The New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) opened two important exhibitions in March. Salient: Contemporary artists at the Western Front displays moving artworks by a dozen leading Australian artists that express the senselessness of war, while New England High Country: Forty Photographers exhibits images of regional life, landscapes and people. Both run until Saturday, June 3.
Over the next two months we will bring you interviews with the artists, commenting on their work.
Sculptor Ian Marr has been making stone memorials for twenty years, putting letters and words in public places. For Salient, he carved medallions and a stele, commemorating the dead.
“As a way to respond to war,” he says, “this is semi-abstraction. Even though there are images here, it’s a different world to the painter’s, and carries a degree of responsibility.”
His Three medallions after Simonides for Hill 60 use, he says, “letter-cutting to link the ancient and modern psychology of war”, connecting the Persian Wars to the Battle of Messines, near Ypres, where thousands died.
The medallions quote three different versions of an ancient text from the Battle of Thermopylae, fought between the Greeks and Persians in 480 BC.
One is Simonides’ original: “Passer-by, tell the Spartans we lie here at Thermopylae, dead at their word, obedient to their command. Have they heard? Do they understand?”
The other medallions are bitingly ironic.
“If any question why we died,” reads one, “tell them because our fathers lied”. The words are Rudyard Kipling’s, whose only son was killed in the war, and whose body was only identified five years ago.
Another quotes Australian poet and academic A.D. Hope: “Go tell those old men safe in bed, We took their orders and are dead.”
“It's very consciously subverting the idea of what a commemorative medallion might be,” Ian says.
Another memorial is a stele with a quote from Horace, the Roman emperor Augustus’s court poet: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”). Carved on it are native Australian plants, representing the soldiers’ nostalgia for home.
“A lot of the men with rural origins, both in the Light Horse and infantry, had never known any home except Australia,” Ian says. “They were made homesick by simple things like the rain on the tin roofs of the trenches.”
Ian’s choice to situate WWI in the context of Greek and Roman wars echoes the way many soldiers would themselves have understood the conflict.
“They were aware of the echoes of the battles of the ancient world. The mannerism is to enlist the template of battles in the past to explain and understand events in our time, which is something soldiers have always done.
“There's very strong reproach about these events - not as a modern thing, but something very ancient, as old as war itself.”
Ian Marr has worked in ink, watercolour, oils and stone inscription since the 1970s, and been a full-time artist since 2000. Working on farms in Ireland and Australia strengthened his sense of intimacy and affection for landscape subjects, and these themes and classical references are reflected in his inscriptions in stone. Born in Sydney, he studied history and education at the University of Sydney.