The Uses of the Past   /   Summer 2007   /    Essays

The Geography of Memory

Walking as Remembrance

Elissa Rosenberg

Pedestrian walking along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (2013). Via Wikimedia Commons.

We seem to be obsessed with memory. Memorials and museums continue to proliferate, generating heated debates over their form and meaning. The ongoing public discussion of the last several decades has altered the discourse of memory, raising new questions regarding what and why we choose to remember, how this remembering takes place—and by whom. In this essay I will look at the ways in which the form of the memorial has been challenged and transformed as a result of this changing discourse, focusing on the particular role that landscape has played in this transformation. While there has always been a longstanding relationship between the memorial and the garden, landscape has taken on new and heightened meaning in contemporary commemoration as the design of the memorial has shifted from the making of objects to the making of place.11xFrom ancient times until the modern period, the garden has operated as a memory theater through its iconographic program and underlying narrative. Whether through the use of inscriptions, statuary, or symbolic elements, the garden resonated as a repository of cultural memory to be decoded by the educated visitor. See Sébastien Marot, Sub-Urbanism and the Art of Memory (London: Architectural Association, 2003).

This essay explores the geography of memory, that is, the spatiality of history and the ways in which memory is evoked and mediated through our relationship to physical place. In the memorials discussed here, the encounter with place unfolds over time through the act of walking. Commemoration becomes physical: walking activates remembering through a visceral engagement of the body with the site. I look at the ways in which walking inscribes the body in place and how our relationship to place, in turn, instigates a particular kind of remembering grounded in the physical space of our present situation. The shift in emphasis from the visual to the haptic—to that which is rooted in physical perception and bodily experience—heightens the meaning of subjective experience. Remembering becomes an engaged, participatory activity, not a passive viewing experience, suggesting that commemoration is an ongoing process open to constant reinterpretation and revision. Memory is not an evocation of a fixed and frozen past, but a fluid process located in the present.

I focus on a single work, Passages, a memorial in Portbou, Spain, to the German philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin, which was designed by Israeli environmental artist Dani Karavan. This is hardly a conventional memorial to Benjamin’s life; the tragic circumstance of his death and its intersection with this place are the real subjects of the work. The memorial is a meditation on exile and the radical displacement effected by Nazi persecution. Karavan uses the landscape to create an intense experience of place and placelessness through the medium of walking, illustrating the complex ways in which walking can connect us to the world and become central to commemorative practice.

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