People have built monuments and memorials since the dawn of civilization. Great people and events, feats of human accomplishment have earned a slab of marble or a chunk of bronze. Such monuments call out “this person was here, this event happened, it did, look at the inscription!” But before you get too excited and start musing over the monuments you’ll see, be forewarned, there’s a new player on the scene: monuments that memorialize Nothing. I don’t mean monuments that are non-specific or poorly designed, though there are many of those, no, I mean monuments that memorialize Nothing.
Mostly monuments to Nothing occur when things get blown up, when something is ripped catastrophically from the arms of the society around it and, without knowing what else to do, the society, as any parent, morns its loss. The event in need of memorializing has disappeared so, in all honesty, there isn’t much choice but to remember the void it left behind. One example of a Nothing memorial is the one for the Oklahoma City bombing. A beautifully manicured park, a tree that withstood the blast, and chairs, 168 chairs, each one empty, each one mourning the something that is now nothing, the someone who is now nothing, nothing but a memory. There is space, open space, wide space that could not be more removed from the enclosed environment of an office building. The building itself is well and truly gone, destroyed of course but also not rebuilt, also not represented. We are left to contemplate the space without the structure, and our lives without the people.
This is a shocking approach to monument making. In some ways it seems even more terrible than the event itself—more final but also so much more honest. Demolitions happen every day and there are no mourners. It is not the building we miss, it is the the people who have disappeared from our lives and therefore it seems only fitting to memorialize their Nothingness. This is the full stop that comes with a sudden end, it is the jump off a cliff and the space below. It is not absence, absence is something you discover when you are exploring and upon its discovery record your findings and move along. Nothing is the end, by definition. What more fitting way to memorialize loved ones lost and our very mortality than this, to print their end into the material world and in doing so, make them not “un-ended” but, instead, remembered.
Another example of a Nothing monument is the beautiful memorial to the World Trade Centers. The monument itself is nothing more, or less, than the hollowed foundations of where both buildings stood. The focus is not on the sides of the memorial over which water cascades, the focus is on the vast chasm in front of the viewer where a building once stood, where people once walked. Disturbingly the memorial itself disappears into a black hole at the bottom where all the water flows but from which nothing returns. Even the names of those who perished are carved through the metal plating around the foundation. The letters themselves are formed by nothingness. The names are not physically there, they are created by what is around them.
The memorial to the World Trade Centers in Manhattan encourages the viewer to look down, to try (hopelessly) to see to the bottom of that pit. It does not take advantage of what was probably the most prominent feature of the Twin Towers, their height. A different memorial calls up the void left in the Manhattan skyline by the bombing of the Twin Towers and it is fittingly named Empty Sky. Now here is a monument dedicated more to absence than to nothing, a monument whose conception seems born out of longing for something that is now gone. This is not to say that it is less valid, it is to say that it is heartbreaking in an altogether different way. Empty Sky is a memorial that seems to long for its companion which is nowhere to be found. The monument is not just a place for mourning, the monument is mourning, mourning the empty sky which it now must continue to look out on. The monument is the perfect incarnation of those who lost loved ones in the bombing of 9/11. Like them, it too must look out always on what it does not have and yet continue to stand, continue to look and to live, because what else is there to do?
So as you go hunt out memorials, if that’s your thing, keep an eye open for those that are to Nothing. You’ve been forewarned: they are dangerous in a way that the others aren’t. These monuments may make you feel something, they may cause you to question such things as your relationship to humanity and your own mortality. Heartbroken is an emotion I find particularly present. Nothingness doesn’t give us anything to hold onto as we look at the horrors that we as humans enact on each other. Nothingness leaves us to fend for ourselves, to search within ourselves for answers, the only answers that truly matter. Through a Nothing monument we can understand, just a little, the struggle of those who were directly affected. That is what great monuments do: bring us together, help us understand together, celebrate and mourn, together.