Ubique: Imagining an Australian Counter Memorial
What would a print-imbued Australian war memorial look like if it reflected the true cost of war? Creating a printerly counter-memorial which remembers all lost in war has been my project this semester.
As part of this project I have worked to understand how the story of Anzac as we know it was established, and how it has been malleable and debated from its inception. In his encyclopedic book Sacred Places: War memorials in the Australian landscape, Ken Inglis writes about how a memorial movement swept Australia before World War One had even finished. Given the bodies of tens of thousands of service people would never be returned home to grieving loved ones, the work of commemorating the tragic loss of so many in Australia was important. The nation was reckoning with the real and very costly price of war.
Debate in the early days of the Australian memorial movement took many forms. Before the war was even over, the contest to build the dominant narrative of Anzac was taking place. Pastoralists and industrialist sectors competed to use war historian Charles Bean's legend-forging texts to establish the Anzac as either the rugged and resourceful bushman or the irreverent city larrikin archetype.
The masculinising of the Australian experience of war was evident. Historian Richard White wrote that when it was suggested that the focal point of the Sydney War Memorial should be a female figure representing Australia, the ensuing outcry led to its replacement by a naked male warrior. In its early years, the Victorian Shrine of Remembrance’s Dawn Services actively excluded women. The sidelining of women and children's experience of war does a lot to erase the true cost of war.
Some Australians argued that commemoration should be for the living, not the dead, and about a quarter of the memorials around Australia were extensions to a hospital, a new local primary school or swimming pool. There were other debates, but the dominate depiction of Australia's experience of war was the white soldier statue which was installed in almost every Australian town and suburb. Inscribed with only names, the race and gender of those who served remained undocumented. Produced in mass by sometimes less than artisan experts (imagine the pink bats roll out but for war memorials) these statues became testament to the esteemed status of anglicised and male suffering.
First nations service people fought hard to have their unique service recognised. The more I looked the more I could see examples of the narrow lens of war commemoration deemed acceptable.
After the war years, industrialisation and modernisation altered the look of society. When the statues had initially been installed only one in 20 Australians had a car. Some of the Great War memorials found themselves in awkward public spaces now. An exemplar of this is the war memorial in the Brisbane suburb of Tingalpa. In 1937 it was accidentally struck by a taxi-cab and toppled. (This was actually the second vehicle to accidentally hit the statue that year). The 16 foot figure of a soldier crashed on to the bonnet of the car and was smashed to pieces. Interestingly, the reinstatement of the memorial was controversial, with some World War Two veterans refusing to have their names on the new memorial if the location of the memorial was changed.
For me the image of the Tingalpa ruins are emblematic the way in which healthy debate about war commemoration was common around the time of the World Wars but now is extremely rare. To write about what is wrong with ANZAC is to court the charge of treason, as Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a young Somali-Australian Muslim woman, discovered in 2017 when she wrote “Lest We Forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine ...)".
Ken Inglis' book taught me about the controversies, public debates, protests and campaigning that has occurred historically in the memorial space, and made me realise how my artwork's focus on the politics around how and who are remembered is not newly controversial. Learning that my work is actually in the tradition of many who have cared deeply about what monuments say has been helpful. I have garnered solace and validation from reading about the many Australians who have asked the hard questions in generations past, and toiled to find the most appropriate ways to commemorate for a more peaceful future.
I've just finished reading teacher and author Adrian Caesar's 2021 novel A Winter Sowing. The father figure says for him, 'Anzac Day is a memorial and a penance. [...] For some of us who fought, and for the bereaved relatives of those who didn't come back, Anzac Day becomes part of mourning.' Adrian's book objects to war being made to seem 'glamorous, heroic and glorious' - commemoration is about grief. All of the discussions we had about this at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) with Adrian seems to have culminated in this moving and thought-provoking book. Another character, David Young says 'No art can depict the reality of war. War is brutal, ugly, chaotic. Art is about beauty, order, significance.'
