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Paul Gough

Representing Peace?

‘Can Peace be Set in Stone?’
from the Times Higher Education Supplement 4th April 2003, pp. 18-19
    ‘I thought we had quite enough memorials that seemed to revive the war spirit rather than to consider peace, which is, after all, the aim and end of every great struggle.‘
So reflected the sculptor Adrian Jones in his autobiography Memoirs of a Soldier Artist, as he prepared to cast the symbolic figure of ‘Peace’ for the Uxbridge war memorial in 1924. For those British and Empire artists working in the classical style, ‘Peace’ took the conventional form of a female figure holding aloft an olive branch, palm frond, or occasionally, a dove. ‘Peace’ however, rarely appeared as a solo act. Invariably she was a junior partner to the more strident figure of ‘Victory’, and located at a lower point on the pedestal arrangement.

In Colchester where the citizens raised £7,500 immediately after the Great War to erect a 16 ft. (4.9m) war memorial of Portland stone, the figure of ‘Peace’ rests at ground level and is overshadowed by an 11 ft. (3.3m) winged figure of ‘Victory’, in her right hand a sword meant to represent ‘the Cross of Sacrifice and Sword of Devotion’ and in her left hand a laurel wreath – the classical emblem of Victory. ‘Peace’, during the ‘monumental era’ of the 1920’s, was rarely presented without some level of ambiguity. For example, the ‘Peace’ figure that surmounts the Thornton Memorial, near Bradford, holds a wreath in each hand, offering us an apparent choice between olive leaves of peace or victorious laurels. Similarly, the female figure on the Keighley Memorial in Yorkshire sports a laurel wreath in one hand, a palm branch in another. She was described in the press as emblem of a ‘Peace Victory won through Service and Sacrifice’. The popular inscription Invicta Pax is similarly ambiguous in that it could mean ‘undefeated in war’, ‘undefeated by death’, or even ‘peace to the undefeated’. Few, if any, memorials celebrated peace in its own right. As Alex King has pointed out, British memorial sculpture implied that ‘Peace’ was the consequence of ‘Victory’, not an ideal worth promoting as a separate or distinct entity. Indeed, in the majority of cases, only the keenest horticultural eye might be able to tell the difference between an emblem of peace - the olive - and those of victory, the laurel.

Amidst such ambiguity, peace lacks a convincing visual form. Whereas monument building across the British Empire was widely regarded as an act of official closure, the promotion of peace became the prerogative of pacifist campaigners who focused their actions on war memorials and their attendant rituals. In 1921 the Armistice Day ceremony in London was disrupted by groups of unemployed ex-servicemen with placards stating ‘The dead are remembered but we are forgotten’. In following years white peace poppies were distributed by the Peace Pledge Union; in 1926 the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom organised a Peace Pilgrimage throughout Britain which focused less on remembrance than on campaigns for peace legislation and world disarmament. Little of this political activity, however, impacted on the actual design or location of war memorials. Occasionally, the pacifist cause might bring about the re-designation of a memorial site. In Norwich, for example, when the Great War memorial was moved from the Guildhall to its current site in 1938, it was relocated to a Garden of Remembrance, later renamed ‘Garden of Peace’. A bronze plaque underlines the shift in emphasis by stating: ‘By remembrance let us create a world of peace’.

There is, of course, a fundamental difference between a war monument that purports to encapsulate and define memory, and a peace monument that aims to extend a process, or to further a cause. Inevitably, the issue of political legitimacy is central to the issue of peace, as its pursuit has never served the state’s monopoly on violence. Being associated with internationalism, organisations such as the Peace Pledge Union, the white poppy movement and such like, represent a threat to the nation-state which regards an anti-war stance as anti-nation.

Not until after the Second World War do we find examples of public artworks that are exclusively intended to promulgate the ideas of peace. These were often prompted by a fear of the consequences of nuclear proliferation. A number of the most memorable pieces are located in such blitzed cities as Dresden, Coventry and Nagasaki. As a designated ‘peace city’, Hiroshima functions simultaneously as a reliquary, a funerary site, a civilian battlefield, and as a locus of political and social debate. Invariably, most ‘peace memorials’ have taken the form of designed landscapes, preserved ruins and counter-monuments. If the siting and dedicating of monuments implies ‘a terminal act’ which closes a period of mourning or martial activity, there is little to commemorate about the pursuit of peace. Not only does ‘peace’ lack a rhetorical visual language, it is essentially a continuous process rather than one with definable conclusions or endpoint. Because of this, the iconography of peace activism has largely been developed through the design of specific landscape spaces.

