Can peace be set in stone?

April 4, 2003

Memorials to war are usually monuments that are seen as acts of closure. But what is the appropriate way to commemorate the continuing process of peace? asks Paul Gough

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 16ft war memorial of Portland stone, the figure of Peace rests at ground level and is overshadowed by an 11ft 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, in the "monumental era" of the 1920s, was rarely presented without some ambiguity. 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 and the laurels of victory. 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, author of Memorials of the Great War in Britain , 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.

Whereas monument building across the British Empire was widely regarded as an act of official closure, 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 that focused less on remembrance than on campaigns for peace legislation and world disarmament. Little of this political activity, however, made an impact on the design or location of war memorials, although occasionally the pacifist cause might bring about the redesignation of a memorial site. In Norwich, when the Great War memorial was moved from the Guildhall in 1938, it was relocated to a Garden of Remembrance, later renamed "Garden of Peace".

Not until after the second world war do we find examples of public artworks that are exclusively intended to promulgate 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 blitzed cities such as Dresden, Coventry and Nagasaki. As a designated "peace city", Hiroshima functions simultaneously as a reliquary, a funerary site, a civilian battlefield and 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" that closes a period of mourning or martial activity, peace is in essence a continuous process rather than one with definable conclusions. Because of this, the iconography of peace activism has largely been developed through landscapes. 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 cooperation. In the Middle East, "peace parks" have been created as demilitarised buffer zones between warring factions.

In central Africa, they have been created to erase recent military turmoil and to protect biodiversity. Two years ago, demonstrators in the May Day marches through central London protesting against globalism, capitalism and war memorably placed a green turf "mohican" on the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square.

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 of 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 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, which had been the focus of much dispute since partition.

The few sculptural or memorial schemes that exist 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, other doves were sited for short periods in other politically significant sites. 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.

One example of the fluidity and collaborative nature of many peace monuments is a cairn in County Donegal, Eire. It consists of a mound of hand-sized stones contributed by pilgrims wishing to create a "permanent monument to peace", which is, in fact, in a constant state of change. The cairn symbolises, at one level, the laying down of "arms" but also the need for a commitment to maintenance and persistent effort.

Recently, peace has also gone into cyberspace. Artists Annie Lovejoy and Mac Dunlop have developed a web project called "The Numbers and the Names", which refers to the global impact of 9/11. 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 viewer's IP address and those of previous visitors to the website. By using the mouse, the orbit of words - celebrated, wind, bomb, missing - can be slowed 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. The anti-rhetoric of peace has moved some way from angel's wings and ambiguous laurel wreaths.

Paul Gough is an artist and dean of the faculty of art, media and design, University of the West of England, Bristol. He will speak at the Association of Art Historians annual conference at University College London, April 10-13.

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