Touching the Void

The following article first featured in July/August 2004’s issue 12 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article discussed the issues surrounding the use of art in commemorations of civillian loss in armed conflict and terrorism. Chillingly, the piece of course pre-dates the rise of Islamic State and the many attrocities linked to this since. It is also noted that, over a year on, there are reportedly proposals now being consulted within the community to commemorate the mass civillian loss following the tragic Manchester Arena bombing of 2017.

Touching the Void – Commemorations on Civilian Loss in Armed Conflict

One could be forgiven for assuming that Manchester City Council’s announcement of an ambition to build a commemorative sculpture for the bombing of the city was linked to the 1996 IRA bomb. In fact, the project (part of the City’s Valuing Older People initiative) relates to a planned memorial for Piccadilly Gardens, in honour of “civilian victims of enemy action” during WWII, and coinciding with the 60th anniversary of VE Day in May 2005. The project aspires to reconciliation and will hopefully also recognise that the two ‘Blitz’ days of December 1940, and in those on cities like Liverpool and Coventry, were only the same as Allied air forces later emulated (only more comprehensively and with far less humanity) in places like Dresden and Chemnitz (Manchester’s twin-town) following D-Day.

Interestingly, as part of International 04 in the Liverpool Biennial this September, US artist Paolo Canevari is proposing suspending a replica of a World War II bomb over Brunswick Street in Liverpool. Temporarily frozen in the action of falling, the work is described as a historical reference, whilst highlighting the new fear of an invisible threat (whether chemical weapon or suicide bomber). In titling both this and a related New York photographic work, Seed, Canevari alludes to the regeneration which follows in the wake of major destruction. Like the strap-line to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film Dr Strangelove – How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, it is a morbid love-hate fascination.


The 1996 IRA bomb, was once controversially described by Will Alsop as being the ultimate public art installation for Manchester – a flippant but truthful view only possible because, fortunately on that day at least, no deaths or casualties resulted. This could not be said of the IRA bomb of 1993 in Warrington that killed the boys Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball. However, even here was a tragedy that as a result of a families commitment, and fired on by a public and political desire for commemoration, has undoubtedly helped regenerate the town: also creating a flourishing Youth Trust and Warrington-based Peace Centre; as well as be the focus for the traditional River of Life commemorative sculpture by the studio of artist Stephen Broadbent.

The creation of memorials to civilian deaths are always controversial affairs, but when true artistic values can be explored and issues pushed to their extreme, often a dimension emerges that whilst engaging the suffering and memory graphically, also serves to commemorate and close it positively. For example, Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica  (currently to be seen in the exhibition War & Peace at Barcelona’s Universal Forum of Cultures), was created to represent the horror in the German bombing of the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War, and is still considered by many to be the finest example of such unbridled artistic intervention.

When talking about Rachel Whiteread’s sublime Nameless Library, built after much local opposition in Vienna’s Judenplatz, Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal warned those gathered at the 2000 unveiling that “This monument shouldn’t be beautiful – It must hurt”. Whiteread’s bleak work certainly did that – being a hermetically sealed room of books symbolising the famous public book burning, the large numbers of holocaust victims and the untold stories of their lives.


Thus it is with artist Jochen Gerz, who in creating his works Future Monument for Coventry in 2003, and Monument against Fascism for Hamburg in 1993, continues to explore a need for both change and closure on past wrongs: Future Monument deals with taboo and asked the people of Coventry to remember and record enemies of the past through a conducted poll and then celebrate relationships with people for the future, through physical inscription onto a glass obelisk; Monument against Fascism was a project that invited Hamburg citizens to engrave their names in opposition to Fascism, in the lead coating of a 12m stela. As soon as the reachable part of the stela was filled it was lowered, and over the following 7 years it gradually slid below ground in its entirety – where it remains today as a ‘non-monument’.

If a sixty-year gap still leads such commemorations into taboo areas, imagine the sensitivities needed at the 9-11 site in New York today. Not only was the competition and final choice of Studio Libeskind’s Freedom Tower a difficult process, but the selection of the sculptural works to be placed within the Ground Zero void has only just been recently announced this year after much heated deliberation: Reflecting Absence by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, is described as comprising two large voids  (like the “voided voids” of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin perhaps) and acting as cascading pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers. Whether either project ever manages to cope with the immense issues at stake remains to be seen, though one suspects only the neutralising effect of significant time passing and a victory over a hidden enemy will allow a complete closure. Of course, as one enemy subsides, another always seems to rise in prominence, like the alternating enemy of Orwell’s 1984. Now Fascism and the Soviet Nuclear threat have been replaced by al-Qa’ida, what is next?

One hopes that artistic intervention in war memorials will not be needed again, but sadly like war and terrorism, it will always be around. What must not be forgotten is the sense that in war, civilian ‘collateral damage’ made against an enemy can sometimes be seen in time, as an atrocity against a new political ally. Though wounds do heal and life moves on to forgive, surely art has one of the most important roles to play in this painful but necessary moral investigation and memorial.


Categories: Writing

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