Art, Memory and Truth

The theme of this issue of ESPACE art actuel is “Monuments/Counter-Monuments.” The monument is not a new concept; the notion emerged with the awareness of history.1 With its roots in the Latin monumentum, which signifies “that which serves as a reminder,” the monument is an object of commemoration. Its presence draws our attention to what once was, ultimately making us more mindful of the future and subtly evoking a duty of remembrance. But has this commemorative design lost its significance? Does the duty to remember depend upon building a permanent monument? A monument, especially when it evokes an event from the distant past, whether funerary or commemorative, is simply put on display. It exists for the purposes of official celebration, which circumvents the efforts required in the true act of remembering – particularly as monuments create the illusion of a collective memory.

Although visual artists at times created memorial projects in the past, they generally have ceased to do so since the mid-1900s. The idea of the counter-monument developed at the end of the last century in an attempt to answer certain concerns regarding the monument’s opressiveness and its xed nature. James E. Young believes it is important that the counter-monument rejects and renegotiates the traditional forms and purposes of commemoration.2 Recognizing the di culties in commemorating the Holocaust, young German artists, notably husband and wife Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz, considered ways of reimagining this concept. In essence, the intention of the counter-monument primarily is to interact with what the monument symbolically displays in its relation to historical memory. It opens our eyes to di erent versions of reality, thereby broadening our view of the past. In other words, the counter-monument challenges a belief or an event rather than reafirms its value. This nature of opposition is not purely negative: by proposing an alternative vision of historical reality, the counter-monument engages in a dialogue with history and the so-called truth it presents to the mind and eye.

Following Young’s research, Quentin Stevens, Karen A. Franck and Ruth Fazakerley, cited in this issue, identified two types of counter-monuments.3 The first reverses the strategies of conventional monuments in subject, form, site, intended effect and meaning. The second is defined as forming a critical response to an existing monument. This establishes a spatial, thematic or experiential contrast with the latter, creating a dialogue in which neither the original work nor the new one can be thought of as separate entities. The texts in this issue encompass both perspectives and provide, as best as possible, an accurate portrait of these new facets of commemoration within our collective history.

Quentin Stevens examines various memorials that seek a dialogic exchange with other monuments in order to challenge national identity. Mélanie Boucher, co-editor of this issue, analyses specific examples of Romanian-born artist Alexandra Pirici’s performance art. Boucher demonstrates how Pirici’s Soft Power. Sculptural Additions to Petersburg Monuments questions elaborate monumental aesthetics while being quite di erent from performances held for tourists. Nadine Blumer discusses the importance of Berlin’s Kai Dikhas gallery, whose mandate is to exhibit the work of contemporary Roma artists; the gallery itself is not far from the site of Germany’s o official memorial commemorating the Roma genocide. Bérénice Freytag’s article focuses on the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes. Inaugurated in 2011, the memorial attempts to reinvent the dialogic relationship between the viewer and the work. Vincent Marquis writes about artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s new model of monumental space, looking primarily at his 2013 work Monument Gramsci. Lastly, we asked Bulgarian-born artist Pavel Pavlov to take us on “an optical tour,” one that he begins at the Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia.

Like many other former Eastern Bloc states, Bulgaria has undergone immense hardships. Monuments dedicated to the victims of communism can be found in a number of countries that experienced Soviet repression. The announcement of plans for a similar memorial on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, however, received a decidedly lukewarm welcome. In this issue’s “Public Art and Urban Practices” section, Nathalie Casemajor o ffers an overview of the lead-up to the Memorial to the Victims of Communism project, which initially was scheduled to be completed in October 2015, but at present remains pending. Casemajor argues that the former Stephen Harper-led government instrumentalized the initiative. News of the monument’s construction brought together a group of artists, university researchers, philosophers, art historians and curators who attempted to provide a response to the project, their goal being essentially to interrogate interpretation of the monument’s history and to create a space for discussion, regarding the act of commemoration.4 A call to artists for proposals was quickly drawn up with a view to organizing an exhibition that would present a new perspective on the memorial project and its ideological exploitation.5

Presented at Axe Néo7, an artist-run centre in Gatineau, and entitled Monument to the Victims of Liberty, the exhibition featured fifteen artists.6 Among the works shown were Clément de Gaulejac’s posters and Edith Brunette and Projet EVA’s models for counter-monuments. One of Steve Giasson’s three contributions consisted of a plaque commemorating an effegy of Stalin, which was accompanied by a video superimposing a news piece on Lenin over a clip from Disney’s Snow White. Artist Frank Shebageget presented a mural inscribed with the names of Inuit and Métis communities currently in the process of reappropriating their culture. Nearby, Michel de Broin’s sculpture criticized the ideological reductionism of a complex world in which one billion rearms exist in free circulation, while Sheena Hoszko’s reproduction of a jail cell in the manner of a mausoleum served to denounce prison conditions. Nicolas Rivard assembled an exhaustive list of actions taken by the Harper government that went against the rights and freedoms of Canadian citizens, and Étienne Tremblay-Tardif offered an audio loop condemning the web of influence woven by various bodies of economic and political power behind the Memorial to the Victims of Communism.

I will conclude this preamble with a reminder that counter-monuments, at their earliest stage, often relied on invisibility. They rejected monumental pretensions – those that, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, hold back the development of a liberating relationship with what used to be.7 Those that, contrary to the modern cult of the monument, aim to cast new light upon our connections with the past in order to invent, if possible, the future.

Translated by Michelle Wong


  1. Régis Debray, “Trace, forme ou message” in Les cahiers de médiologie, 1999/1, no. 7, p. 28.
  2. James E. Young, “The Counter-Monument: Memory Against Itself in Germany Today,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 18, no. 2 (Winter 1992), p. 267-296.
  3. Quentin Stevens, Karen A. Franck and Ruth Fazakerley, “The Anti-monumental and the Dialogic,” The Journal of Architecture, vol. 17, no. 6 (2012), p. 951-972.
  4. Nathalie Casemajor, as well as three members of ESPACE art actuel editorial committee (Mélanie Boucher, André-Louis Paré and Bernard Schütze), belong to Entrepreneurs du Commun, a collective that includes Érik Bordeleau, Michel de Broin, Grégory Chatonsky, François Lemieux, Michael Nardonne, Jean-Michel Ross and Stefan St-Laurent.
  5. See Marie-Ève Charron’s article “Le contre-monument qui viendra hanter Harper,” published in Le Devoir, Montréal, November 12, 2014.
  6. Held from September 28 to October 17, the exhibition presented works by Edith Brunette, Michel de Broin, Emmanuel Galland, Clément De Gaulejac, Steve Giasson, Milutin Gubash, Sheena Hoszko, Thierry Marceau, Projet EVA (Simon Laroche and Étienne Grenier), Nicolas Rivard, Frank Shebageget, Dominique Sirois, Étienne Tremblay-Tardif, Anne Marie Trépanier and Alexandre Piral.
  7. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, Peter Preuss trans. & intro, Indianapolis, Hackett Pub. Co. 1980, 64 p.