During this centenary of WWI (2014-2018) a great number of ceremonies and memorials are proliferating in most of Europe in remembrance of the victims of the Great War. Australia, so far away as it is from that battle ground, is not indifferent to this sad anniversary as this year they celebrate the creation, 100 years ago, of the ANZAC, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, that took part, among others, in the tragic battle of Gallipoli in Turkey where 8,000 of them died. Nowadays, Anzac Day (25th April) also remembers to all Australians that lost their lives in WWII and in subsequent military actions up to date.
On such dates one always wonders about the role of public monuments nowadays. In a time when the pervasiveness of media and the easy access to information through the Internet give us the opportunity to remember any historical event or personality in a matter of seconds from our comfortable lounge, what’s the meaning of a statue in the middle of a park remembering something that happened maybe centuries ago? Which guidelines stipulate who or what is worthy of a monument? How can we make sure that passersby know what is that monument about?
Doubtlessly, the heavy symbolic charge of public monuments and memorials doesn’t allow easy answers to our questions. From the first prehistoric communities, man has spread monuments around the world whatever the culture, civilization or period. In ancient times they were mainly sacred, and more recently they have been linked to the leading power structures of their time. Present day interactive technologies that lead to the so-called participatory culture -mainly in younger generations- demand a reassessment of the initiatives that affect communities and, I think, it should include contemporary public monuments. Turning them in spaces of gathering and reflection is a sensible option. Nevertheless, city councils and commissioners keep invariably a strong link with the tradition of permanent artworks non site-related.
This Australian autumn, in the frame of the celebrations of the Anzac centenary, Sydney has presented two new public artworks of remembrance of both world wars. Their different approaches give us a very interesting view of the possibilities of public memorials.
Tony Albert, the Aboriginal Girramay artist that is the author of the memorial, is deeply committed with the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders communities in the Australian society. In his artworks he shows mainly images that unsettle the viewer in some way as they reveal the inequalities that even now exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Australia.
During the same week, a very different remembrance artwork dedicated to the WWI was launched in Darling Harbour on the initiative of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. Result of the collaboration between three curators (Katja Aßmann, Michael Cohen and Lorenzo Mele) and five artists (Robyn Backen, Andre Dekker + Observatorium, Graham Eatough, Nigel Helyer and Jennifer Turpin) from Europe and Australia, Nomanslanding is an accurate combination of the different artists’ disciplines: a structure whose limits between architecture and sculpture are vague, integrated in an urban aquatic environment and completed with sound, acoustics and performance as main features. These elements are embodied in two floating structures that become a dome when put together. Visitors access the dome through two walkways that start in the opposing shores of the waterway. The artistic experience starts from the moment when one wears the life vest that is situated inside an army tent in each shore at the starting point for the walkways. Once inside the dome it becomes a space for contemplation, war sounds take us to a tense atmosphere that ends with a poetic lament.
In spite of its structural complexity and its big size, Nomanslanding is a temporary artwork that is touring in Europe after its presentation in Sydney last April. The next sites, Glasgow and Duisburg, are two cities where waterways play a decisive role in their configuration apart from their participation in WWI. In this way, Nomanslanding answers successfully to the challenge posed by the curators at the beginning of the project: “how do we create site specific work that is both grounded in place and made to tour?” This is, I think, a really innovative approach to the idea of a contemporary memorial -although neither artists nor curators use this word to describe the work- which is creating an itinerant artwork that at the same time meets the site-specificity guidelines -whether they are physical or conceptual in each of the sites: Clyde river in Glasgow (Scotland, 13th July – 2nd August) and the river harbour in Duisburg (Germany, 14th August – 13 September).
By Paula Llull
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