The Grammar of Amsterdam’s Homomonument

by J. Streker

The “grammar” of display, as discussed by Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich, is not limited to museums.  The presentation of this grammar is not limited to curators, and the reception is not limited to discrete visitors who make the choice to enter a museum.  Rather the grammar of display can also be applied to public monuments and memorials that are erected by local governments and received by all people in a city that walk by it.  The inclusion of monuments and memorials in the everyday bring up a unique set of questions about public memory, the and the reception thereof.   After a little discussion on museum grammar, and public memory, I will continue and deepen my analysis of the Homomonumnet that I started in my initial blog post.  I was so affected by this monument that I really want to delve deeper into its grammar and how it fits into its surroundings.

A museum’s or monument’s grvammar is its language of display.  How does it choose to portray its information? Grammar is the structure of a language, so a place’s grammar is how it structures information, and how that structure influences the transmission and reception of said information.  To use a local museum that is hopefully familiar to the class I will briefly discuss the National Gallery of Art’s grammar.  I have not been to any of the museums in Amsterdam, so unfortunately, I can’t speak on those.  The National Gallery of Art is split into two buildings,

The East and West wing.  This physical structure literally splits art history into two categories, traditional and modern (W and E respectively), with no overlap.  Inside the grammar is as different as on the outside. Where in the east wing everything is displayed in the white cube, a point of modernity, in the West wing Dutch paintings are portrayed in wood paneled rooms, Italian paintings are portrayed in architectural niches, a bit of the while cube remains but the overall structure varies, presenting each group section in a unique light.  This grammar or structure reinforces the teleology of the art history canon, that everything was leading to the next thing with the pinnacle being modernism and America making a stance in the art world.  The old stuff is displayed traditionally, and the new stuff is displayed in a sleek building as modern as its works.  For the American National Gallery of Art this is a strong stance to make in general, but to make in its display of art is uniquely powerful, as it allows Americans and foreigners to see the contributions America has made to art, when often that is pushed to the side.

On the other hand, a monument or memorial is not always presenting multiple images and the grammar is not spread throughout a whole building making the structure more intricate and diverse.  This does not mean that they lack grammar though, just that we have to look outside the discrete monument and into the rest of the world to see how it is presented differently, or similarly, to the area around it and to other monuments.

Before I go any further and begin introducing examples, I would like to talk a little bit about public memory.  Public memory is strongly influenced by the thought of a time.  The Van Heutz Monument in Amsterdam was a powerful memory of Dutch colonial strength, until public thought began to shift against colonialism.  Some monuments will hopefully remain forever, for example the National Holocaust Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to use examples from Amsterdam and DC, as these are causes and memorials that everyone can support.  But not all monuments have this pleasure, and Van Heutz Monument, and Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, experiences. These are two great examples of how monuments reflect the time, and times change, and we need to be okay with that.

The Homomonument* struck me when I first started looking online at monuments and memorials in Amsterdam.  I have never seen, or heard of, another memorial to this section of the European population prosecuted and murdered by the National Socialists.  In most cases the social and ethnic minorities that were targeted, other than the Jewish people, are glanced over in discussion of the atrocities of the Third Reich.  To see a fairly large scale monument to a community that still lives on the outskirts of society was refreshing and hopeful (though as I write this on Pride weekend in Washington D.C. I am also aware of how far the LGBTQIA population has come in terms of rights and visibility).  The grammar of the Homomonument is also unique in its subtlety, don’t get me wrong it makes a statement and demands to be seen, but it has as much if not more softness than it does boldness.

In terms of the site-specific grammar of the Homomonument, it is built to blend in and stand out along a canal is Westermarkt.  Three medium sized equilateral pink triangles are positioned to for the three corners of a larger triangle.  The pink triangle was the identifier used by the National Socialists and the gay community was forced to stitch them onto clothing similar to the yellow star of David the Jewish population infamously were forced to wear.  One corner of the larger triangle juts out into the canal at a perpendicular angle.  In a distinct act of defiance to its larger setting the monument is making itself known to anyone on the opposite side of the canal or the bridge what appears to be about 100 feet away.  This same pink triangle while making a bold statement against the canal also adapts itself to its situation.  There is a short set of stairs built into the triangle that leads down to the water so that the tip descends toward the water but floats above it.  Also, it seems that the canal makes a slight bend where this triangle is positioned, and the stair case is angled with this bend integrating the foreign shape better with its placement.  What this does to the grammar is it softens the bite of the triangle jutting into the canal.  The monument does not need to soften this, the community deserves to make their statement, their plight deserves, no, needs to be remembered but the subtle integration into the bend of the canal makes the structure not as harsh and more welcoming, and a little less bitter (for lack of a better word).

