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The Korean War Veterans Memorial and Problems of Representation

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published

Journal publication date1/12/2012
JournalPublic Art Dialogue
Journal number2
Volume2
Number of pages39
Pages215-253
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

This article examines the design history of the Korean War Veterans Memorial dedicated in Washington DC in 1995. It considers the attempt to achieve demographic inclusiveness by representing figures of every ethnic group in the sculptural depiction of the U.S. troops in Korea. It interprets this commemorative approach as an extension of the principle established in the commemoration of the Vietnam War in the 1980s, in which the norm of multifigure sculptural groups was intended to achieve the goal of demographic inclusiveness. The Korea memorial was also a response to the preference, particularly among right-wing, pro-military veterans, for commemorations consisting of realistic sculpture; the large number of figures (nineteen, making this an extremely large statuary group) allowed each of the four major armed services to be represented, and the inscribed pictorial wall allowed even more figures, representing each military specialist group, to be portrayed. In this way, the Korea memorial answered criticisms levelled at Vietnam War commemorations which generally concentrated on the depiction of foot soldiers. The essay’s argument places the creation of the multi-figure Korean War Veterans Memorial statuary group into the recent history of commemorative sculpture, but also contrasts it with a longer tradition, marked in the period from around 1890 to 1930, in which Washington was the site for other kinds of commemorative sculpture, including portrait statuary, historical works, and allegorical forms. The essay suggests that the shift to a kind of dumb literalism has involved a loss in the language of public sculpture. It advocates a rediscovery and reinvention of the language of symbolism following the extensio ad absurdum of the tendency to demographic and interest-group inclusiveness in the Korean War Veterans Memorial.