Shoescapes: Picturing trauma through footwear

US Holocaust Memorial Museum - “Visitors frequently report that the sight and smell of the 4,000 victim shoes is the most searing memory from their time in the Permanent Exhibition.”

US Holocaust Memorial Museum – “Visitors frequently report that the sight and smell of the 4,000 victim shoes is the most searing memory from their time in the Permanent Exhibition.”

Visitors to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum are faced with a collection of shoes that were left behind at Auschwitz after their former owners’ were sent to their deaths (pictured above). The collection functions in part like permanent cemeteries “where prolonged spatial and material relations to the deceased are allowed to exist”, and in part like mass graves “where the dead are meant to disappear [1]. Shoes and other clothing are the only tangible evidence that remains of Nazi attempts to erase individuals from history, and the preservation and display of those artefacts has become a means of resisting disappearance. They attempt to recover the individual identity that was denied the victims at the time of their mass execution, if not by name then at least through a sense of continued presence.

These memorials must be considered not just collections of “memory objects” – shoes – but also as “memory landscapes” [2] – the spaces that the shoes occupy. As everyday objects, shoes do not commonly express the absence that is so powerfully felt in these memorial spaces. There is a relationship between these shoes, their arrangement in relation to one another, and their location in a particular space, that combines to create significant emotional impact.

Can Togay and Gyula Pauer’s Shoes on the Danube (2005, pictured below) is a memorial to the lives lost when members of the Arrow Cross party rounded up Jewish civilians in 1945 and shot them into the river. The shoes transform this otherwise peaceful river bank into a “traumascape” [3]. They force locals and tourists to contemplate the violent history of this location. Even to visitors who are unfamiliar with the precise details of the victim’s death, the location of these empty shoes next to the river provokes an uneasy assumption that their wearers must be lost beneath the water of the river.

'Shoes on the Danube Promenade' by Can Togay and Gyula Pauer. During WWII, Jews in Budapest were brought to the edge of the Danube, ordered to remove their shoes, and shot, falling into the water below. 60 pairs of iron shoes now line the river's bank.

‘Shoes on the Danube Promenade’ by Can Togay and Gyula Pauer, 2005. During WWII, Jews in Budapest were brought to the edge of the Danube, ordered to remove their shoes, and shot, falling into the water below. 60 pairs of iron shoes now line the river’s bank.

Erica Doss observes a recent “memorial mania”, particularly in Europe and the United States, fuelled by a faith “ in material culture to mediate… histories and memories”. In particular, there has been a rise in DIY and spontaneous monuments, constructed by mourners themselves, rather than appointed councils. The race to urgently memorialize the victims of tragedy is very different to the lengthy process of agreement, planning and manufacture that precedes the construction of permanent monuments. With the understanding that “memory itself is predictable and unstable”, and in consumer cultures that thrive on disposability, communities seek instant gratification and personal involvement in the visible expression of their community’s grief. [4]

Temporary shoe memorials transform a landscape into a memory space, as if to suggest a ghostly audience or crowd. Much like a crowd can disperse, these memorials also vanish. They are gathered and cleared, leaving the space empty again, and so the space returns to its usual function of park or street. The diversity of shoes presented in vernacular memorials such as the Ocean Grove 9/11 memorial (see below) reflects the diversity of the lives lost. There are adults, children, women and men represented in this absent crowd. Just as the crowd of people in a city park may include individuals from every age, race or gender, the 9/11 killings were indiscriminate.

The Ocean Grove 9/11 memorial - 2,974 pairs of shoes representing all of the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001

The Ocean Grove 9/11 memorial – 2,974 pairs of shoes representing all of the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001

Fourteen hundred pairs of shoes, representing the average number of people killed on Australian roads each year, fill Martin Place in Sydney on May 25, 2012. The shoes were laid out for the Australian Road Safety Foundation's Fatality Free Friday campaign.

Fourteen hundred pairs of shoes, representing the average number of people killed on Australian roads each year, fill Martin Place in Sydney on May 25, 2012. The shoes were laid out for the Australian Road Safety Foundation’s Fatality Free Friday campaign.

The sheer size of the space that is covered by cloth shoes at the Najing memorial (pictured below) helps to give visitors a sense of the scale of the trauma that took place during the Japanese invasion of Jiangsu Province. These shoes are more sparsely spaced than the American memorials pictured above, spreading almost to the horizon, and so reinforcing the sense that the deaths were innumerable and inescapable.

6830 pairs of cloth shoes at a memorial service in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province

6830 pairs of cloth shoes at a memorial service in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province

1,558 pairs of shoes to represent those who have jumped to their deaths from Golden Gate Bridge

1,558 pairs of shoes to represent those who have jumped to their deaths from Golden Gate Bridge

The victims of sexual violence are memorialized in red shoes lining the streets of Milan (pictured below). Here, the traumascape is the everyday space of a street. Pedestrians pass by and turn their heads in curiosity, but are not there specifically to mourn. The familiar location and the everyday behaviour of the pedestrians in this image are reminders that these acts of violence occur are themselves commonplace. They occur around us, in familiar locations, and are so frequent that they seem to warrant no special attention. The memorial provokes people to view their environment as one that is tainted by violence, and to consider crimes that take place right under our noses but are too often ignored.

Hundreds of red shoes in Milan to protest against violence on women.

Hundreds of red shoes in Milan to protest against violence on women.

Unusually for shoe memorials, Doris Salcedo’s Atrabiliarios (1992-1997) places empty shoes in indoor spaces in memory of disappeared individuals in Colombia. These shoes are sealed inside semi-opaque boxes, embedded into gallery walls, making implicit reference to bodies bricked up inside a wall. Salcedo only reveals hints of the details of each pair of shoes, as they are partially obscured by a cow-bladder curtain. Clarity evades the audience, just as it evades the victims’ families.  Each pair is displayed separately, expressing that each disappearance was a separate act, and yet over the exhibition space the number of separate boxes contributes to the sense that each disappearance was part of a much larger picture of Colombian political and social unease. The shoes are spaced apart in the gallery, as if Salcedo is imaging the loneliness that each victim must have felt in his or her final moments.

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios, 1993 | plywood, cow bladder, surgical thread, and shoes belonging to women who were 'disappeared'

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios, 1993 | plywood, cow bladder, surgical thread, and shoes belonging to women who were ‘disappeared’.

In this spaces, shoes become part of our material culture that expresses identity through the ownership of objects. When those objects are located away from their owners, there is an uneasy sense of loss. Clothes are intended to be worn, and when they appear anywhere other than on the body, that body becomes noteworthy in its absence. Inside a dressing space, such as a wardrobe, the absence of a body to wear the clothes is expected. But in a public space, as in the memorials pictured in this blog post, the presence of unworn clothes speaks of loss. Viewers are forced to consider the events that forced the shoes and their wearer apart, transforming an otherwise ordinary object into a signifier of trauma.

References
[1] Sørensen, T. F. (2010), “A Saturated Void: Anticipating and Preparing Presence in Contemporary Danish Cemetery Culture”, in M. Bille et al. (eds), An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of transcendence and loss, London: Springer, p. 115.
[2] Saunders, Nicholas J. (2002) “Memory and Conflict”, in V. Buchli (ed.) The Material Culture Reader, Oxford: Berg, p. 177.
[3] Trenzise, B. (2009), “Ambivalent Bereavements: Embodying loss in the twenty-first century”, Performance Paradigms 5(2), p. 18.
[4] Doss, E. (2008), The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards a theory of temporarym, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, p. 5.

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