Saturday, June 13, 2009

Monumentalizing Opacity

Following up on the previous post about the bear violence memorial in my town, I had a couple more comments to make hoping to elucidate its meaning and the utility of critical animal studies for everyday life.

First, what went unspoken in the previous post was the very opacity of the memorial. In this area there is no shortage of Civil War commemorations at otherwise unremarkable junctures of sidewalk, memorializing otherwise deservedly forgotten events in very forgettable detail (My god, a few miles east of this sign Turner Ashby fell! Open the google browser on your iPhone, honey!). Close by the bear memorial is a miniature (less than quarter mile) kiddy train circuit with a posted history worthy of Livy.

In contrast, it was only by serendipity that I gained the slightest insight into the meaning of this memorial. While pointedly unusual in its design and content it is also obscurantist concerning the reasons for those decisions. So, for the makers of this structure it is important that it is both 1) eye-catching, extensive, alluring by its impenetrability and 2) unexplained, whimsical, mysterious.

The memorial draws spectators in through the promise of meaning (by its spectacularity) but then rebuffs them. You get very little out of viewing it, only a vague pathos that someone died—and this sense is undercut by the conjoined but meaningless spectacles of the wire bears (so…he really liked bears?).

In line with my previous remarks, I see this opacity as a political decision. And, I must say, I don’t see it as an entirely negative decision. On one hand, the animal is a figure consistently construed as aesthetically ambivalent for the sake of masking real determinations of animals as meat, labor, spectacle, etc., and this structure partakes of that economy. On the other hand, I think in this case the meaninglessness of the monument directs the viewer to social reality to make sense of it. One can’t ask the bears what happened, but one might have to confront the existence of history to understand this memorial.

Now is one of the saddest times to talk about Holocaust memorials, but what if there was just a gigantic rock in the ground in Chicago forcing one to ask, “what the hell is this?” There is a real answer, and one would learn it through social interaction with persons partisan to spreading knowledge of the event. It is only by chance that I learned about the history of the bear statuary. Inevitably it is the fate of any monument to mark only the loss of memory about its origin. In the case of animals it is rare to find any enduring trace of their erasure, but I think in this case there is resistance from the domain of the aesthetic in presenting a strange and morbid object that demands we engage our history.

I meant to say more but that went on for awhile and it got late. Tomorrow I'll write something about the relation of this static monument to the other parts of the park contextualizing it, especially the duck pond (which seems like an innocent enough place but is quite weird).