The rise of the counter monument movement tried to make meaning out of the awfulness. After the murder of so many in the Holocaust, post-War Germany experienced conflicted anguish in how to remember victims to the crimes it perpetuated. Academic James Young writes about how counter-monuments were often vanishing or created negative space, perpetually unresolved and depicting the ever-changing conditions of memory. They called into question the tendency of traditional monuments to didactically displace the past and reduce viewers to passive spectators. Counter monuments by contrast do not console but provoke, are not fixed but are changing, cannot be ignored, but demand a reaction. They throw the burden of memory back at the community and function as a valuable ‘counter-index.’ Counter monuments talk to the ways time, memory and current history intersect with any memorial site, as seen by the examples below.
The contemporary counter-monument movement is seen in Black Lives Matter where the white supremacy of our public art is called into question. The Ground Zero commemorative site is also a sunken counter monument to America's collective trauma from September 11.
Closer to home, there is a beautiful, haunting sculpture at RMIT designed Indigenous artist Dr Vicki Couzens, with collaborators Jeph Neale and Hilary Jackman, Wurrunggi Biik - Law of the Land. It is made from cast iron and represents a possum skin cloak with an intricate wedge tail eagle shaped spirit memory imprint. For me it is a shrine to the missing, a kind of counter-monument - remembering the untold loss of a land colonised without respect for the First Nations people and environment.
I have wanted to explore what a contemporary Australian war counter-monument might look like. What if a memorial actually depicted the the chaos, loneliness, confusion, anger and grief from war?
I felt that the photo of the Tingalpa ruins depicted an image of a deconstructed Anzac myth perfectly, it was Australia's first (albeit accidental) counter-monument, from a time when discussion about what commemoration should look like was a lot less fraught. I transferred the image from Inglis' book to computer, and then pixilated, reversed it, transferred it to a copper plate and printed it.
The outcome was this grungy, inky image, with moss-like glitches and an opaque element. I liked how it evoked monument and death, reflection and ruin, but in a confused and chaotic manner. I feel that this articulates my feelings and experiences about war, grief and the inadequately of the ANZAC myths to be emblematic my story.
In the process of making this print I had made a copper plate where I overlaid the ruins image with the face of a woman in a burka. The motif of the burka as the hidden collateral damage of war is taken from my experience of Afghanistan. The overlaying of the two images on the one plate created a murkier outcome that what I had intended.
This happy accident gave me an opportunity to use as a plate to use for stenciling and chin colle experiments. I used the image of a war memorial soldier, printed and traced it onto stencilling paper, and then dissected it to reflect the breaking down of an image that doesn't encompass us all. This action did not work to destroy the image of the Anzac, but only critique the primacy of its myths and the manner in which its unquestioned esteem has come at the cost of others who have also suffered in war. I experimented in printing the stencils using the copper plate as almost a monoprint inky surface. The negative spaces, glitches and printerly ghosted elements spoke to the other.
One of my teachers, Richard Harding writes that the embedded female nature of print’s reproductive matrix aligns it to otherness. I built upon the embedded references to the others forgotten in the Anzac legends through not simply the modality of print, but also ingratiating the glitch and ghost through stencilling and chine colle (paper layering). In her manifesto Glitch Feminism, author Legacy Russell discusses how the glitch and ghost is often dismissed as ‘an error, a mistake, a failure to function’ but it also represents a ‘true potential’ through a realisation embodied within the other. By adding glitched images of both Afghan women and the Anzac monument, ghosted bodies sometimes defined only by a negative space or an abstracted trace which overruns the edge, allude to undocumented collateral damage.
Neil Emmmerson's (I was his...) 2005 show at William Mora Galleries also used the tradition-imbued copper plate etch technique to using positive and negative light to identify with an anonymous victim of abuse at Abu Graibe prison in Iraq. I want to also illuminate forgotten victims of war in my work.
Raymond Arnold's monochromatic prints also have a gravity and texture which I wanted to incorporate in my work.
The use of reflective paper, particularly silver and gold, was firstly to evoke reflection in the viewer - commemoratively, but also in how they were reflected in the image returned back at them. It asks, where does war reflect on your story? How is it most authentically commemorated in your life? The pomp and glory of silver and gold is tarnished by the murky, messy ink of war. I tested sepia ink to see if it looked more muddy, or like a reflective puddle. For all that I tried, I liked how the clean facade was invaded by reality. There are layered memories imbued in the embossed overlapping shapes. Writer and veteran James Brown wrote that ANZAC casts a long shadow over the contemporary veteran. In my images, sometimes this fragmented shadow turns into a monster, intimidating those who still serve and of no service to the living.