As a communal and collective act gardening became the favoured rhetoric of peace, resulting in the 1970s in a network of local, national and international peace gardens and peace parks. They served various functions: in Central America they were created as ‘cordons sanitaire’ to help promote trans-national co-operation, in the Middle East ‘peace parks’ have been created as de-militarised buffer zones between warring factions. In central Africa they have been created to erase recent military turmoil and to protect bio-diversity. A network of peace gardens created throughout London in the 1970s are now regarded as the apotheosis of GLC policy on anti-nuclear proliferation. Planting as a form of protest has a recognisable historiography; even in the formal regimen of the Imperial War Graves Cemeteries there are occasional examples of ‘rogue’ planting. The central character of Julian Barnes’ short story Evermore, the redoubtable ‘Miss Moss’ makes regular visits to the former Western Front to dig out the ‘offending French grass’ and plant sods of English turf around her brother’s headstone. But it was always to no avail: the following year ‘the French grass was back again’.

Perhaps the most recent, and infamous, act of guerilla gardening took place during the May Day marches through central London. Protesting against globalism, capitalism and war, marchers not only attempted to reclaim official spaces of state, but to stain it with irreverent markers, of which the most memorable is the green ‘mohican’ placed on the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square. It was not the disfiguration of a state icon that was held to be most heinous, rather that it should be done with dug turf, a material normally associated with manicured lawn, horticultural order, and the ‘green coverlet’ of official commemoration. Compare this action with the state-condoned act of mass tribute during the grieving for Princess Diana, with its floral aneurysm bursting out of St James Palace – a triumph of cellophane wrapping and cloying sentiment.

In Northern Ireland, many of the monumental schemes that explore the imagery of peace and reconciliation have also taken the form of temporarily landscaped spaces, or open-ended cultural interventions developed in collaboration with community and local groups. A ‘national memorial to peace’ was suggested within days of the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) ceasefire in August 1994, but five months later the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin argued the need for utilitarian memorials rather than symbolic monuments, the latter having been the focus of much dispute since partition. Wary of plinth-based icons, nearly all of the emblems of peace in the province have taken the form of artist-led interventions, installations, environmental schemes and community collaborations. The few sculptural or memorial schemes have been deliberately transient in nature. In 1995, for example, an artist erected a plywood peace dove on an empty plinth in north Belfast. Although the dove was soon burnt and destroyed, further doves were sited for short periods in other politically significant sites. During the following Easter, another artist chalked the name of the 3,000 individuals killed in the Troubles on the pavement of the Royal Avenue in Belfast. More recently, a ‘peace maze’ has been designed and planted in the Province, further evidence of the way in which peace motifs closely echo the delicate state of the current peace agreement.

Where ‘peace monuments’ exist, they are often presented as fluid, open-ended artworks that require active co-operation from the public. A peace cairn in County Donegal, Eire, for example, consists of a mound of hand-sized stones individually contributed by pilgrims wishing to create a ‘permanent monument to peace’ which is, in fact, in a constant state of change. Such a ‘monument’ seems to suggest that if ‘peace’ cannot be represented because it lacks the necessary rhetorical language, it might be promoted by continuous public involvement. A peace cairn symbolises, at one level, the laying down of ‘arms’ but also the need for a commitment to maintenance and persistent effort.

Peace is most often represented aesthetically and polemically as transient, dialectic and fluid. It is rarely state-sponsored and eschews the plinth and the plaza. It has also reclaimed the temporal, as well as the spatial. Web artists Annie Lovejoy and Mac Dunlop have extended the domain of peace into the fourth dimension; their web project The Numbers and the Names refers to the global impact of September 11th. Words drawn from Dunlop’s poems float on a colourless screen, creating an orbital movement circling a void. The words appear in an order generated according to an inverse reading of the viewers’ IP address and, significantly, those of previous visitors to the web site. By using the mouse, the orbit of words – celebrated, wind, bomb, missing - can be slowed down or re-orbited, but they cannot be stopped altogether. As a virtual monument, The Numbers collates a record of mourners rather than a conventional listing of the dead; it is endlessly iterative and inclusive in a way that extends our understanding of the memorial act. In its refreshing simplicity, the anti-rhetoric of peace has moved some way from angel’s wings and ambiguous laurel wreaths.

Professor Paul Gough is Dean of the Faculty of Art, Media and Design, UWE, Bristol. His paper ‘Creating communities of peace, protest and intervention’ was be given at the Association of Art Historians Annual Conference at UCL, London in mid April, 2003. His work is currently on show in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum, London.