Birth of the Innocents

The Birth of the Innocents- an Installation at Hornsey War Memorial 2008

The Hornsey War Memorial is a Grade II listed building with distinctive architectural features: the walls are oak panelled and each panel is inscribed with names of the dead, organised by military unit. The frieze at the top of the walls has the following inscriptions ‘Faithful Unto Death’, ‘Steadfast And Undismayed They Gave Their All’, ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’ And ‘ They Died That You Might Live In Peace And Honour’. A central octagonal lantern and three porthole windows light the interior. The floor is chequered in black and white marble. Any art shown there would need to be ‘site specific’ in terms of the relevance of the artistic content as well as the architecture of the building.

The sculpture associated with war and war memorials generally presents images of the combatants that reflect particular concepts such as honour, glory, sacrifice and endurance. They are also designed as a place to remember the dead. Thankfully  nowadays most people in this country, it is a generalised form of remembrance that leaves us, the living, to our own meditations.

 However, those of us who do not have specific memories of the war dead may find the war memorial a peculiarly difficult place to be. Respect must be paid to the feelings of survivors and to those who have lost relatives or friends. But the War Memorial, by its very existence, imposes a fatal silence on us all, a silence that I feel serves to condone the waste and futility of war and suppresses the instinct to challenge the nature and reasons for war.

There is often a similar discomfort and lack of discussion around the profession and recruitment of the military. Both in this country and in the US recruitment is clearly heavily influenced by class, age and gender: young men and women with low expectations of employment and little experience or knowledge of the world or of the longterm effects of war upon the participants. Such recruits will look for employment, excitement or the chance to learn a skill or trade. They are unlikely to be aware of the shattered lives and the horrendous physical, emotional and psychological price paid by so many returning soldiers, let alone the effects on the populations of the countries they are dispatched to. 

I wanted my sculpture installation in the Hornsey War Memorial to challenge that respectful silence – and to make explicit that unavoidable but silent meditation on waste and futility.

Sculpture is frequently a public art and much figurative sculpture has traditionally been used to express the values of a society as defined by the state or government.  

Contemporary sculpture, which is often abstract and conceptual, can lead us to forget that sculpture is a sensual medium that is able to speak to us quite directly, intimately, and powerfully, about our feelings. This is my main interest in sculpture, and was to be my focus in making a sculptural installation for the Hornsey War Memorial.

The genesis of the installation came from the birth of my own grandson and the five figurative sculptures of newborn babies that I made immediately following this. These works were all about vulnerability, fragility, the preciousness of life and the hopes that are renewed in us on the birth of a baby. Working on these sculptures I recalled ‘Warbaby’, a sculpture I made ten years ago in response to the Rwanda massacres- another new born baby, but abandoned, dead or dying, with its arms thrown back, mouth open and back arched in protest against the world so briefly entered.

I felt these sculptures were directly relevant to a meditation on the meaning and existence of war as a continuous part of human experience. The question is: why do we so readily resort to war – in my lifetime the UK or the US has been fighting in Malaya, Korea, Aden, Vietnam, the Falklands, the Gulf wars, Afghanistan – why do we continue to invest in, export and make money from the machinery of war – why do we send off our young as soon they are capable of killing, and generally before they have experienced a life without war – why do we accept war as a part of our lives, why are we unable to reject it?

I decided to call the installation the ‘Birth of the Innocents’ hoping that this title would call to mind its opposite – the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ a New Testament story and a subject that has been painted by many artists, including Rubens and Pieter Bruegel, who transposed the scene to his own time and depicted Spain’s violent repression of Protestant Netherlandish rebellion in the late 16th century.

The newborn baby arrives as a perfect, and perfectly unknown, new being. What subject could be more sculptural and yet so little sculpted than a newborn baby? This being that summons us to hold and protect is a creature that can only be contacted through the senses, an entirely sensual creature. We see this perfection – the word ‘Innocent’ derives from latin and means ‘unharmed’ – and we immediately feel our responsibility to maintain and nurture the child in this state of innocence. The birth of a baby is all about the rebirth of hope and the rebirth of ourselves.

We hope that through witnessing the life of the child we will reconnect with our lost innocence (for who amongst us has not suffered harm?) and through nurturing the life of the child we will find new meaning and significance in our own lives.

Beginning with the newborn baby and all the feelings of hope and wonder that birth creates in us I moved to consider, not death itself, but all the lives and hopes cut short by war. These are not only the lives and hopes of young men, but the lives of babies and children, the lives and hopes of young women and of the older generations.

I began to feel that perhaps Hope itself would be the central subject of my installation. Perhaps against all reason it is Hope that allows us to take part in war- the hope that we or our loved ones will survive. The fact that Hope, in the form of optimism, is in greater supply amongst the young recruits to war. Or we fear (we lack all hope) what will happen to us if we don’t take part. War as a response to fear and the lack of hope in a secure future?

Another work from my past seemed relevant to me. ‘Heart Matters’ is a four part sculpture of four basic identical heart forms, each mounted on a cushion. However each heart symbolises a different aspect of the human condition and each heart and cushion has been worked on, coloured and finished in a particular manner. The four hearts symbolise: the Body- the heart as an organ of the body- the Head/Spirit- the heart as the site thought and feeling – the Container – the decorative heart shaped box that we use to hold our keepsakes, symbols of our hopes and all manner of knickknacks- the Heart with strings- the heart as an, often religious, symbol of pain and suffering.

Two ideas lay behind the work I called ‘The Immortality of Dreams’. First was the symbolism of the milk tooth- every child loses these between the ages of five and seven and is told that if they are placed beneath their pillow the ‘tooth fairy’ will come and place money there, or grant a wish. I saw the teeth as symbolic, a part of the process of leaving the state of Innocence and at the same time a symbol of the wish, of hope.

Then there is another myth that had stuck in my mind -a legend of the ancient Greeks about the dragon’s teeth that are sown in the ground and spring up as rows of fully armed warriors. To these sources I added the pillow and the sculpted cushion often used in memorials- a plush pumped up cushion with perhaps a wreath or crown symbolising death/victory. The work finally embodied all these elements- a white cushion with the imprint of a child’s head, and a the small milk tooth of hope placed on it, and the black, pumped up cushion with a milk tooth on that, the death of that particular hope. Between them on the black and white floor tiles, white gravel like teeth, strewn in waves, the waves that became rows, the rows that became the solid white gravel of the graveyard, finally giving way to the wall with the inscriptions of the names of the dead from the First World War. The Immortality of Dreams, because all that survives war and is continually renewed are our Dreams, our Hopes of life.