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Monuments of paper and shadow

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

Building on the Print Exchange earlier this semester, and also my Ubique series last semester, this artwork dives deeper into the idea of what an Australian counter monument would look like if it reflected the true cost of war. The heroised anglicised and masculinised representations of war, seen in almost every town in Australia, white-wash and mythologise the nation's war experience. It also diminishes the suffering of the Other: the experience of war on women, children and people of colour, as well as the intergenerational costs through trauma and illness.

Over the course of my doing my research, there seems to be a renewed interest in these topics. The Australian War Memorial has been under increased pressure to include the colonising Frontier Wars in its $550m expansion. The recent SBS documentary series, The Australian Wars highlighted the inequalities of war commemoration in Australia. It contends that more Australians were killed on Australian soil in the Frontier Wars than those killed overseas fighting foreign wars. It also shows that the subsequent discrepancy seen in Australian war remembrance, is confronting at best, and insulting and re-traumatising at worst.

Confronting also, is the lack of representation for the effect of war on women and children. When it was suggested that the focal point of the Sydney War Memorial (built in 1934) should be a female figure representing Australia, the ensuing outcry led to its replacement by a naked male warrior. This set the precedence of under-representing the female war experience in this nation. Further, in its early days, the Victorian Shrine of Remembrance’s Dawn Services actively excluded women. A documentation work of this is artist Clayton Tremlett's prints of Victorian memorials in his Immortals exhibition, which was held at the Bendigo Soldiers Memorial Institute and Museum this year represents this issue. Of the 23 screenprints of war statues he has exhibited, there are just three women represented (and two of the three were are duplicated monuments). Further, these female figures are reminiscent of mythological archetypes rather than real women and do not go far enough in expressing the challenging yet largely unrecognised female experiences of war.

To be clear, I do not disapprove or censure the courageous and self-sacrificial efforts of men in war, nor do I want to undermine or destroy the importance of commemorating their bravery. However, I do wish to shine a light on the myth, fable and legend making which is entwined with Anzac commemoration, and the questionable way in which historical facts and reality are seen as an obstacle for an often commercialised Australian nationalism. The erasure of the Other is as much part of this myth-making as is the deviation away from historic fact. My work contends that the truth counts, and the reduction of reality when commemorating war leads to less insight, superficial intellectual reflection and insufficient social welfare action at a public and political level. This ultimately equates to more wasted life because nationalistic myth-making eases the repeatability of war whilst those affected by it flounder, can harm their families, and sometimes suicide.

I should know. As a contemporary veteran to the Afghanistan war who served 20 years in the Australian Army, I am also a war widow and the solo parent of a daughter. When he was alive, my late husband traumatised us before he suicided. This much-loved but secretly abusive man was given a heroic military funeral. Most were shocked later to hear the reality of our situation, and some still do not want to believe. What this experience showed me, and what continues to be reinforced through more experience, is that there is almost no authentic voicing of painful war-related experience because of the oppressive dominance of the white male hero narrative.

Whilst I have made this art project, the affects of war has publicly and and privately played out in my life. It has taken over five years for the Australian Defence Force to finish their investigation into my late-husband's death, the final draft only being made available to me to read this week... kind of... accessing this report has been made bureaucratically difficult, which creates even more stress. Concurrently, the Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide, interim report was released a few months ago, and includes sobering reading on the effects of suicide for Defence families. On a national level, there has been a lack of transparent and significant political and military action since the alleged Special Forces war crimes in Afghanistan was publicly released in the Brereton Report. Meanwhile, the awaited results of defamation trial of Ben Robert-Smith has significant ramifications for future investigative journalism and truth-telling. The prosecution of David McBride and difficulties experienced by other whistleblowers such as Witness K has also been made public during the making of this artwork. I recently read Yassmin Abdel-Magied's book Talking About a Revolution, which is an act of defiant action after she had to flee Australia after challenging the inadequacy of public dialogue about war. For me, all of these issues evidence the challenges and social dangers in adding any nuance and depth to military history, and how esteemed military myths and legends create shadows and blindspots.

All of this is a lot. I have grappled with finding a way to artistically clarify my message and succinctly make my point. I feel that one of the (many) reasons women's art has not easily entered the history books is because often, too many messages and ideas are put into our work, and they are harder to categorise when the post-movement art historians are trying to define and archive. It occurred to me today that it is a privilege to to have a simplistic message - like the much reinforced 'masculinity and war are glorious.' Due to my experiences and how I feel them, I don't feel I have this luxury - but I will try for this assignment.

Which brings me to my work: counter-monuments of shadow and paper. To contend with, and maybe contrast with, these big, complex issues, I wanted to make a simple, atmospheric and iconic memorial that uses print-based media to help an audience quietly reflect on war in a more holistic way. I was influenced by the counter-monument movement that arose out of Belgium post World War Two, and has seen a resurgence via the Blak Lives Matter protests. I wanted my monuments to subvert traditional stone and bronze statues that represented unquestioned nationalistic heroics and diminished the experiences of the Other (women, children, people of colour).

