Sunday, January 27, 2013

What's in a Name?

‘A name is the first and final marker of individual rights, one fixed part of the ever-changing human world. A name is the most basic characteristic of our human rights; no matter how poor or how rich, all living people have a name, and it is endowed with good wishes, the expectant blessings of kindness and virtue.’

Ai Weiwei

Perhaps a half-a-mile separates the Vietnam Memorial in The Mall in Washington D.C. and the memorial to the students killed by the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008. The former, by Maya Ying Lin, sits unobtrusively in the west end of the Mall, while Ai Weiwei’s installation, ‘Remembrance’, is a temporary exhibit in the Hirshhorn Museum, further east towards the Capital. Both memorials are extraordinary testimonies to the tragic loss of human life in recent decades, and both, in very distinct ways, are intensely moving. From a text technological perspective the differences are obvious and notable: the Vietnam Memorial is discreet and yet absolutely public, created from black durable granite, with sandblasted inscribed names. 

Weiwei’s monument to the crushed students is materially ephemeral: it is ink-jet printed onto smooth, matt paper and takes up an entire wall of the Hirshhorn’s first floor, placed (surely strategically) as people come up the escalator. Hardly anyone stopped to look at it. As I came up the escalator, I assumed it was a list of donors to the museum, so I didn’t bother to examine the wall more closely. There was some kind of voice in the background, but this didn’t register, either.

On the way down from the second floor, having seen Weiwei’s work, then, then I stopped to look. ‘Remembrance’ is transient and a surrogate for the ‘real’ list that resides permanently in Weiwei’s workshop. It is public and yet private—huge but indoors, utterly visible and yet easily missed. It shares this missableness with the Vietnam Memorial, though the fame and cultural relevance of the latter draw people to it. The Vietnam Memorial is permanent, monumental, reflective (and a place for reflection), where the inscriptions can be touched and literally entered into by the fingers of those searching for the traces of a loved one. The smooth polished surface of the granite reflects the park behind it and the shapes of those who pass by. In this way, viewers become part of the tragedy, if only temporarily; and the world goes on both around and within the memorial, reminding everyone of the transitory nature of life.


The Vietnam Memorial is a nationally and politically sanctioned and positioned act of commemoration, staffed by volunteers in yellow coats, and stopped at by buses full of tourists, many of whom walk the path past it, but barely stop to linger. ‘Remembrance’ is, if anything, the anti-governmental act of a political agitant: a man of profound courage and resilience, who insists through his work that the world pay attention to China and its many issues as it emerges onto the global stage. The names on his printed monument might have been easily forgotten, elided, erased. Yet here they are, in Chinese, each one listed and, importantly, supported, doubled, by an acoustic text which reads out every name, taking over three hours to individually commemorate the more than 5,000 students who died as a result of poor building standards in Sichuan province. There are no volunteers to point out the meaning or the specific name, here, but its poignancy is not diminished by its intimacy and interiority.

Both memorials use the sweep of their respective landscapes to suggest unendingness and extensity of perspective. The Vietnam Memorial with its angular centre (see photo 1) where the end of the war (1975) meets the beginning (1959) is ten feet tall at this central point, but decreases in height as it moves away in two directions. This amazing sight of the diminishing perspective enhanced by diminishing size suggests the interminable nature of man’s feuding. Weiwei’s monument seems to use the gentle curved sweep of the Hirshhorn’s rounded architecture to fade into an indefinable end. The overall effect is enhanced by the juxtaposition of the suddenness and brutality of the students’ deaths with the smoothness (efficiency of the state?) of the paper material and the monument’s positioning.

Numbers are significant. They underscore the enormity (in both its traditional and more recent meanings) of lost life. The veteran gentleman who stands at the vertex of the Vietnam Memorial answered three people’s questions--‘How many names are here?’--in the few moments that I stood close to him. I asked him what question he is asked most often. ‘How many died’, he replied. ’58,282’. This is twenty-six more names than are accounted for in the information leaflet for the Memorial. This is thus an eventful text, a fluid text. As the names of those missing-in-action, introduced by a cross, are transformed into the names of those known to have died, the cross is transformed into a diamond. Should those listed as missing-in-action ever be found alive, the cross would be surrounded by a carved circle. 

Weiwei’s eventful text is added to as the names of victims are discovered by the investigators. His looks like the clinical exercise of the registrar at a big event. The tabulated listing could be mistaken for some form of spreadsheet counting exercise, until one looks more closely and the horror of the list is revealed by its scale.

The Vietnam Memorial, meanwhile, also uses a sense of proportion to shock: the first 1959 granite panel contains the names of those lost over six years; the second panel, the names of those lost over five months; the third panel, those lost over five weeks. That visual escalation of war is shocking; the accumulation of black and white detail in Weiwei’s memorial, similarly so. Both are overwhelming.