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Editor's Letter

Monument, representation, and memory

Sanghee Kim

Jan 20, 2021

To make her 1980-81 piece Monument, Susan Hiller took forty-one photographs of the memorial plaques in Postman’s Park near St Paul’s Cathedral in London. These ‘cultural artefacts’ commemorate ordinary men, women and children who died as heroes and heroines. In Hiller’s installation, audience members can sit on a bench and use a set of headphones to listen to the artist narrating the heroic act performed by each of the forty-one people and the nature of their death. By addressing the memories and wider stories of those commemorated, the audio recordings also note what is and is not represented in the plaques.

 

Monument taps into the idea of sôma, the living body, and sèma, the body as a tomb or the prison of the soul. Firstly, Hiller’s installation points to the number of years each person lived, the age that they were when they died (sôma); and secondly, it highlights the length of time their plaque has stood in Postman’s Park (sèma). The artist gives the message that the dead should be remembered and their essence, and the forgotten details of their lives, be revived.

 

 

Susan Hiller
Monument, 1980-1
41 photographs, colour, on paper, bench, tape player, headphones
4572 x 6858 mm
© Susan Hiller, courtesy of Tate, London

 

 

Offering artefacts a chance to come to life by focusing on the stories and events behind them that might have been overlooked, is, on the surface, a thoughtful gesture. But at this point, I would like to interpose the potential discrepancies between the perspective of the presenter versus those represented. Monument is described as allowing “the dead to speak to us” but is this true? Or is Hiller speaking to us about the dead? The two concepts are not at all the same.

 

Many monuments represent “heroic” events from the past. This raises the question as to who decides which events are deemed heroic, and which are the opposite. In her essay, Regarding the Pain of Others, American philosopher Susan Sontag examines these questions in the context of major historical events:

 

“One person’s ‘barbarian’ is another person’s ‘just doing what everybody else is doing.’ The question is, Whom do we wish to blame? More precisely, Whom do we believe we have the right to blame?”

- Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003

 

As Sontag expresses, deciding whose “barbarianism” should be blamed, and whose heroism should be commemorated, is a decision that carries great responsibility. Especially in examples such as war, these labels have the power to influence collective trauma and write histories belonging to many. As demonstrated in Hiller’s artwork, monuments use image and language to represent people or events, whether it is to blame or commemorate. The decision as to who and what to remember is not only subjective but made by a handful of people – by the artist who decides what images to use and how to present it, and audience who has access to the artwork and decides to interpreter in a certain way. 

 

To lead in the process of representation is to produce memories about a subject or a group of people. Most of us are probably aware of the story of Pocahontas through a Disney animation released in 1995. Although it achieved over $300 million at the box office and two Academy Awards, the film also received heavy criticism for distorting the past and disrespecting Pocahontas’ descendants the Powhatan Nation, who were not involved in the portrayal of their own history and culture.

 

 

Wife of a chief of Pomeiooc, John White, 1585-1593
Drawing on paper
26.3 x 14.9 cm
Courtesy of the British Museum
Pocahontas, Thomas Sully, 1852
Oil on canvas
91.4 x 73.7 cm
Courtesy of Virginia Museum of History and Culture

 

 

John White’s Wife of a chief of Pomeiooc, pictured with her daughter, is probably the most historically-accurate depiction of an indigenous American woman at the time of Pocahontas’ life. This drawing by an English colonial explorer must then bear much more resemblance to Pocahontas than the way she is portrayed in the Disney film, or in her portrait by Thomas Sully. While the former depicts Pocahontas in the same convention as all female Disney heroines, the latter is one of the most copied and yet most Westernised paintings of Pocahontas. The contrast in representation is extreme.

 

The desire to represent an individual or a group of people in a less-exposed or even idealised manner might come from compassion, but it is crucial to examine the methodologies behind this. Attempting to ‘beautify’ a subject via a select set of standards is a misrepresentation. Even, as Hiller points out, to memorialise only certain parts of a person’s life can be a misrepresentation. The ethics of representation must always be scrutinized and this is especially pertinent when developing long-lasting media such as memorials, or that which can enter into a transaction - like a film, a painting, or any artwork. With this in mind, we must ensure that we think critically when creating or, like Hiller’s audience, receiving representations - as when memory becomes part of a commercial product, another layer of value is added to the transaction.

 


 

To respond to Editor’s Letter, please write to magazine@eazel.net.

 

Suggested further reading:

 

Information about Susan Hiller’s Monument, a part of the Tate collection.

Keywords: monument, memory, representation, artefacts.

 

Further reading on Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag.

 

Further reading on the concept of sôma and sèma.

 

A timeline of the Indigenous oral history of Pocahontas produced by The Humanity Archive.