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Materialising Memory: The Public Lives of Roadside Crash Shrines

Robert M. Bednar


This is a study in two parts. First I explore the containment and effervescence of traumatic memory in roadside crash shrines, vernacular memorial assemblages built by private individuals at sites where family or friends have died in automobile accidents. Secondly I suggest that the ongoing production of spaces of mourning not only materialises memory, but the limits of memory. This article enters into the vigorous critical and theoretical dialogues within visual and material culture and memory studies surrounding contemporary discourses of trauma, memory, and space. It also analyses a set of shrines I have recursively photographed for the past eight years in the US. Each of these shrines has grown and contracted over time, not only because of changes made by those who maintain them, but also because of the specific climate and weather phenomena they encounter on the roadside. Some objects disperse. Others are replaced. Others fade. Others decay. I argue that these shrines transfer the life lost in an automobile crash to the life lived by the memory objects and spaces contained within them. These spaces and objects then act as a proxy for the absent victim as the shrine takes on a life of its own, alternately reinforcing and eliding discontinuities of time in the production of memory/space. Especially when shrine objects decay, that first transference of body to object is further materialised. This reveals that the shrine as memory/space is not only living, but also dying all over again, there on the roadside.