MASSACRE MEMORIALS: statement by Athena Tacha (c) 1984
from the catalogue of her one-artist show at the Max Hutchinson Gallery, New York
with an essay by Lucy Lippard, October 25 - November 17, 1984
"... The impending threat of a nuclear holocaust or the repetition of a Vietnam-like war in Central America, and, on a more personal level, my trip to India early in 1983, made me aware of human annihilation and suffering on a massive scale -- and of the urgent need to avoid it at all cost. As an artist, I can only fight and denounce human catastrophes by reviving the horror of comparable past events. At least four such instances of civilian mass extermination have occurred during my lifetime: the Jewish Holocaust of the Nazi camps (with nearly six million of defenseless people systematically killed); the instant near-total destruction of the towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the first atomic bombs; the senseless massacres during the exchange of Hindu and Moslem populations between India and Pakistan in 1947 (about one million slaughtered); and the Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia War (over half a million civilians killed in Vietnam alone). Struggling to recall these events as vividly and meaningfully as possible, I found the solution of using both photographic documentation of the period and short inscriptions of factual information, enlarged and sandblasted onto the sculptural/architectural surfaces of the memorials.
This solution allowed me, as an artist, to merge for the first time my sculpture with my conceptual art and social interests, which had been developing independently since 1970. Simultaneously, it offered new possibilities for the concept of the public memorial: a viable and timely combination of architectural sculpture with photographic images and language, which can be historically specific, deeply human, and approachable to the general public. The time element, which has always been essential in my work, can thus take a new dimension, a theatrical and narrative one -- imagined, as opposed to actual. During perambulation of the sculptural environment, the spectator can enact in her or his mind the horrible events evoked by the images and the texts. Yet, through the unconscious feedback of the peaceful forms of the sculpture, s/he could emerge, at the end of the experience, with exalted and purified emotions, very much, I hope, like the feeling of "catharsis" at the close of an ancient Greek tragedy...
The sculptural form of each memorial was inspired by some aspect of the event that particularly touched me and generated a personal symbolism. The Jewish Holocaust has the configuration of a tumulus (a traditional shape for a funeral monument) made of tightly packed curvilinear ramp-paths, like the coils of a boa constrictor -- a symbol of the Nazi regime squeezing out the life of an entire race. Punctuating the path-loops are flame-like red rocks, a reference to the crematoria, and narrow interstices of red earth evoking giant drops of blood. Six different entrances or exits follow different routes to the top, and down, with different sets of photographic narration.
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki memorial was inspired by the form of the atomic cloud (or expanding radiation), as well as by volcano eruptions and lava flows -- the only other violent events on earth that can equal or surpass nuclear explosions. The conic crater in the middle, invisible until one reaches the top, is not only a reference to bomb craters, but is also an inverted monument. All the terraces would be covered with black volcanic gravel, and the crater -- unreachable -- lined with black volcanic basalt boulders cascading towards its bottom.The India/Pakistan memorial evolved from my proposal for the Battery Park City Commercial Plaza in New York, which itself was conceived during my trip to India (when I was a finalist for the competition). Both are inspired by the angular architecture of Hindu temples, by Himalayan agricultural terracing, and by the primordial clash between the Indian and Asian tectonic plates from which the Himalayas emerged -- here symbolizing the violent clash of the two religious groups that fought each other. The column (whose section is in the shape of the top terrace, maintaining the traces of the clash) is ever-present in India -- from King Ashoka's columns, to Moslem minarets, to the lingham standing in the yoni, symbol of procreation. This memorial is dedicated to both countries, in the spirit of Gandhi's humanism, which accepted no religious, class or racial prejudices.
The Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia memorial was envisioned as a huge chasm, a desolated and split land, denuded of life. The narrative experience occurs inside the craggy valley, which is almost invisible from the outside, enveloped in a cocoon of arid, if beautiful rock cliffs, white -- the color of mourning in Vietnam -- and of a shape vaguely reminiscent of the map of Indochina. The unsettling, opposed inclinations of the valley walls are sensed most strongly at their tops, which serve as viewing terraces for the upper rows of images (with staircases and elevators inside the cliffs).
The Central America memorial is the only one dedicated to an impending massacre. Not that there have not been large numbers of civilians already killed in El Salvador and Guatemala; but these are relatively minimal in relation to what will happen if real war starts with U. S. participation. It will become another Vietnam -- and will seem worse, being closer to home. This memorial, a rectilinear network of ramps interspersed with steps, is reminiscent of Mayan ruins, such as the sites of Tikal or Copan in Central America. Fragments of a two-dimensional pattern, inspired by Mayan architectural decoration and Guatemalan embroidery, will be laid with colored tile over the ramps, while the inscriptions will be confined to the step risers.