translated into seven languages, the text on the panel read:
By 1993 there was nothing left except for the top of the column, a square of lead now level with the plaza’s surface, which people are still invited to sign. The erasure of the monument removes the responsibility of remembrance by leaving nothing to shoulder the burden of memory except the public audience itself. As the original inscription, now integrated into the plaza, reads, “In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.” Young argues that the goal of the vanishing monument is a contradictory one.
Alternative Modes of Commemoration
Young’s counter monument offers a launching off point to start thinking of feminist alternatives to modes of remembrance that resort to emblematization. Rather than solely appealing to the viewer’s sense of reason through symbology, the counter monument seeks to forge a relationship with the viewer through their participation. In turn, it has the potential to break through on an emotional level and elicit compassion, empathy, and, ultimately, action.
Walking with our Sisters, a touring memorial and art installation does just that. In honour and remembrance of the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada—a number that increases daily—the project offers a critical perspective on the practice of remembrance and ethics.
Almost 2,000 individual sets of moccasin vamps (the part of the moccasin that sits on top of the foot), each dedicated to a victim of the ongoing genocide, were stitched and beaded by the hands of affected family members, friends, or allies. (7)
The moccasin vamps intimate two things: the absent moccasin to which the vamp is conventionally attached, and the craftsmanship and design of each maker. The vamps are simultaneously a heuristic that explores corporeal loss and a marker for collective engagement. The absence of the completed moccasin insinuates the missing body while the unfinished work serves as homage to a life cut short. Project organizer, Christi Belcourt, explains that the “whole thing is ceremony,” suggesting that the stitching of the vamps, the installation of the work, and its perception by viewers all constitute a consolidated act of community engagement and focused empathy. (8)
If the Shalev-Gerz and Gerz monument emphasizes event and catharsis as important aspects of social change and awareness, Walking with our Sisters uses communal craft and design as a tool to express care and empathy for the deceased. The act of making is configured as a catalyst for individualized, personal responses to widespread socially entrenched issues. In this respect, Belcourt’s installation exceeds the limits of emblematization and aligns with the counter monument.
Conceptual artist Agnes Denes employs a similar approach. Her land-based work—though not explicitly engaged in the politics of memorialization—explores the relationship between place, time, and politics through ecological intervention and cultivation.
Wheatfield – A Confrontation, perhaps Denes’ most famous work, involved the planting and harvesting of a field of wheat in a vacant lot in downtown Manhattan, located two blocks from Wall Street and the World Trade Center. Performed by artists and volunteers, the 1982 project drew attention to issues of waste, world hunger, and ecological crisis. The harvested grain was sent around the world as part of The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger, and the seeds were sent home with the people who had planted them. The well-known images of the artist immersed in a golden field of wheat with the towers of Wall Street looming in the background are now a touchstone for feminist art. In comparison to the quintessential land-art works of the time, such as Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969–70) or Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), which manipulate the landscape for graphic effect, Denes’ work emphasizes the generative organic potential of the landscape and a community. (9)
Wheatfield visibly places agricultural care against a backdrop of male-dominated capitalist exploitation as a kind of counter monument for world hunger. Instead of buttressing memory against the ravages of time, the monument could instead be an artifact that evolves and grows from its point of origin through collective efforts. It is important that Denes’ work implicates community involvement and ecological intervention in an aesthetic process because it is the act of social engagement that facilitates both mourning and social change.
In this respect the geese in Thornton Park might help to reinvent Vancouver's Marker of Change by forcing it not to remain fixed. Again, in the words of Young, the point of the counter monument is “not to remain pristine but to invite its own violation and desanctification.” (10) By defecating on the monument and soiling its symbolic purity, the birds force us to continually clean up their mess, and in the process, they remind us of what the monument stands for. This might be enough to instigate seasonal and small increments of social change. But the geese are not part of the monument, nor are they an element of what we conventionally understand as built-space. They are uncontrollable, willful agents of change that cannot, or will not, take note of the perfectly tuned symbolism of our monuments.
Not unlike ourselves.
(1) Sharon Rosenberg, “Standing in a Circle of Stone,” in Between Hope and Despair, Pedagogy and the Remembrance of Historical Trauma, ed. Roger I. Simon, Sharon Rosenberg, Claudia Eppert (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 76.
(2) Ibid., 77.
(3) Ibid., 84.
(4) Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz, The Monument Against Fascism, 1986, permanent installation, Hamburg-Harburg, Germany, accessed December 08, 2017, www.shalev-gerz.net.
(5) Text from The Monument Against Fascism, courtesy of the artist.
(6) James Young, “The Counter-Monument: Memory Against Itself in Germany Today,” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 2 (Winter, 1992): 277.
(7) Walking with Our Sisters, 2012–ongoing, touring exhibition, Canada, accessed December 08 2017, http://walkingwithoursisters.ca/events/2017-2/halifax/.
(8) Christi Belcourt, interview by Rebeka Tabobondung, Muskrat Magazine, last modified March 14, 2014, accessed September 16, 2017, http://muskratmagazine.com/interview-with-metis-artist-christi-belcourt-on-walking-with-our-sisters/.
(9) Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, 1982, Battery Park landfill, Manhattan, New York, accessed December 08 2017, www.agnesdenesstudio.com.
(10) James Young, “The Counter-Monument: Memory Against Itself in Germany Today,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 18, no. 2 (Winter, 1992): 277.
Mark Woytiuk is an intern architect working in Vancouver, BC and Stephanie Bailey is writer, researcher, and editor working in Edmonton, AB. Our partnership is based on the meandering weave of bifurcating paths and a refusal to submit to irreconcilable differences.