Best we Forget?
A version of this article first appeared in Venue
magazine in October 2001
At two minutes past eleven on 11 November 2001, two exhibitions
by Bristol artist Paul Gough,
are going to be dismantled.
Tom Philips catches them before they disappear.
Memorials. They’re everywhere. Even the tiniest village boasts
a cenotaph carved with the names of those who didn’t make
it back from the front. Most of the time they’re ignored but
come Remembrance Day, a party of dignitaries troops out to each
and every one of them, deposits a wreath and stands in silent contemplation
for a couple of minutes.
It is, as Bristol artist Paul Gough points out, a strange ritual
and, having long been fascinated by the ways we commemorate “the
distant dead”, he’s staging two exhibitions in Bristol
which look at the process of remembrance. The first of these, ‘Stone’,
opens at the Watershed on 25 September where the principal work
on display will be Paul’s ‘facsimile’ of Bristol
“I’m writing a paper about public memorials,”
explains the artist, broadcaster, academic and Dean of the arts
faculty at the University of the West of England, “and one
of the questions that’s come up is why Bristol was the last
city to put up a civic war memorial. It didn’t happen until
1932 – 14 years after the end of World War One - and I think
that tells you a lot about Bristol and the rows that go on here
about where to put things. As part of the research, I measured
the cenotaph in St Augustine’s Parade and that led to me
making a facsimile of it. It’s 8’ by 8’ and
I’ve covered it in newspapers from the Gulf War with the
word ‘glorious’ written across it.”
Although he admits to a long-term fascination with World War One,
this model ‘cenotaph’ is, in many ways, a new departure
for Paul. To date, most of his work has been in two dimensions.
His highly accomplished paintings and drawings responding to the
conflict have been bought for both private and public collections
- including the Imperial War Museum – but this is the first
time he’s ventured into the installation business.
“This is not my usual way of working,” he says, “but
during the course of the exhibition, the ‘cenotaph’
is going to be whitewashed, hung with white flags and then, perhaps,
I was thinking of asking a graffiti artist to come in and write
‘glorious’ across it again. I don’t know quite
how it’ll happen but it’ll be a sort of counter-monument
which questions the idea of commemoration: do we need memorials
or do they induce amnesia? I’m very interested in the comparative
visibility and invisibility of commemoration.”
Pursuing that interest has taken Paul to the battlefields of northern
France and beyond, where the whole history of mass slaughter has
been effectively ‘tidied up’.
“I really got interested in World War One when I was studying
at the Royal College of Art in London,” he says, “through
wanting to paint historical landscapes where something had actually
happened, where the past was embedded in the soil. It’s
like being an archaeologist. If you go to the battlefield cemeteries
now, all you see at first are polished stones, well-mown grass
– everything which denies the denigration of the past –
but if you look very closely, if you’re a diligent observer,
it becomes an extraordinary landscape.”
As well as Paul’s work, ‘Stone’ includes photographs
of the ‘silent cities’ of the Western Front by architect
together with photo-etchings by Brendan Reid taken from rubbings
of blitz-damaged buildings.
Meanwhile, across the water, the Architecture Centre plays host
to the second of Paul’s ‘Loci
Memoriae’ exhibitions, ‘Dust’,
from 1 October. This consists of large drawings Paul had made of
“possible war memorials” and other forms of commemoration
and, like ‘Stone’,
it’ll be on display until 11 Nov when it’s due to be
dismantled the minute the ‘lest we forget’ silence comes
to an end.
“I went to the parade in St Augustine’s Parade last
year,” adds Paul, “and there were hundreds of people
there, and I thought what would it be like if all those people
came away from the cenotaph and interacted with a price of art?
I think some people will be hurt by these exhibitions. The public
are very jumpy about this sort of thing. I’ll be very interested
to see what kind of reaction I get, but I would point out that
I’m not out to cause a fuss. I’m doing this because
I’m fascinated by the subject.'
‘Stone’ was at Watershed,
Bristol (25 Sept - 11 Nov, 2001) and ‘Dust’ was at Bristol
Architecture Centre (1 Oct – 11 Nov, 2001)