Laurence Aberhart: ANZAC

Laurence Aberhart, ANZAC series
Laurence Aberhart, War Memorial, Westbrook, Queensland, 23 July 1997, 1997, silver gelatin and selenium-toned photograph. Courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

ANZAC is New Zealand photographer Laurence Aberhart's contribution to the grand international commemorative project that is the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War. This publication and exhibition of platinum prints first presented by Dunedin Public Art Gallery in mid-2014, comprises 73 images of First World War memorials from Australia and New Zealand, drawn from the artist’s extensive archive of photographs of artefacts, processes and places that mark two of photography’s key motifs: death and remembrance. The project gave one of our region’s most significant contemporary photographers the opportunity to consider defining aspects of the social landscape and experience of twentieth-century Australia and New Zealand. Aberhart’s sequence engages two quite distinct histories: the point of origin for the memorials, and their biographical trajectories across the century.

The book reproduces pictures of 67 memorials from Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria alongside monuments from New Zealand’s North and South islands, all photographed between 1980 and 2013. While it has the appearance of a typology, the sequence engages a range of points of view that indicate some of the ways that memorials were incorporated into the experience of landscape or place by those who built them: monuments look out over settlements from high; form part of public parks, botanical gardens and roadside environments; sit alongside graves and headstones in public cemeteries; and were placed on the main streets of towns and settlements. The enormous representational and emotional investment made of memorials by the communities that established them is recalled in the chapter names which organise the pictures: “Lest we forget”, “The glorious dead”, “Their name liveth” ...

Indeed, the cultural and social significance of these memorials has certainly shifted since they were first erected by communities during and after the war. While memorials and rolls of honour are a common feature of post-war landscapes, the scale and nature of commemoration of the First World War in Australia and New Zealand was considerable: reflecting the impact of the conflict on communities, many of the 13,400 memorials in Australia and 900 memorials in New Zealand remember the names of those who died.[1] Of the 100,444 New Zealanders who served during the war, 16,697 did not return home; 61,516 Australians died. In today’s terms, this would be comparable to 300,000 Australians and 75,000 New Zealanders dying in a four-year conflict. The psychological, social and economic impact of death at this scale - men, generally in their twenties and thirties – remains unimaginable.

As well as indicating the scale of loss, the pervasiveness of memorials in Australia and New Zealand also reflects the fact that communities were so far removed from the event. Little of the actual experience of the ANZACs was accessible to families at home, the ultimate manifestation of which was the fact that the bodies of dead soldiers did not come home. As Ken Inglis observes, families and communities in Australia and New Zealand were denied the cultural and social conventions of mourning and commemoration.[2] So, as well as inviting remembrance of traumatic events that took place on the other side of the world, memorials reflected a community’s inability to mourn. The archetypal, solitary soldiers shown in a range of poses in Aberhart’s photographs represent not only those named on the memorial, but all who served during the war.

We can no longer remember this context – or experience the memory of this loss or its effects – ‘from the inside’.[3] The memory networks which created, supported and elaborated the significance of these memorials have passed. Aberhart’s photographs, which represent an archive of sorts, register the presence of these networks and the memories they preserve. There are rarely people in Aberhart’s photographs, and the absence of people in the memorial photographs (with the exception of two images) surely logs their disappearance. I am not suggesting that Aberhart’s photographs are informed by either sentimentalism or nostalgia, as so much of the ‘international commemorative project’ seems to be. Instead, I feel that the sequence assumes the ‘responsibility of remembering’ – not simply the memorials’ points of origin (death and absence), but also the social and cultural response to that trauma.

Aberhart’s sequence also registers another history – the effects of, and the anxieties that followed, the disappearance of those memory networks. Indeed, the timing of the project mirrors the process of the memorials’ complete abstraction. The earliest pictures were taken at a time of public ambivalence towards the commemoration of military history that followed the Vietnam War, and which effectively rendered war memorials as public blind spots. The photographs taken since the mid-1990s reflect the spate of government-funded restoration projects which sought to restate the national significance of commemoration,[4] while the 31 pictures taken since 2012 each refer to a period of substantially increased popular interest in the ANZAC story, itself no doubt fuelled by political and media-driven anticipation of the centenary. No longer public sites of memory where grieving communities gather to remember, they have become historical sites registering dates and forgotten names: as Aberhart’s photographs show, these are no longer memory objects but the historical traces of them, also sites of repression.

The memorial at Westbrook, Queensland, for example, was covered in black grime when Aberhart photographed it in 1997; reflecting the reinvigorated place of Anzac history and mythology that was consolidated under the prime ministership of John Howard, the monument had been sandblasted clean when Aberhart returned to photograph it in 2013. Similarly, in 1980, in the once-thriving agricultural area around Katea, Otago, Aberhart photographed a concrete war memorial that had become overgrown and appeared in a state of significant disrepair. Aberhart’s picture (and he later returned to photograph the monument from different aspects) now assumes historical significance as, around 2008, the Katea memorial was torn down and replaced with a monolithic black marble odalisque as part of a district-wide memorial restoration project.[5] The demise of memory networks is also seen in traces of social and economic change that have taken place in regional and rural communities. Rongahere, Otago, 2010 and Mataura Island, Southland, 2010, where scrub and tall grass encroach on the monuments, both refer to communities like Katea, which have over the last few decades experienced significant decline, as agricultural and regional economies have seen increased centralisation and corporatisation.

Again, rather than signs of nostalgia or sentiment, Aberhart’s documentation of these sites reflects a social and historical motivation that is concerned with the material circumstances of memory as it shifts from interior experience to exterior trace. Aberhart has spoken about his motivation to record or document what exists in his world ‘in case, ultimately [it is] no longer there’.[6] This same historical function underlines the ANZAC pictures. The photographs and the sequence itself mark both the disappearance of traditional memory and the networks and practices that activated each memorial, and their emergence as historical sources that are, in their own ways, engaged as participants in the grand project that is ‘remembering’ the Great War.

Laurence Aberhart, War Memorial, Tikitiki
Laurence Aberhart, War Memorial, Tikitiki, 2013, silver-gelatin, gold- and selenium-toned photograph. Courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery
Laurence Aberhart
Laurence Aberhart, War Memorial, Lithgow, 6 August 1997, 1997, silver gelatin and selenium-toned photograph. Courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

Footnotes

  1. ^ Details derived from http://monumentaustralia.org.au/themes/conflict; http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/map/memorials-register-map.
  2. ^ Pierre Nora, 'Between Memory and History: Les Mieux de Mémoiré: Representations 26, Spring 1989, p. 13.
  3. ^ See 'War Memorial, Katea, near Owaka Southland, 19 April 1999', in Laurence Aberhart, Where Shadows Dream of Light, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2000.
  4. ^ See Inglis, Sacred Places, pp. 412–22.
  5. ^ See 'War memorial, Katea, near Owaka Southland, 19 April 1999', in Laurence Aberhart, Where Shadows Dream of Light, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2000.
  6. ^ Laurence Aberhart in conversation with Rhana Devenport in Laurence Aberhart: Recent Taranaki Photographs, New Plymouth: Govett Brewster Art Gallery, 2012, p. 61.

Shaune Lakin is the recently appointed Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia.

ANZAC: Photographs by Laurence Aberhart was published by Victoria University Press and Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 2014.