Category: High-level absences

At a first glance, this sculpture by Micha Ullman is textbook minimalism. It is sterile like a MacBook, and it references emptiness as has become compulsory in modern art. In fact, it represents a horrific and real absence. The panels are library shelves symbolizing the Nazi burning of 20000 books in 1933, which forecast the burning of the people. As we keep looking, our perception becomes more determinate and the absence, in Ullman’s words, “more palpable”. We shift from seeing a void in the ground, to seeing vacant panels and then a library emptied of the burned books. The shift is also moral. We move from an appreciation of an impeccably stylized void to the understanding of the terror it symbolizes. This move is what is so disturbing about this sculpture. Our knowledge of what the sculpture means is overruled by an impression of purity it invokes. There is a sense of being cheated into this inappropriate impression and an indignation that an absence so awful is represented by something so beautiful. Could it be that Ullman’s artistic freedom was too unconstrained?

Ullman remarked that his job as an artist is to frame questions. He says that “we expect [the books] but they are not there,” and it is this incongruity that makes the absence visually salient. But visual salience is not enough. Ullman makes the terror more real – and the absence emotionally salient – through a clash between the sculpture’s pristine looks and our knowledge of what actually happened. The sculpture succeeds as a memorial only through this double incongruity.

Micha Ullman’s Bibliotek Memorial in Bebelplatz Square in Berlin, 1995.