Walking around Princeton’s campus, we pass numerous large-scale sculptures on a daily basis. These artworks are convenient for becoming an impromptu playground for visiting or a striking backdrop for your Houseparties photos. If you’re like me, at least, you probably don’t stop to consider either the motivation behind these sculptures or the purpose that their presence serves. If we take a minute to do that, though, we might realize that such pieces – like art in general – do not serve only an aesthetic purpose but aim to provoke some other type of reaction in its viewer.
This concept of the viewer’s response struck me as particularly important on my visit to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany. The Holocaust memorial is in the middle of the city and takes an abstract rather than a literal approach in capturing the event that it commemorates. The site houses 2,711 concrete pillars of varying heights, arranged in a grid pattern on uneven ground. Walking through the crisscrossing pathways within the grid creates the sensation of being enclosed in a concrete tunnel. The ground level sinks down as the pillars simultaneously grow, meaning that you – the wanderer – gain the sensation of becoming further and further removed from the light above.
That description of my experience with the memorial sounds somewhat bleak, which isn’t surprising given its historical referent. My somber experience in the grid, however, does not seem to be representative of all of its visitors. Around me, some people raced through the grid playing a variant of hide-and-go-seek. Others climbed on top of the pillars and leaped from slab to slab while still other visitors stopped for a quick selfie.
I’ll admit that I was slightly appalled that the people surrounding me found this behavior to be appropriate for the site they were visiting. I reconsidered this position slightly when my group’s tour guide mentioned that the relationship of visitors to the memorial was actually a point of significant discussion, given its central placement in the city and the lack of any official signage indicating the place’s significance. These factors do leave a significant amount of room for variation in the interpretation and reactions of the memorial’s visitors. There’s nothing to tell people the “right” way of responding to the memorial, which I appreciate since I don’t think that there is any one right way to discover and interact with art. The special purpose that memorials serve guide people toward a certain type of reaction, but that doesn’t mean that everyone must feel a specific and exact kind of sadness and remorse after visiting a memorial. Each visitor approaches the piece as an individual and, hopefully, will depart with an interpretation reflective of his or her own genuine engagement with the piece.