Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the introduction to the catalogue for the 2016 Edinburgh Art Festival, UK’s largest celebration of visual art. The essay references art installations at the 2016 Art Festival. The author is the Director of the Edinburgh Art Festival and author of Pliny’s Catalogue of Culture: Art and Empire in the Natural History.
Our cities are filled with monuments: the material evidence of a profoundly human urge to memorialise, as well as a constantly evolving archive of who and what has mattered to previous generations.
The word has its origins in the Latin verb monere, meaning ‘to remind, warn, advise’; from the first, carving out a proactive instructional role for monuments. Though if two recent encounters are anything to go by, it seems that increasingly, monuments are losing their inherent authority. A small sign spotted on a recent visit to Naples made the following entreaty: Cittadini. Rispettare i suoi monumenti (‘Citizens! Respect your monuments!’). While, closer to home, the World War I memorial on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, is accompanied by a sign advising visitors to ‘Please Respect the War Memorial’.
If the Romans have given us the word for monument, then they also understood that a monument was not necessarily a guarantee of memory. Over two millennia ago, the poet Horace opened his Ode 3.30 with the claim that, with something as apparently ephemeral as a poem, he had ‘built a monument more lasting than bronze’. Implicit in Horace’s poem is a knowing sense that it is neither material nor environment that determine whether a monument will last: the longevity of a monument is directly dependent on the reception it receives.
The Romans regularly engaged in what modern scholars have termed damnatio memoriae; a set of actions deliberately intended to eradicate the memory of those who had fallen from favour, including erasing names from inscriptions, destroying statues and even demolishing an individual’s house (Note 1). As long as humans have erected monuments, they have been assaulted, convenient proxies for the individual and ideas commemorated therein. The recent campaigns to remove statues of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town and Oxford, are but the la test manifestations in a centuries-old trend.
But the fate of the vast majority of historic monuments in our cities is perhaps most accurately captured in Jonathan Owen’s Eraser Drawings (statues), (2008-9). With painstaking precision, and using nothing more than an eraser, Owen re-worked a series of photographic reproductions taken from books on public statues, to render the figures invisible. Literally re-forming the statues into the background forms they were obscuring (a park, a 1970s office block, a tree), Owen enacts the fate of many a monument, as over time, they blend into the background, becoming invisible to the contemporary eye.
Deconstructing the Monument
Owen’s first publicly sited project has been specifically devised for the Burns Monument. Designed by the architect, Thomas Hamilton, to house a full-length portrait of Robert Burns by John Flaxman, the circular temple is modelled on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, and was completed in 1831. Just a few years later, however, the statue of Burns was removed to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (where it remains to this day), amidst fears that smoke from a nearby gasworks would damage the sculpture.
This empty monument offers a resonant context for Owen’s new work, a re-worked life-size figure of a nymph (made just a few years after the monument itself opened). In Owen’s re-working, the entire torso has been re-shaped into a series of interlinked chains. Only the gentle indent of a navel on the lowest link survives, to allude to what has been removed. The work is the first female figure that Owen has worked on, and in tune with previous sculptures, his intervention re-activates the figure, drawing out truths already latent in the figure’s original form. Precisely in the removal of some of the more overtly sexual qualities of the figure (the breasts, the curve of the waist), Owen lays bare the strategies of the original sculpture. Her head collapsed, her body disjointed, the nymph appears eroded and collapsed by two centuries of the male gaze.
There are very few women represented in Edinburgh’s impressive collection of monuments (indeed there are almost as many representations of animals as women). And while the female form was a mainstay of nineteenth century memorials, it was most often chosen as a cipher to embody abstract ideas and ideals – whether ‘justice’, the ‘genius of architecture’, or, in the case of Owen’s nymph, as a repository for male fantasy. The original statue which provides the raw material for Owen’s contemporary re-working, as well as the setting in which it is located, speak the classic language of monuments, invoking the architecture of gods to confer immortality on the individual commemorated. But in Owen’s playful deconstruction, the artist invites us to reflect not on an individual, but on who and what we immortalise.
