On-line Papers / Journal
‘Seed, Soil, Sapling: Reflections on the flowers of war and Peace'
'Flowers of War' opening adress, 26 October, 2018, The Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, Australia
Thank you for the invitation to speak at this remarkably evocative site of memory and national commemoration; thank you to the trustees and also the sponsors both here at the Shrine, and also to Creative New Zealand's WW100 co-commissioning fund; a big thank you to the curators who've given the opportunity for showing this evocative and very inclusive indeed participatory piece of work.
I thought I'd start with a little background on the artists and designers [Neal, Kirsten, Elizabeth] who've created the artwork – Flowers of War – that we've come to experience here,
Dr Kirsten Haydon
Studio leader in Gold & Silversmithing at RMIT's School of Art. The only G and S program at Degree level in the country. Located at the heart of the old gold quarter near the State Library in the north CBD. Specialises in enamelling processes for constructed jewellery. Recipient of the Lynne Kosky Jewellery Award, Craft Awards in 2017. First time I saw her work – a stunning exhibition at Craft Victoria inspired by a 2004 trip to Antarctica – the 1st jeweller to take part in the Artists to Antarctica Programme. Her research and practice explored the continent's history and the experience of past visitors through the notion of ‘the souvenir'
Dr Neal Haslam
Communication designer. First time I saw his work was in an equally stunning book design. Designed Kirsten's 2012 catalogue publication ‘Micromosaic'. His published work explores the points where communication and graphic design overlaps with ‘inter-subjective' actions. His design thinking is rooted in continental philosophy, in particular Heidegger and Levinas. Recently became Associate Dean in the RMIT School of Design.
Professor Elizabeth Turrell
First knew Elizabeth when she became a Senior Research Fellow in enamel in Bristol. First in the country and now recognised as a leading authority in this aspect of the applied arts. Long history as an artist, an enameller, and as a studio leader and curator of enamels in UK, Europe, USA and now here in Australia Her studio in Bristol housed the largest enamel kiln in the country, probably in Europe.
I curated work by Elizabeth and Kirsten for a major show about memory, conflict and commemoration in the RWA UK in 2014. So, it's fitting four years later to be here looking at this collaborative work of enamelled floral emblems of remembrance, inspired by flowers, plants, seeds, found on the battlefield and at home. And like the best of our research at RMIT it's a genuinely inter-continental collaboration, crossing countries, from New Zealand, to UK, and now here to Australia. And to that end it actually echoes the trans-global exchange of seeds, soil and plants that took place in the decades after the first world war, when soldiers, veterans and relatives of the dead brought home seedlings and small plants, and grew them here, so that a little corner of some foreign field grew both here but also over there. And as we know the cones from the Lone Pine in Gallipoli found their way to parks and reserves all over Australia; they were carefully nurtured by gardeners and brought back to life, and now the cones from those trees find their way back to those same battlefields, the memory -scapes of war, in a giant circle and cycle of active remembering.
That cycle of decay, rebirth, and recovery is echoed of course in the artwork created by Kirsten, Neal and Elizabeth. As you may have already seen, the artwork Flowers of War measures over two metres in diameter and is composed of more than 480 individual handcrafted brooches. It's taken over 4 days to install and arrange, but many years to create because it draws on stories of the War from community archives and museums, but also from individuals who want to reconnect with ancestors and relatives long past. It has been nourished by the contribution of dozens of unseen hands who have created new flowers and leaves, family memories, hopes and private wishes are embedded in each of these small intense gems of colour.
People are fascinated by the process of drawing and painting onto enamel, the materiality of each part is both absorbing but also rather sublime; there is an intensity of colour, of delicately drawn line that can only be achieved through enamelling, and it takes an extraordinary level of craftsmanship to realise the vision that we are now presented with in Flowers of War.
But over and above the sheer thrill of the materials, the artwork chimes richly with our feelings about the emotional potency of flowers; about the appearance of cornflowers and poppies on the battlefields at the end of the First World War, which for many symbolised both the fragility of life and the hope of rebirth.
I want to spend a short time reflecting on the power of flowers – and gardens - in evoking [and provoking] memory, particularly the memory of young lives cut short by war.
The floral tribute might be regarded as the first draft in the process of remembering; not only can flowers speak a thousand words, but flowers are brought to sites of trauma as a way of both marking specific loss, but also as a way of participating in the early stages of grieving.
Perhaps the defining moment of the floral tribute in recent history was the mass grieving for Princess Diana which took place in 1997. In little over one week some 20 million blooms, weighing an estimated 10,000 tons were laid outside Buckingham Palace and Clarence House. I thought of them as like a floral aneurysm, a sudden tsunami of pent-up emotion, bursting out of St James Palace across the stately avenues of imperial London.
There were cynics who regarded this hysteria as little more than synthetic emotion or even ‘recreational grief' but there is little doubt that the major British institutions – the media, the Royal Family, the police and even the church – were taken totally by surprise. There was no pre-planned script, few precedents of procedure and protocol. Some believe that the resulting mass public mourning created a new cultural order. Mourning was not just restricted to London: hundreds of thousands of ‘pilgrims' created shrines to the dead princess adorned with flowers, teddy bears, balloons, messages, and other votive offerings.
