May 2012 Features

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

The Meaning of Remembrance: In her study of two war monuments, GSAS doctoral student Tienfong Ho looks for the individual behind the patriotic idealism.

 By Molly Petrilla 

Tienfong Ho, GSAS doctoral candidate. Photo by Stephen Clatos.

Tienfong Ho, GSAS doctoral candidate. Photo by Stephen Clatos.

In 2002, Tienfong Ho went on what she calls “a pilgrimage of sorts” through Vietnam. Traveling with her classmates and professors from the Art Institute of Chicago, Ho visited famous war-related landmarks—the site of the Vietnam War’s My Lai Massacre and Tet Offensive; cemeteries housing Vietnamese soldiers killed in battle; the museum that stands where John McCain was formerly imprisoned. Somewhere along that journey, an idea started to form: “I began thinking about how mortality is something that’s so pervasive in the study of monuments,” Ho recalls. “I wanted to think about how [monuments] could evoke change in history as opposed to just standing there and being helpless.”

Ten years later, that thought is at the center of Ho’s doctoral dissertation, which examines how monuments shape our understanding of history. Most monuments, she contends, “freeze time,” thereby constructing a prescribed narrative of history that immortalizes selected individuals or moments. Ho, a Ph.D. candidate in Bryn Mawr’s history of art program, focuses on two monuments that she

says “resist this idea” by acknowledging that history is an ever-changing continuum comprising “unprivileged events and individuals”: Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment (1897) and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982).

The Shaw Memorial commemorates the Massachusetts 54th, an African-American regiment that fought for the Union in the Civil War, and its commander, Shaw. Saint-Gaudens’ depiction of Shaw adheres to the conventions of war memorials, Ho explains; the static figure of the young, white colonel on horseback is at the center of the monument. But she notes that the memorial is also the first monument in the United States to feature black men fully dressed and standing. Shown marching into battle, the soldiers “appear as this moving swath,” she says, representing “movement in time and movement in history.”

Erected one year after the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which upheld the constitutionality of segregationist state laws, the memorial was nevertheless one of the earliest to commemorate African Americans’ contribution to the history of the United States. “It felt like [the memorial] embodied a watershed moment of historical progress and stasis at the same time,” Ho says. “It reminded me of our current state of race relations.”

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Photo by Ho

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Photo by Ho

As for Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Ho says there is “nothing else like it—it’s unprecedented in so many ways.” Rather than the traditional approach of singling out one or two heroes for what Ho calls “immortal fame and freezing in time,” the black, horizontal monument lists the names and dates of death of 58,272 American soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Ho adds, “We actually have to experience movement in order to walk through [the monument]. It’s evoking that kind of truth about history and time—that it is something that is always in the making, always becoming.”

Ho is especially interested in exploring how such constructions of history define ideas about nationhood and national identity—a subject she has seen play out in her own family’s history. Her maternal grandparents were exiled by Mao Zedong for their association with Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party, and her father was a war orphan. “I think my dad made me realize very early on how uniqueness or individuality merges with public symbol,” she says. “He was seen often as an emblem or symbol of China’s suffering under Japan.”

In her dissertation, Ho is looking to address a similar concern—the tension between nation and self: “I want people to remember that in every case that a monument is evoking patriotism or ‘Americanness’ or some kind of larger transcendent ideal … we should remember the individuals who lived and not simply the transcendent morality that ends up getting symbolized.”