Bani Abidi has long been interested in the forms and materials of remembering. Her film installation, Death at a 30 degree angle, (2012), explores the efforts of a politician to ensure his memory is preserved for posterity. Abidi’s film follows him as he visits the studio of the monumental sculptor who has been commissioned to portray him and attempts to identify the costume and gesture which will best secure him a place in the annals. The irony, of course, is the absolute redundancy of the idiom, as we remember the endless monumental portraits of communist leaders, overthrown dictators or imperial functionaries, languishing in storage around the world.
Her new work, Memorial to Lost Words, draws on the more ephemeral medium of sound to reflect on things which have not been commemorated in the official records, or indeed which have been deliberately expunged. More than one million Indian soldiers served in the British Army during the First World War. And while the common (mis)conception is one of noble sacrifice made by Sikh soldiers, extending a warrior tradition into the service of empire, Abidi’s sound installation explores an alternative history.
Memorial to Lost Words fills the debating chamber of Edinburgh’s New Parliament House with two sets of voices, singing in dialogue. The rest are those of women singing folk songs in Punjabi, entreating their menfolk not to go to war. Archived by the poet Amarjit Chandan, and now re-recorded by the artist working with contemporary folk singers, the songs were first sung 100 years ago.
In response, we hear a newly composed folk song, based on letters (now in the British Library) written by Indian soldiers to their wives and families from the front. Filled with honest descriptions of the brutality and absurdity of war, the letters were censored and many never reached their intended recipients.
Abidi’s work gives voice to stories which have been excluded from the official record, as well as mainstream historical accounts. But it also celebrates less monumental forms of memory. The folk song is a profoundly oral and embodied tradition, dependent for its survival on regular performance by successive generations. While Chandan’s archive has preserved these voices on paper, Abidi’s sound installation brings them back to life. Crafted from discarded memories (deliberate and accidental), Abidi’s memorial reminds us that like Horace’s ode, the apparently transient and ephemeral can far outlast the royal tombs of kings.
In the period immediately following the Second World War, as countries around the world erected monuments to their dead, New Zealand’s government took the decision not to commission new cenotaphs or statues. Instead, alongside adding the names of the dead to existing memorials, they would erect ‘living monuments’: utilitarian buildings intended to provide space for communities to come together and grow. Olivia Webb took inspiration from these ‘living monuments’ in developing her Voices Project (2014), working with communities who had lost their places of worship in the aftermath of two devastating earthquakes which struck the city of Christchurch in September 2010 and February 2011.
Webb formed a choir in three affected communities, and over the course of a month, the choirs (whose members had little or no prior experience of singing Classical music) met regularly to learn Thomas Tallis’ sixteenth century motet, If Ye Love Me. The resulting sound installation, installed on the sites of each of the demolished churches, reflected the entire development of the project, from mingling to warm-up to rehearsal and performance; embodying not a single moment of perfection, but a process of learning, testing and sharing. Less a commemoration of things lost, and more a memorial to those things gained through the sharing of loss, the Voices Project is a monument to new communities in the very moment of their formation.
Re-developed for More Lasting than Bronze, Webb’s sound installation fills the Renaissance architecture of Edinburgh’s Trinity Apse with the voices of unseen people. Originally built as Trinity College Kirk in 1460, and demolished in 1848 to make way for the railway, some of the surviving elements of the original structure (including the choir) were rebuilt as Trinity Apse in the 1870s. With its own history of destruction and displacement, the building provides a fitting context for the Voices Project.
Webb is interested in the way in which architecture can act as a reservoir for memory, accumulating the unseen residues of the actions, words, and thoughts that it has enclosed. The Voices Project arose directly from the loss of these solid architectural forms, and with them, the memories and social histories they had shaped and contained. In a new choral project, Lapides Vivi (Living Stones), Webb will establish a choir for the duration of the festival, to explore the relationship between lives lived and the stones which have embraced them.