Looking back, it is still difficult to tell whether this was evidence of a media-induced hysteria or a magnification of normal mourning behaviour. Flowers played a key part in the creation of any secular shrine; but many asked why is it we have created a cellophane meadow? Why do we leave the flowers wrapped in plastic?' One English broadcaster responded:
Cellophane and ribbons means “Look, I didn't nick these from the park, I paid good money for them, to prove I care!”
Yet there's actually little new about mass floral displays during times of national trauma. Look at the Shrine Movement during and after the First World War. Vast piles of flowers and plants were created, maintained and rooted in corners all across the British Empire; they became the initial geological layer on which the obelisks and the cenotaphs would grow out of the greenery. And look again at how we mark Remembrance Sunday or Anzac Day here in Melbourne, not just by adopting the poppy as our personal emblem of remembering but look at the crochet and knitted flowers; look at those powerful tracts of crimson that are lain like red carpets along St Kilda Road and in Federation Square. They are symbolic temporary gardens created for a unique moment of commemoration. They remind us that we value a fundamental truth about the link between flowers, mourning, remembrance and love. Flowers die. Gardens reveal the actualities of death. Yet the gardener has the skill to nurture and keep plants alive. A well-tended garden can act as a symbolic safeguard against disorder and the randomness that death [by war in particular] introduces.
As with any landscape, the garden develops meaning through the complex interaction between the ‘here-and-now' and the ‘there-and-then'. Flowers are a palliative for melancholy. They are a congenial environment for solitary contemplation. Gardens and flowers are emblematic of the course of human life. Like people, flowers and gardens grow, mature, age and die. The designers of gardens recognize the connections between the individual, the community, and greater causes whether they be religious, aesthetic, or political. As a manner of theatrical or ‘dramaturgical' space, the staged setting of the garden can represent both physical vulnerability and transience, and is thus suggestive of both decay and renewal. Think of the garden space of the Domain around us; the careful arrangement of trees and shrubs, and the way they are identified with specific military units, campaigns and individuals. It's not so much that nature frames the monuments, rather that the choreographed landscape is the monument, a living and changing memorial.
Garden-memorials have perhaps the unique capacity – of all art forms - to evoke poignant analogies between human existence, the fragility of nature and the consolation of cyclic regeneration. A well-tended garden is a symbolic ‘bulwark' against atrophy and decay. Indeed, a skilled gardener can appear to postpone, even eradicate, death by judicious and diligent plant management. An unkempt lawn is an indication of slovenly habits, of indifference, and a lack of care. A well maintained flower bed, a finely manicured lawn, can soften the edges of loss and grief.
Perhaps this explains the decision after the Great War to create the garden cemeteries that traverse the Western Front like the beads on a rosary. After the Armistice the Imperial War Graves Commission took over the task of remembering the dead across the many theatres of war where British, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and South African soldiers made their sacrifice.
The scale of the task facing the Commission was immense: its achievements equally so. By 1921, its architects and gardeners had established over a thousand permanent cemetery sites in France and Belgium alone – comprising some 200 acres of lawn, seventy-five miles of flower border and over fifteen miles of hedge.
On other theatres of war – In the Dardanelles and in Macedonia -the horticultural and architectural effort was no less heroic.
n 1915 a scheme had been founded to plant home-grown maple seeds on Canadian graves; that same year the Australian plant wattle had been planted on graves in Gallipoli. In 1929 the pilgrimage from Melbourne to Turkey 48 women and 38 men carried with them 1000s of sprigs of artificial wattle purchased and given to them by bereaved relatives unable to undertake the long and expensive voyage. The sprigs were laid on the graves and memorials thus enabling the absent mourners to participate vicariously through nature and powerful floral emblems.
Similarly, cuttings of Olearia and Veronica traversii were brought across from New Zealand. In cemeteries with Chinese or Indian graves the Commission had to ensure that only plants considered sacred and appropriate for commemoration were planted. Indians regarded iris, marigolds and cypress as suitable in such memoryscapes.
If you look closely at Flowers of War , you will see enamels of the Camomile Daisy and the Bird's Eye Banksia, there are numerous references to leaves, flowers, plants in the Domain and the remembrance gardens less than 100 metres from where we sit now. Of course, there are many poppies; the flower most associated with the trench war, and yet the poppy is a strangely ambiguous emblem of war; we wear it because it is associated with memory, and yet the poppy is also an opiate which induces forgetfulness, amnesia, the sleep of reason.
Over in France, in Belgium, Macedonia and Gallipoli despite indifferent soils, challenging climates, earth strewn with metal fragments, and even occasional local hostility, the Commission prevailed. Gardeners worked hard to grow plants associated with the dead from the far reaches of the Empire. However, whereas ‘double white roses, Pinks, London Pride, mozzy Saxifrages, Cerastium and Thrift thrived in the northern climate, more exotic strands – such as bougainvillea, intended to commemorate the graves of soldiers from the West Indies – failed. There were also more wild and erratic plantings; flowers native of northern Scotland found their way to the western front harboured inside consignments of turnips meant to feed the huge numbers of working horses.
Returning veterans and the parents of the dead made discreet additions to the immaculate horticulture the military cemeteries. On the Helles Peninsula in Gallipoli the father of Lt Eric Duckworth travelled from Rochdale in northern England to secretly plant a small English oak in Redoubt cemetery.