During my explorations, I have learnt about post World War Two German artist Anselm Kiefer who confronted his nation's Nazi history through existentialism, through collage, sculpture, print and book making. His atmospheric work appropriated nationalistic images from 'high' and 'low' media to subvert the grandeur of nationalistic artifacts.

William Kentridge's prints of iconic statuesque people on horseback and his widow print was also influential in theme, recognisable figurative abstraction, silhouette motif and use of varied print mediums.

In my research I have looked at how Australians remember, forget, invent and imagine the experiences of war. I have enjoyed looking at the following books and podcasts which have explored the invention of the Anzac legend and how much of the historic truth has been 'forgotten' in the archives. Other books and television, like The Handmaidens Tale and Margret Attwood's The Testaments is an exploration of how history doesn't repeat, but it rhymes, and the stories of women may allude power, but they are subversive survivors in the shadows.

I went to the Victorian Shrine of Remembrance to draw some of the statues, but in the end I used the silhouette of a 'digger' monument to be a simple, iconic and recognisable image to develop. I subverted it through abstraction: removing the detail, darkening it, softening its edges. I used this photo from Ken Inglis' book Sacred Places - War Memorials in Australia as a guide because the hero angle of the statue seems to be looking down almost condescendingly on the viewer.

As a side note, I also have always been artistically drawn to the big speakers attached to the historic plinths at the Shrine for big events. I always take pictures of them, and am interested in incorporating them into a work another time. For me they are an interesting combination of plinth, public affairs and collective commemoration.

I experimented with different mediums to represent the digger monument. I used corrosive and degenerative print techniques to speak to the detrimental effects of valorising military action and ignoring the terrible, often intergenerational after-effects of war. These are some images of my experimentation with using caustic soda to corrode my linocuts and strong etch and a sharp scrapper tool to erase my lithography images on stone.

I used a lot of the prints from these experiments in a coptic stitched artist book, which commemorates the war experiences of the Other.

I also reflected on the negative spaces, the shape left when the statue was removed. I experimented with collage paper cut outs and stencils when screenprinting. Did the white where the monument should be relate to white supremacy, or question who was missing, who is the missing monument for? I also developed the idea of negative spaces within a small, sculptural piece through the accordion hard cover book I made.

One of the most influential texts I've read has been academic Duncan Bell's ‘Mythscapes: Memory, Mythology, and National Identity’ where he discusses the realm where imagined memory, staged affect and the ‘myths of the nation are forged’, ‘mutated’, and ‘(re)written’. Through ripping up the print-media I started to develop collages of inky atmospherics that challenge how pervasive nationalistic narratives can blend seamlessly with commemoration, and in turn, obscure the full spectrum of military history. The ripped up paper links to trauma, but also the disjointed and non-cohesive stories that are the disparate but linked stories of people affected by a war.

German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, 'memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, its theatre'. Exploring memory as theatre, and the valorisation of Anzac as theatrics, I started to experiment using the stage in the studio theatrette as an install place. In there, I found that making an atmospheric 'mythscape' was achievable. The elevation and enclosed space felt intimate and commemorative when the lighting was attuned. I put the collage on the ground, 'falling' from a blocked doorway. It spoke to lost opportunities, inabilities to get help after war, the lack of support traumatised people can experience, the lack of recognition many get. The elevated stage juxtaposed the flat collage on the ground. I tested putting the floor collage coming out from under a plinth, adding to the message about elevation of myth over reality. I called this work Felled, the past tense to fell - alluding to what is left after war. The dictionary meaning talked of something being knocked down, but also as a second meaning: something being stitched down (the edge of a seam) to lie flat: "a flat-felled seam." This linked to the collage element, how all these parts made a felled complete picture.

I also tested the placement of the didactic in the space, and looked at the best way to use scale. I wanted the viewer to have to step over the floor collage, even if it risked them stepping on my work. I wanted this to invite interaction not just reflection from the viewer. When I went to Vietnam I remember how the temples had a threshold step at the entrance that you had to step over, and to do that you had to look down so you didn't trip - and thus the bowed head looking for the step was a forced act of reverence.

Stepping over a body reminded me too of doing drill at the Australian Defence Force Academy and Duntroon, where if someone collapsed on the parade ground you weren't meant to break file to help. You were actually meant to step over the person if ordered to march (although reassuringly the medics would have collected the poor person by that stage). In the same way, we are all complicit with war, in the way we remember it, by what we decide not to remember.

