Public monuments are reflections of civic virtues and ideals, but although we might seldom think of them in this way, they are also often a form of mnemonic technology. They are a kind of aide memoire, which like writing, relieves us of at least a part of the burden of individually and collectively remembering. And one of the paradoxes of such mnemonic technologies is that they are themselves made to be forgotten. As well as all the other reasons that one puts pen to paper, one writes at least in part, to forget an idea. And in a similar way, public monuments are built to be overlooked, half seen, and seen through, as much as they are there to be actively engaged with.
Israel has a very specific relationship with public sculpture and commemoration, which in part reflects Judaic proscriptions against idolatry, statuary, and cults of personality. David Leshem’s new book Reliquarium examines one very specific form of public monument, by documenting nearly eighty pieces of disused military hardware put on public display across Israel, in roundabouts, housing estates, parks, and outside schools.
Public monuments are built to be overlooked, half seen, and seen through, as much as they are there to be actively engaged with.
Instead of a cult of personality centred on individual heroes or leaders, Reliquarium seems to suggest that a degree of worship has been displaced onto these relics of the various battles that have been fought since 1948 to maintain Israel’s existence. The relics in question come from a staggering array of sources, including Soviet, French, Syrian, Czech, British and American weapons. Some are captured from Israel’s various wars with its Arab neighbours, others are simply redundant pieces of IDF hardware now relegated to display. They are not centrally organised, instead it usually falls to local communities to organise their erection and display. In this sense, the way they are presented has no consistency, and they represent a sort of hitherto unappreciated vernacular of Israeli public sculpture.
Leshem describes in the book how he actively avoided photographing memorials, but with Israel’s history being what it is, it is hard not to feel that these pieces of military hardware become de facto memorials, even though they do not reference or explicitly remember a specific conflict or event. Instead, they recall more broadly the recent history of a nation birthed in fire.
The book asks one to consider what the decoration of a country with such aggressive paraphernalia suggests about its state today?
But as Leshem also notes in the book, the experience of these early wars of national survival is now one receding far into the background. The 1973 Yom Kippur War, half a century ago, was the last time that the country faced a truly existential threat to its existence. The country today is a military superpower, and a militarised society, in a way which vastly exceeds the fighting potential of any of its neighbours. With this in mind, the book asks one to consider what the decoration of a country with such aggressive paraphernalia suggests about its state today?
For Nitzan Shahar who provides one of the essays in the book, these ‘sculptures’ reflect the degree to which the Israeli Defence Force is able through emergency powers to intervene in the civil sphere in ways which would be considered incredible in other democratic states. Carrying on this thought, for this reviewer at least, it gave the impression of a state which has not only borne past military adversity and emerged victorious, but which is actually scarred in many ways by these experiences, and which is unable to exist in anything but a state of constant armed readiness – a state for which a form of militarist survivalism has become a civic norm.