I tried using red rice paper (symbolic of blood and war) to chin colle the abstracted shapes, but the effect was overwhelming on a sensory level and too obvious. The overlaying of black over red ink was too dark, there was no relief of white that is needed to lift these images.
I looked at collaging the shape of a ‘digger’, cut down into deconstructed elements. Inspired by William Kentridge's 'Taming the Beast' video, I looked at scale and shape to create a print counter-memorials.
My collages explored dismembered individuals, together in their grief, Anzac's long shadow looming menacingly.
I experimented with creating depth and grunginess through overlaying the stenciled prints with transparencies. By overlaying a close up of a burka or the broken down memorial, I added depth, texture and atmospherics. Seeing the memorials through the burka veil encourages the viewer to sees war through another's lens.
I have been researching the use of what historian Duncan Bell calls a ‘mythscape’ - where grief, ritual and often politically motivated nationalism is engineered to have affect on those who have no experience of war. By creating confusing and layered version of commemoration, instead of leaning on a simplified and stylised mythscape of the traditional war memorials, I am pointing to the confusion and layers and grubbiness which are more congruent with the reality of war.
These works were very inspired by post-war artist Anselm Kiefer, whose works are dark, moody and monumental explorations of Germany's dark past are, whilst abstract and layered, clearly talk about the cost of war to me. These Kiefer works have so much gravity and depth.
I have left my transparency prints to come back to another time. I'd like to explore how the unifying transparencies could be printed onto the embossed copper plate etchings so the layers are built into the one object. I felt that maybe the simplicity of a counter memorial might be more effectively communicated with a sole emblem.
Another artist I have been repeatedly inspired by is Hans Haacke, and the way he uses repetition, grid and archive to powerfully talk about systemic injustices. In a graphic and art sense, 'grid' means infinite.
When I was at ADFA and Duntroon I used to run up Mt Pleasant. At the top of the mountain, overlooking Canberra, was the Royal Australian Artillery memorial. I learnt that the motto of the Royal Artillery, 'Ubique', meant 'Everywhere'. Like the grid, the cost of war is ubique, infinite.
I finally decided to work on the series of copper plate etches, but simplifying the stencil image so it wasn't dissected as much - just a lone, abstract figure on a pedestal. The figure is isolated, often in a fog, sometimes confronting a nasty looking shadow, sometimes toppled.
I like how the toppled Tingalpa statue is hinted at, the ghosted image depicted in some of the lightly ghosted elements of the prints. The illegible text and broken down blocks are indicated by the copper plate, but are often heavily inked over when I have used the plate as a monotype matrix for the stencil.
The grouped series seemed to speak to the many human experiences of war, the monochrome shapes ambiguous in identity. I decided to install the many prints on mass. I had to play around to find the optimal layout.
By placing black material behind the prints, not only did they contrast more, they also had a more sombre, monumental feel.
I spent over a day installing to get the alignment right. The movement of the black fabric and the bevelled edges of the paper meant it was both forgiving and unforgiving. I feel the final result is really effective. The memorials look a little like chess pieces, which is an interesting read of the real cost of war politicians are playing with.
James Brown writes about how living alongside the Anzac legend is difficult for contemporary veterans who don't feel they live up to the veneration of the soldiers past. Former military psychologist Damien Hadfield coined the phenomenon the 'Anzac spirit monkey', where a 'burden to perform on a level equal to those who have gone before' has a shaming effect. James writes that as 'the original Anzacs have faded, the honour has swelled' and this has become not only an impossible legacy for contemporary living veteran to shoulder - the phenomenon has meant that the public has increasingly had an imagined view of war which is sanitised from the terrible reality.
My work is about finding a contemporary and truthful way to commemorate war - without glorifying it or erasing the experiences of others. It is a printerly counter-memorial to the true cost of war.
18 photographic copper plate etches with stencils on fabric
190 x 108 cm