Traditional memorials place the subject over and above the viewer. Contemporary theater uses a different set of metaphors for describing its approach: How does one enter into the subject? What threads can connect the disparate parts of a man’s psychology and narrative? Theater can dispense with basic organizing elements such as strict causality or chronology, allowing the viewer to see a man, or an event, from the multiple perspectives of before, during and after, but necessarily in that order, or in any order at all. The psychologizing nature of theater allows emotional material that is rarely manifested in public memorials to come into full view: anxiety, doubt, regret, uncertainty. All of these are essential to greatness but are almost never represented in public memorials.
The depiction of Eisenhower as a young man — if indeed that is what is finally decided upon — helps give color and shadow to the idea that Eisenhower was a great leader. The adolescent Eisenhower is unformed, pure potential, not yet manly. If there are concerns about representing Eisenhower through a statue inspired by the famous photograph of a tussle-haired boy with his legs splayed wide (Gehry has referred to the photograph as possible source for the statue), they likely have to do with the equivocal status of adolescent or ephebic males, once a standard way of representing civic or social ideals (think of Michelangelo’s David or the profusion of Kouros statues in ancient Greece). As in Gehry’s use of tapestries, which also have traditional memorial associations, his vision of a young man recalls legitimate memorial traditions so old they seem radical upon reintroduction.
The man in his element
In a democracy, greatness has as much to do with what people don’t do with power as what they accomplish with it. George Washington was compared to Cincinnatus, the Roman aristocrat who gave up dictatorial power after dispatching the enemies of Rome in battle. Yet very few monuments celebrate what it takes to be uncorrupted by power, the missing demon that divides the famous from the infamous, the virtue that yields an absence of ugliness, a missing litany of unnecessary violence, aggrandizement and corruption. If a man’s greatest accomplishment are the things he didn’t do, how does one represent that?
Gehry has found a way. His design for the Eisenhower Memorial literally inverts the Cincinnatus story, bringing the landscape of the farm into the very center of the American imperium. The proposed design for the main tapestry, a vision of the Kansas landscape, isn’t just a reference to Eisenhower’s formative years; it is a provocative insertion of the values represented by the landscape — innocence, opportunity, equality — into a political culture that pays lip service to hard work but cynically rewards wealth with more wealth and power with more power.
As the memorial design has progressed, the space has been defined as both more contained (inwardly focused and theatrical, with the tapestries turned to form a U-shaped space) and permeable (a tree-lined corridor that traces the line of Maryland Avenue will cut through the plaza). It is very likely that the effect will be that of a giant stage set enveloping a relatively small representation of Eisenhower, yet another inversion of traditional hierarchies that suggests a powerful sense of the finitude of man and the vastness of history, nature and fate. Usually, it’s the other way around: A large man dominates the backdrop or architectural setting.
But this inversion is as welcome as all the others. Eisenhower was a great man, but there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, other men who could have done what he did, who would have risen to the occasion if they had been tapped. To deny that does Eisenhower no honor and great injustice to the surfeit of American talent. At last, we have a memorial that makes literal the larger forces, the unknowns, the imponderables of history and contingency, allowing them to form the memorial space, and put the man in proper perspective.