The bus shelter outside the Royal College of Art on Kensington Gore, London, appears to have been transformed into a temporary memorial. Suspended within a transparent cavity that has been created from one of the shelter’s walls hangs a military camouflage jacket wearing a poppy. Lit by fluorescents from within the frame itself, and illuminated by the headlights of the constant flow of passing traffic, the jacket becomes almost spectre-like when the natural light fades – something that happens all too early on a November afternoon. This is not, however, a memorial but an advert, encouraging commuters, on behalf of TFL, to buy a poppy and to wear it as a symbol in memory of all the soldiers who have died in war whilst supporting the veterans and families of Britain’s armed forces with the donation made in exchange.
The jacket in the advert was probably never worn or owned by an actual soldier, yet it is clear why it has been used in this particular campaign. This object, an everyday piece of kit in the military world, is being used as a portrait both of an individual unknown soldier, who we are perhaps supposed to imagine once owned the jacket, and the thousands like him/her who fought in the same uniform. We recognize the object as a jacket, yet suspended seemingly unsupported in its frame we also recognize the absence of the body that should be giving it shape. It is this absence and the removal of an object from its intended purpose and context that provokes the emotional reaction of the viewer.
However worthy the charitable cause, this sophisticated emotional manipulation on behalf of the advertising agency is evidently nothing new. What is interesting however is the many in which the object has been used as the key protagonist in the story which they want to tell. This central use of objects as agents within contexts which wish to provoke reflection on the horrors of war can be found across the world; from official memorials and works by artists, to historical artifacts in the cabinets of museums.
Here in Britain, as in many places around the world, there is a long tradition of a visual culture of remembrance. In the last week this has perhaps been clearer than ever with the visit to London of the president of South Korea Park Geun-hye who broke the turf on the spot in the Victoria Embankment Gardens where a memorial to the 1,139 British servicemen who died serving in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. The Evening Standard cited Alan Guy MBE, of the British Korean Veterans Association:
“The Korean War is often called the ‘forgotten war’. When this memorial is erected, it won’t be known as that anymore.”
What Guy’s statement embodies perfectly is the importance placed upon materializing memory. In this country the war memorial represents the endorsement of this idea by the state. Even in this most formalized and structured of remembrance traditions however it is possible to see how objects have been given a leading role as agents of memory. In 2005 the Queen unveiled a memorial in London to the women involved in the Second World War, created by the sculptor John W. Mills. Standing at 22 feet high and cast from bronze it possesses the grandeur of similar official memorials. Yet instead of portraying human figures it takes the form of a coat rack; depicted in bronze are the clothes and uniforms worn by women in their different roles in the war effort. The effect is one of a frozen moment in time, as though the individuals might return and pick up their uniforms and return to work. Characters and personalities are portrayed, but through the use of objects rather than faces.
This is an idea that is expressed with almost painful poignancy in the work of ceramicist Jenny Stolzenberg, Forgive and do not Forget. Inspired by her first visit to the site of Auschwitz concentration camp, Stolzenberg meticulously created over 200 pairs of ceramic shoes as part of her artistic tribute to the victims of the holocaust. The shoes are displayed not in a pile, which would provoke direct comparison with the harrowing images of the towering piles of shoes taken from the victims of the gas chambers but in a ‘dignified cortège’. Faithful to the styles of the period, each pair of clay shoes is unique ranging from the tiny red buckled pair of a child to the battered boots of a working man. Whilst images of the shoes and other possessions found in the death camps have often been used as a means of demonstrating the horrific numbers of the victims, Stolzenberg’s work is a memorial to the uniqueness of each and every man, woman and child, a suggestion that we must memorialize all but remember them each as one.
What difference does it make however when the objects which are being used as memorials are real artifacts? Although objects play a central role in work of both Stolzenberg and Mills they are recreations and representations. How does their potency as memorials therefore compare to the work of someone like German photo-journalist Frauke Eigen. Whilst working as a photographer in Kosovo in the year 2000, Eigen was present at the exhumation of several mass graves. Here she took photographs of the possessions that were found buried with the victims, a group of photographs which she later named Fundstücke Kosovo (Found Objects, Kosovo). The objects she photographed include clothes, keys, and watches- all items that in everyday life play a mundane but unassumingly ever-present role. In this disturbing new context however they are altered, as the sole representatives of the previous lives and personalities of their owners they become personified.
“On my way out I saw these clothes lying there in the sun for drying after they had been washed. For some reason, maybe because these clothes were much more human-like and recognizable than the bodies, I felt far more touched and disturbed and started to take pictures. Nobody really paid attention to what I was doing there.”
Clearly in some sense these images as memorials are in their own way constructed, despite the fact that the objects that the photographs show are real. Eigen has selected her subjects and made a series of choices in how they are depicted and displayed. The same can be said for such objects when they are placed within the context of a museum. Perhaps one of the most powerful examples of this can be found in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan, established in 1955 and dedicated to the city and its victims of the atomic bombing of 1945. Found in the west wing of the museum is an exhibition section called ‘Material Witness’ which shows a number of the personal effects belonging to those who died in the bombing. Just one example of these is a watch, the mechanism of which stopped at the exact moment of the explosion. This watch, worn once by its owner in order to make sure they got to work on time, now represents in this museum context, an invaluable historical witness. The object is transformed forever from its original purpose.
It is perhaps this element of transformation that makes everyday objects such effective material for use in memorials, especially those that deal with the subject of war and its atrocities. Just as the victims of war are torn from the flow of their everyday lives, these objects suffer the same fate. As the material trace of their owners they are fundamentally altered from the purpose they were designed to fulfill, becoming both memento mori and historical record. As constructed memorials the responses they evoke are often emotional, apt perhaps when they represent events so horrible that words cannot hope to be enough. The power of objects to speak in such situations has clearly not gone unnoticed; whether we are visiting a war memorial, a museum, or simply standing waiting for a bus.
 Laura Phillips, ‘Reclaiming the Shoes of the Dead’ Jewish Quarterly, Winter 2002-2003 Issue, http://www.jennystolzenbergceramics.com/article.htm
 Frauke Eigen cited: http://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artwork.php?mkey=99832
Hannah Lee –
Hannah did her BA in History at Oxford University where she specialized in cultural history of the Renaissance. Her research interests include the material histories of trade and currency and gender. She is currently working on a dissertation which focuses on the material portrayal of Africans by Europeans in sculpture and jewellery.
© Hannah Lee, 2013. All Rights Reserved.