"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." — Samuel Johnson

Saturday, 2 April 2011

In Memoriam

"Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends"  John 15:13

Last month I found myself by chance in Postman's Park, a little oasis of green tucked away in the heart of the city and the site of an unusual memorial to those who have died trying to save the lives of others.  The memorial was conceived by Victorian artist George Frederic Watts and consists of simply decorated ceramic tiled plaques detailing names, dates and acts of bravery. A couple of weeks later, in one of those strange instances of serendipity, I came across a moving tribute to this very memorial on a visit to artist Susan Hiller's exhibition at Tate Britain.  Entitled Monument (1980-81), it consists of a large-scale arrangement of photographs of 41 plaques - one for each year of the artist's life at the time of making, - a park bench and a cassette player and headphones.  The visitor is invited to sit down on the bench, don the headphones and listen to an audio tape of the artist's voice musing on the nature of absence, memory, death, heroism and representation.

Susan Hiller's Monument at Tate Britain

Hiller's work often deals with notions of 'cultural artefacts' which have been forgotten or overlooked.  Whilst photographing the tiles, she noticed that people sitting in the park appeared not to be aware of their existence: 
"....there were people sitting on park benches in front of them eating their lunches, who turned round over their shoulders to look, as if for the first time, at what I was photographing. And when they had seen the plaques they said things like ‘Oh! Isn’t it sad? Isn’t it dreadful?’ But what struck me was that they had sat in front of these perfectly visible objects for years and years, and the objects had been, literally, invisible." (1)   

As the viewer settles down to listen to the words on the tape they become part of the installation: "You are sitting, as I've imagined you, with your back to the 'Monument'. The 'Monument' is behind you. The 'Monument' is in your past." Each person commemorated by a plaque existed as a living person but also continues to exist as a representation - she lists their names and their two modes of existence "....Ernest Benning....in the body 22 years, as a representation 98 years, Elizabeth Boxall...in the body 17 years, as a representation 98 years..... " She quotes the words of Goethe "You can think of life after death as a second life which you enter into as a portrait or inscription and in which you remain longer than you do in your actual living life". However, she acknowledges the impossibility inherent in the act of representation:
 "An inscription, a registration, a trace; you can't represent anything in the present; when you represent it, it's already in the past.....representation is a distancing in time and space.  It's a re-generation of images and ideas. Time can't exist without memory. Memory can't exist without representations."

How long does a memory last?  The memory of a particular person dies out within a few generations, when there is nobody still alive who remembers the dead person. What remains is just a memorial - words, inscriptions, photographs - an attempt to confound the implacable nature of time and a futile gesture against the inevitable transience of all human life.  Of all the methods of memorialisation, however, the photograph must surely be the most powerful.  The photograph has a direct link with the living body of the person portrayed. According to philosopher Roland Barthes in his famed treatise on the nature of photography Camera Lucida, it does not 'restore what has been abolished....but attests to what has existed.'  He maintained that photography was a kind of resurrection: "what I see is not a memory, an imagination, a reconstitution.....but reality in a past state: at once the past and the real." (2)

As we stand and read the inscriptions on the plaques, we do not have the benefit of a photograph to remind us of the existence of these brave souls. The words do not conjure up the flesh and blood, only their final acts of bravery. When we look at these memorials the main effect they have is to remind us of our own mortality. We marvel at the self-sacrifice, but then we look at the dates, compute the lengths of their lives, and measure it against our own.  Artist Christian Boltanski, noted for his work on identity, memory, time and death, succinctly summed it up:  "What remains when life ends? Two dates and a short black line...." (3)

Perhaps then the most lasting memorial of all is the one that the artist leaves behind - their art....

(1)  Susan Hiller, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery Liverpool 1996
(2)  Barthes, Roland:  Camera Lucida
(3)  Boltanski, Christian: Time 

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