One of the other triangles is positioned level with the ground in the square.  This appears, from the photographs, that this is the only of the mediums triangles to have inscribed writing on it.**  I have, unfortunately, not been able to find what it says.  The smooth pink stone does make a stark contrast to the cobblestones that make up the rest of the ground of the square.  The new material is a grammatical choice to introduce something new.  The presentation and display is smoother, it is interrupting the norm without breaking it.  And the writing helps establish this otherwise easily looked over triangle as something more than a design quirk, and as a public memorial.

This triangle, however, the most reminds me of the reception of the Stolpersteine project in Germany, and greater Europe.  As a quick introduction to the Stolpersteine project, it is a self-defined “art project that commemorates the victims of National Socialism.”  This project commemorates victims by placing brass cobblestone-like plaques in front of the victims last known address (Stolpersteine – English version).  I specifically say cobblestone-like because the word Stolperstein (singular form of Stolpersteine) actually translates into stumbling block.  The idea behind this name is that the people walking by on the streets of Cologne (or any of the many cities they are in) could mentally or physically stumble on these art objects when encountering them in the everyday causing them to reflect on their direct local history and the reinforcing the tragedy of the Holocaust.  The grammar of this display also reinforces that the victims of the Holocaust were everywhere, in every neighborhood, and normal people.  Instead of having one large memorial, the many mini Stolperstein memorials proliferate the remembrance into the everyday experience of Germans/Dutch/Austrians etc.  While grand and beautiful in thought, the Stolpersteine project has its fair share of critics too. These critiques mostly come in the placement of the mini memorials on the ground.  This placement, while great to extend the memorials to the everyday, they are also susceptible to being stepped constantly.  The critics state that this replicates and duplicates the abuse suffered by the victims.  Critics also argue that the subtlety of the mini-memorials in the everyday minimizes their impact because they become too much of the everyday that they are looked over by people.

This argument is really where the genius of the Homomonument comes in.  It perfectly balances bleeding into the everyday with standing out.  This singular part of the whole may seem more subtle, but you’re going to notice when you step off cobblestone and onto limestone(?), then you’ll look down and see the words and notice you are in an important place.  Not only does this triangle balance this, but it is only part of a larger whole, and the rest of the monument makes a stronger statement in the space.  One of the other thirds has already been discussed, and now the final third remains.

The last of the three triangles in the Homomonument protrudes from the ground and provides a flat surface for sit and rest on.  Though this may not be the original intent that is what it does and is a distinct part of the monuments grammar.  This triangle bursts from the ground and impedes any passersby, literally forcing them to face it and see that it’s there.

The Homomonument is unique in not only its acceptance of the historical pink triangles, but its inclusion into the design.  The Star of David is a symbol of the Jewish culture so it’s proliferation in Jewish monuments is normal, but not often do you see the yellow star that marred the Holocaust.  The implication of taking back a symbol so integral in their persecution and its usage in a monument shows the communities ability to face and overcome their past.  Four visual versions (3 medium and the combined large), sit in Amsterdam every day and reminds everyone that walks through that square or across the canal of the atrocities committed to the homosexual community.  They can’t forget it because it plays such a large role in their neighborhood.  It blends in, it stands out, it is not only a memorial to the persecuted homosexuals but a monument to the homosexual population of today.  Celebrating everyone in the LGBTQIA population and symbolic of all the personalities in that community and how there is no one way to make a statement, and no one way to fit into an area.

 

 

*As Professor Trout pointed out in a comment on my initial post, the term homosexual and “homo” in Dutch are not seen as derogatory as they can be in English.  Living in Germany last year one of my bosses clearly referred to himself and identified as Homosexual as that is just the terminology used.

**I would like to visit this monument as a class to see if my observations are correct, and as part of our discussion while in Amsterdam.

 

All analysis is based off of online photographs as I have not visited this monument in person.

 

References:

Hansen-Glucklich, Jennifer. “The Artful Eye: Learning to See and Perceive Otherwise inside Museum Exhibits.” Museums and the Challenges of Representation. Rutgers University Press. 2014.

Middelkoop, Louis and Matthew Pesko. “Symbolic Objects of Dutch Colonial History in Amsterdam: Monuments, Streets and Other Structures.” Humanity in Action, 2008.

Kuper, Simon, Ajax: The Dutch, The War – The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour (2012

Stolpersteine – english version. N.p., n.d.

 

Image:

I Amsterdam.  http://www.iamsterdam.com/en/visiting/whats-on/gayamsterdam/areas/homomonument

 

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