One of the few women to be remembered with a monument in Edinburgh is the children’s author and philanthropist, Catherine Sinclair (1800-1864).Designed by John Rhind, the monument was erected in 1868, and the accompanying inscription remembers Sinclair as ‘the friend of all children’, as well as the person responsible for Edinburgh’s first drinking fountain.
Sally Hackett’s The Fountain of Youth, playfully reinterprets a monumental form to reflect on the absence of monuments to young people in our cities. Made with the direct involvement of children from Tollcross Primary School, Hackett’s fountain is encased in colourful ceramic forms. Ceramic is not a material usually associated with traditional monuments, which have preferred to look to more expensive materials to commemorate their subjects. It has however long been used in outdoor shrines, perhaps most famously in those produced by Andrea Della Robbia (1435-1525) at the height of the Florentine Renaissance.
It is a fitting material, then, for a work which plays on contemporary society’s cult of youth and celebrity. Hackett’s The Fountain of Youth gives contemporary expression to a human desire documented as far back as the 5th century bce, when the Greek historian Herodotus recorded reports of a miraculous fountain in the Land of the Macrobians, guaranteeing long-life and youthful appearance to anyone who drank from it (Note 2). The irony is that while contemporary media may idolise youth (at the same time as promoting a whole host of serums and creams which promise to help us to retain it), our monuments still tend to honour individuals of more advanced years.
Hackett’s fountain is installed in the courtyard garden of the Museum of Edinburgh, formerly Huntly House, also known as ‘The Speaking House’, for the series of advisory inscriptions mounted on its façade. These include the customary reminders of human mortality (‘Today for me, tomorrow for thee, why worry?’) as well as one more recent and more optimistic inscription, added when the building was restored in 1932: ‘I am old but renew my youth’. Hackett’s playful sculpture is a tting addition to these memento mori – a humorous reflection on contemporary society, but also a reminder to remember future generations as much as looking to the past.
Monument to Experience
Installed in the shadow of Calton Hill with its many classical monuments which earned Edinburgh the title ‘The Athens of the North’, Graham Fagen’s new work, A Drama in Time, is a monument to everyman, celebrating not the lofty achievements of a single individual, but the lived experience of mankind.
Consisting of five emblematic images made in neon, Fagen’s light installation sits at the foot of Jacob’s Ladder, a steep set of steps leading from the Old Town up to Calton Hill, named after the stairway connecting earth with heaven which, according to the Book of Genesis, Jacob witnessed in a dream. Weaving in a rich set of references to its surrounding locale, Fagen’s new work presents a symbolic journey through life, from birth to death.
At the centre of Fagen’s installation, framed by rising and setting suns, stands a skeleton, an abstract representation of man, as much as a reminder of our own mortality. On either side of the central figure are two ships, communicating a sense of a journey, but also a reference to the poet, Robert Burns, commemorated in the monument at the top of the steps. On several occasions, struggling to earn a living through his poetry, Burns had considered sailing to the West Indies to take up a position on a sugar plantation. In 2006 Fagen made a series of screen-prints of three ships on which Burns had booked passage but never sailed: The Bell, Nancy and The Roselle. The neon ships in A Drama in Time are modelled on these earlier works, and remind us of the paths not taken, as much as the roads travelled.
Fagen’s installation borrows its title from the visionary town planner and key figure in the conservation of Edinburgh’s Old Town, Patrick Geddes, who remarked, ‘A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time’. Geddes advocated a holistic approach to the development of cities, believing in observation, and lessons gained through experience: his motto was ‘by living we learn’. Fagen’s neons (a material commonly used in shops signs and advertising) speak the language of the everyday in their form as much as their content. Drawings in light, they remember remember not the feats of heroes, but the forces that shape us, and the lived, often haphazard, experience of ordinary life. lived, often haphazard, experience of ordinary life.
