Artsdesk: Voices of Memory


Posted September 12, 2016 in Arts and Culture

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I said I’d write a review about Christina Kubisch’s Voices of Memory. A Riverside Sound Art Installation at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens because I’d just read a book about war which had given me many new insights into war and so I felt prepared and even eager and definitely eager to write about war and to say what I think about war. I was obviously in some sort of delirium of enlightenment because now I’m sitting here and I feel very stupid. The book was about 100 pages long.

The National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, just near Kilmainham Gaol and on the banks of the Liffey, is a very beautiful place and you should visit it if you’ve never done before. I was hanging out with my good friend and quality companion The Ham and he was flatly refusing to come with me to the Gardens. No he said, No. I wrangled, I finagled. No he said, No. I said, “A woman on TripAdvisor said that it’s very photogenic!”, I pleaded. He realises he was thinking of the Garden of Remembrance and off we go to Dublin 8.

When we arrive at the banks of the Liffey, we stroll. There’s the art, I tell The Ham, pointing at an old electrical pole with four speakers, one of them, directed towards the garden, is a typical horn loudspeaker which transmits a voice composition based on the recordings.

The Ham is in a state of nervous agitation; he is not a happy ham. He starts shouting, he runs at the old electrical pole and he bangs his stick against it. I was raised to feel shame so I tell him to stop, I tell him to calm himself we’re in a memorial park you’ve gotta have some respect. He doesn’t stop because he has no shame, he’s from Dublin. I tell him, “Stop, I need to look at the art”, he tells me, “Why? It’s stupid, it’s just names”.

But it’s not just names. It’s cheesy field recordings and some vocal effects and I’m being unfair.

The Ham goes to sit at a picnic table and be still in his thoughts.

Voices of Memory was commissioned by Goethe-Institut Irland in partnership with Dublin City Council with the support of Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, the Office of Public Works, and the Trustees of the Irish National War Memorial Gardens. On her exploratory visit to the gardens, the artist was taken by the eight volumes of Ireland’s Memorial Records which were illustrated by national treasure Harry Clarke and published in 1923. The books contain the names, birthplaces and dates of death of 49,647 men who died fighting in the First World War. 17 million people died in the First World War. A lot of these were from ’flu. I don’t want this to dampen the number. In all wars a lot of people die of illness. War is a hotbed of illness. So, 17 million people died in the First World War. 20 million more were wounded. And there was shell shock too.

Historian Joanna Bourke writes that “Symptoms ranged from uncontrollable diarrhoea to unrelenting anxiety. Soldiers who had bayoneted men in the face developed hysterical tics of their own facial muscles. Stomach cramps seized men who knifed their foes in the abdomen. Snipers lost their sight. Terrifying nightmares of being unable to withdraw bayonets from the enemies’ bodies persisted long after the slaughter.”

I am not saying this to diminish the enormity of death or duty. I am not saying this to say any one thing is like the other. I am saying that the whole thing was a sickness upon this earth.

[As many as 400,000 American veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2002 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 42% of Afghans were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and 68% exhibiting signs of major depression. This study was done one year into a 13 year war. I am not saying this to diminish the enormity of death or duty. I am not saying this to say any one thing is like the other. I am saying that the whole thing is a sickness upon this earth.]

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The Irish Memorial Records contain 49,647 names. In the initial proposal for the work Kubisch suggested that a minimum of 10,000 of these names be recorded being spoken by people of different ages. In a week of November 2015 and a week in April of this year 178 people read 42,116 names. It’s not clear why the remaining 7,531 names were not read. Maybe funding? Maybe a lack of time? I don’t know. I do know that it detracts from the work though. It feels a bit sad, and a bit sloppy, to not have included all of the fallen soldiers.

The process and contexts of the work, and the way in which it’s revealed through the comprehensive and compelling website which accompanies the exhibition, are the most rewarding aspects of the work. The Goethe-Institut and Dublin City Council’s Arts Office both contribute greatly to the cultural wealth of this city. You can see that on the website. You can also listen to just under four minutes of the installation on the website.

In the sound installation itself the 178 volunteers read the names in alphabetical order. The voices are layered sometimes and the rhythms and flows of their voices are altered, and silences and the sounds of the artist’s underwater recordings of the Liffey are edited into the recording. The water recordings are what sting me the most. At worst they sound like a toilet, at worst they make the living Liffey right in front of me seem immobile and passive and distant, at best they make the work seem like a memorial to the D-Day landings, at best they feel “atmospheric”. It feels particularly quaint when I read later that “Soldiers in the trenches often depended on impure water collected from shell-holes or other cavities, causing dysentery” and when I read that “The British Army treated 20,000 soldiers for trench foot during the winter of 1914-15.”

The 178 volunteers who read and the workers who facilitated the recordings are who gives the work its depth. They make me feel like I’m being unfair. The names being read make me feel like I’m being unfair. There’s a PDF buried in the website of the volunteers’ experiences.

Sarah Scannell says: “While I was recording the names I actually got shivers up my spine. A lot of men’s names I read out were the same, e.g. James Brown, there must have been 25 James Browns. Each and every one of these men should stand out as individuals, as men, as brothers, fathers, husbands, sons, uncles, friends; defenders of freedom and peace. They got reduced to a list. I prayed for them all as soon as I left.”

Margaret Doyle tells us: “I volunteered for the project because I feel strongly that the Irish men who died should not be forgotten. I found the recording experience easy because the people put me at ease so I was very comfortable but I was very surprised how emotional I felt when I was about halfway through recording the names. Even afterwards on my way home I kept thinking all these men are dead and buried: How did they die? Who did they leave grieving for them? What age were they? What would their lives have been like if they had survived? Were they better off dead? Why did they go to war? The whole experience provoked so much emotion and deep thoughts. I would still do it again.”

Angela Walsh says: “My reason for taking part in this Project is that I lost two great-uncles in the Great War, John and Charles Hand, and I thought it was wonderful to know that their names would be spoken 100 years on. It was a pleasure to take part and I found it very moving.”

The Gardens look like the tended ruins of an empire. The mist and the wind, the roses and the water lilies, the wilting flowers and the overgrown borders, the quietness and the uniformity, it’s easy to feel the fullness and emptiness of loss here. And it was easy to get frustrated when artistic indulgence got in the way of the closing of distance between myself, the volunteers and the soldiers.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of centuries of horror, and I hope that we find our way out.

Christina Kubisch’s Voices of Memory installation is open to the public until Friday 30th September in the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin 8.

Words: CSO Keeffe

Image: Voices of Memory by Eugene Langan. 

Image courtesy of the Goethe-Institut Irland

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