Public art and the commemoration of World War I

On Monday 4 August, 100 years after the outbreak of World War I, a pillar of light shone from a triangle of grass beside the Houses of Parliament. Many commentators declared Ryoji Ikeda’s Artangel-produced spectra, a thing of beauty. According to its creator, when experienced from close enough to hear the ambient soundtrack, it is ‘entirely meditative’. I wish I could agree. It reminded me of the police searchlights that illuminate my north-east London neighbourhood when helicopters chase a suspect. When I drew close enough to feel the heat of spectra’s bulbs, the experience was overshadowed by people around me snapping selfies. I also wondered about the work’s relevance to World War I: iterations of it have been shown in six other cities and, before London, it’s never been linked to this catastrophic event. Looking at it, I pondered our proximity to a parliament which, 11 years earlier, voted for the invasion of Iraq and which continues to support Britain’s hugely profitable arms trade.

Days later, at the Tower of London, I visited Paul Cummins’s installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red: 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a British fatality in World War I. I gazed admiringly at the volunteers working in the moat below, planting poppies, several on their knees, as if in prayer. Again, however, I couldn’t help but reflect on the conditions of display – this time, the City of London.

In the early 1900s, British and German arms firms became the giants of industry. As Eric Hobsbawm observed: ‘War and capitalist concentration went together.’ In 1914, the Square Mile was, to borrow again from the late historian, ‘the switchboard for the world’s international business transactions’. Today, it remains one of the most globally powerful financial centres. Will Cummins’s work inspire bankers to reconsider their role in capitalist concentration and war? Might the pure sine waves of spectra encourage politicians to pursue peace? Somehow, I doubt it.

What these two installations share is their inoffensiveness. Both were commissioned as part of the UK’s state-funded £10 million centenary cultural programme, ‘14–18 NOW’, which chose projects ‘to encourage people from every community to reflect on how the First World War has shaped today’s world and our attitudes to conflict now’. The problem for public art projects, however, is the idea that they have to be palatable. This is nothing new. Official World War I artist William Orpen was asked to paint over the pair of wretched, half-naked soldiers standing on either side of the coffin in his painting To an Unknown British Soldier in France (1921). Many of today’s cultural officials have similar scruples, often preferring to commemorate war without stirring our imaginings of catastrophe. Thankfully, not everyone agrees.

LIGHTS OUT: Jeremy Deller, also commissioned as part of ‘14–18 now’, was a free app of four short films released over four days from 1 August. It allowed an extraordinary intimacy, particularly the first and last films, which included recordings of German and British soldiers recalling the horrors of the war. A sharper fragment of memory formed Tim Etchells’s enigmatic neon installation, Conscientious Objectors (1914), a snippet quoted from an imprisoned British objector in 1916. It was part of Battersea Arts Centre’s ‘After a War’ weekend, which was co-curated by Etchells, LIFT and ‘14–18 now’. The highlight was the performance 15th Extraordinary Congress, devised by Vlatka Horvat. Over four hours, seven women, all born in the former Yugoslavia, trawled their memories of war. It was fearless and poignant; it was in Sarajevo in 1914, of course, that a Serb-sponsored terrorist assassinated Franz Ferdinand, archduke of the Austro-Hungarian empire, triggering the events that led to the Great War.

For a broader perspective on World War I, we must look to Germany. ‘War and Propaganda 14/18’ at Hamburg’s Museum Für Kunst und Gewerbe explores the lengths to which states will go to manipulate mass psychology. Dresden’s Militärhistorisches Museum gave this an added twist with ‘War and Madness’, including over 100 works by 60 patients who were held in German psychiatric institutions during the war. The Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin exhibited some exceptional paintings by American artist Marsden Hartley, made when he was living in Germany from 1913 to 1915. From another angle, German artist Christoph Dettmeier’s provocative exhibition, ‘Happy Birthday’, at Chapter in Wales, fused the trauma of war with contemporary gaming genres. This very contemporary take on conflict highlights both the militarization of modern life and the delicate nature of our sanity.

By Lara Pawson