If a monument is ‘anything that preserves memory of a person or an event’ (Note 3), then Ciara Phillips’ Every Woman can quite rightly be described as one, and at 75 metres long, it is certainly ‘monumental’. The work is Phillips’ response to the ‘dazzle designs’ widely applied to ships in the latter part of the First World War, in an effort to afford some protection against an increasingly successful German U-Boat campaign. The artist Norman Wilkinson is credited with ‘inventing’ the technique, which involved covering ships in strong optical designs and bold colour contrasts.
In researching the technique, Phillips was immediately drawn to a photograph of the studio established in London’s Royal Academy to generate designs for ships. Almost everyone in the image is a woman. While the role of women in the Second World War is quite widely documented, the history of women in the First World War is still largely untold. This despite the fact that, as part of the war e ort, women regularly took up roles which had traditionally been the preserve of men, working, for example, as tram drivers, telegraphists and dazzle designers.
Watch an interview with Ciara Phillips
Phillips has covered the entire surface of the MV Fingal with a bold gestural design characteristic of her practice based in printmaking – indeed, the design is a reworked and enlarged version of a screen-printed scarf the artist made in 2013. Overlaid on the surface of the design, at the ship’s stern, is a message in Morse Code, which reads: Every Woman a Signal Tower. The text reworks the title of James Spratt’s The Homograph or Every Man a Signal Tower, first published in 1808, in which the author described how with a simple handkerchief, anyone could use their body to transmit messages across long distances.
Ciara Phillips’ Every Woman signals a different form for the monument – a monument which is not about preserving for posterity the inspired invention of a single individual, but which reflects on the collective and largely unacknowledged endeavours of women in the First World War. Every Woman is a clarion call, a plea to embody and keep alive memory through our actions and thinking. A reminder that the female body is no cipher for externally imposed ideals, but a bearer of its own unique messages. Then and now, every woman, Phillips reminds us, has something to signal.
In 1968 a small plaque was erected on Edinburgh’s Cowgate to commemorate James Connolly, born there, exactly one hundred years before. Shortly after, the plaque was stolen. And though a replacement remains safely there to this day, the initial theft is testament to the extent to which Connolly’s memory has been contested from the moment of his execution on the 12th May 1916 for his role in Ireland’s Easter Rising.
Roderick Buchanan’s new film explores the complex relationship between Edinburgh and its socialist and revolutionary son. Understanding versus Sympathy is, in the artist’s words, ‘a shadow portrait’; an exploration of Connolly’s life as viewed through the lens of the Irish historian and Edinburgh resident, Owen Dudley Edwards. Connolly was born and raised in extreme poverty in Edinburgh in 1868, ultimately moving to Ireland in 1910 to work for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Owen Dudley Edwards was born and raised in Dublin, before moving to Edinburgh to take up a position at the university.
Buchanan’s film focuses on the captivating face and voice of Dudley Edwards, as he speaks about the life and times of James Connolly. Dudley Edwards has a strong professional interest in Connolly, having written several books on the Easter Rising and its wider historical context. But he also has a strong personal connection with the period. He recounts, for example, how his own grandfather attended a lecture by Arthur Griffiths (founder of Sinn Féin) and on attempting to ask a question, was promptly rebuffed by Griffiths for being an Englishman. Understanding versus Sympathy offers an extended reflection on different forms of memory, as Dudley Edwards’ commentary weaves seamlessly from erudite historical observation to personal remembrance.
Filmed against a stark black background, the film has a statuesque quality, at times making Dudley Edwards appear as if a monument come to life. But in the complexities of its central character (Dudley Edwards) and subject (Connolly), Understanding versus Sympathy emerges not as a portrait of Dudley Edwards, or memorial to James Connolly; more as an extended reflection on monuments themselves, as carefully crafted projections in stone of just one aspect (deliberately chosen, and, at the time, apparently certain) in a set of complex, ever-shifting, awkward truths.
All images courtesy of the Edinburgh Art Festival
1. Eric R. Varner. (2004). Mutilation and Transformation: Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture (Monumenta Graeca et Romana, 10). Leiden.
2. Herodotus. The Histories, Book 3.23
3. Definition of monument in the Chambers Dictionary 12th Edition, London, 2011.