I also tested painting a silhouette of the 'digger' on the doorway. I painted it lighter and lighter until it seemed like a ghost. As something flat and faint, it really did seem like counter-monument - opposite to the bold, unchanging war statues in bronze and stone. Unlike the solid sureness of these overt statues, I wanted mine to be so subtly faintly alluded to, you are unsure it exists (like the war experiences of the Other).

I made a paper cut out 'statue' and attached it to a plinth, and used a spot light to create a shadow on the wall. The red lamp wasn't bright enough to create a sharp, crisp shadow (although the blurred edged shape was interesting in itself). The red colour of the lamp detracted from the overall installation (although it also linked to poppies, blood, Anzac Day advertising). I experimented with transparent plastic to create more ethereal shadows and tried different ways to make the shadows bigger and more over bearing than the actual small statue. In the end I found a neutral black light was best and the warm soft light it produced created a simple but clear image on the wall. It also looked a bit like a military mortar weaponry piece. I called it Mon U Mental thinking of Melbourne artist Kelly Manning's similarly named series which explored finding refuge after trauma.

I also experimented with using a flat, low plinth with collaged shapes of my photographic etch monoprints and linocuts. I tested different layouts, and explored them in a circle, lit from above so that it alluded to an 'invisible' monument on the empty plinth. I explored using 'fake' plaque on the work, and the other installations too, but found them confusing for the audience when they were viewing them. I also explored installing the collage on the wall in a circle, or almost circle, linking to the intergenerational trauma and ubiquity of war.

I explored lining up my counter monument zine booklets and using them as mini sculptures that represented soldiers, lined up in rank and file. I invited the viewers to take a booklet as they would a funeral, and thus disrupt and interact with the memorial in a way counter-memorials provoke a reaction from their audience.

I used plinths to explore the concept of display (display of trauma, display an 'authorised' history or a narrow type of experience of war). Plinths also have historical links to the sacred, ritual and performance. Their low placement were to contrast to the grand stature traditional monuments. Going up the stairs to the stage only to look down on little or low-set artworks works intended to create disorientation, alluding to the fog of war and the topsy-turvy feelings you have when you return home from it. It was also an obvious way to juxtapose traditional monuments.

I experimented putting 'fake' plaques around the installation, confusing and disorientating translucent images, which intended on confusing the audience more. In the end I felt this was counter-productive to the intent of the work - I wanted people to reflect on the commemoration of war, not be overwhelmed and give up in the attempt.

When looking at my work, I have wanted to express so much. My ideas about the topic are big, and I've wanted to say it all. It has been a challenge to hone my message and art to a clear, evocative element. To gain clarity I went to some exhibitions showing in Melbourne currently. Firstly I went to the Paul Yore: Word Made Flesh show at ACCA to experience an exhibition to give you a sensory and abject reaction. It was purposefully and very effectively overwhelming. I really appreciate Yore's work, but I didn't want my work to overwhelm the viewer. Here are some of his more 'Anzac' themed pieces from his show:

Secondly, I went to Susan Jacobs: The Ants are In the Idiom at Buxton Contemporary. I could see that the poetic and reflective intent of her work was in harmony with its installation. Her work, Hindsight 20/20 was a reflective mirror artwork, that was in an otherwise empty, expansive room. The gravity of the art seemed to draw the viewer in to inspect and reflect. Less was much much more given the message Jacobs was trying to articulate in her work.

Further, Isadora Vaughan's Spherical Cows at the Buxton, made of milk powder sculpted onto the ground, had space around it, letting the work 'breath'.

Similarly again, Megan Cope's artwork Foundations II at NGA Ian Potter is a contemplative monument-like sculpture that remembers the mass burnings of Aboriginal middens due to the early foundations and concrete lime burning industry. Her piece made of oyster shells and concrete on a low flat plinth is a powerful and simple artwork that discusses the loss of important traditional markers that were once used for navigation.

These exhibitions helped me reflect on what I wanted to create. I decided to leave a lot of my work out for the final installation. The culled pieces can be seen as my supportive work, and hopefully I can show them in a larger area one day. Their absence means that I don't crowd the stage area and I can keep it a contemplative place of reflection. I adjusted the lighting to create a dimmed, 'sacred' space. The warm lighting had a feminine quality. As I finished the work, I really did feel as if I had created an iconic and simple space which reflected on war in more complexity than the Anzac monuments we are used to seeing. I felt that I also finally felt seen in the Anzac story, the gravity of my experiences not shoe horned into the dominate national narrative, but incorporated into the careful, quiet and cosy space of the art school stage. Feeling reflective again, I consider how I had always wanted to go to art school, and now as I graduate I have made an artwork to help lay to rest the past. This piece is a more fitting tribute than the theatrical, superficial and fake acts of remembrance I've been traumatised by in the past.

Here are pictures of my final installation.

See more at the RMIT Graduation Show opening 22 November 2022!

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