Few days ago, while I was working at the café based on the ground floor of the Imperial War Museum, a kind man happened to come in for a cup of coffee. He was tall and had watery blue eyes. His presence instantly gave me a sensation of wisdom and made me feel comfortable. Seeing that I was alone behind the bar, and there were any customers to serve, I decided to make his coffee and take some time to chat with him. Suddenly I noticed the badge used by who works in the museum, hanging from his neck. Trying to read it, I caught up the word “cultural” on it and diverted our conversation towards his job position within the museum. The gentleman happened to be Nigel Hinds, Executive Producer of the organisation 14-18 Now. The latter focuses on the effects of the war on our current society, commissioning artworks to contemporary artists, capable of bringing upon our mind reflections on the subject. 14-18 Now is working with cultural organisations across the UK, such as the Barbican and UAL, and the area on where they commission projects are new art, theatre, film, dance, digital, music, poetry and mass-participation event. Their programme takes place from 2014 to 2018 and is timed to mark the centenary of the war, which raged across Europe, Asia and Africa from 1914 to 1918. Probably the most notable project commissioned by 14-18 Now so far, is the Poppies Art Installation, showed at the Tower of London in 2014.
After telling Nigel my passion about history and my current studies of Design Management and Cultures, he recommended me to visit the Tate Britain, where their latest commission is placed. After my enlightening meeting, the Tate Britain was my next destination straight after the end of my shift. The installation approved by the 14-18 Now Association, was conceived by the Scottish artist Susan Philipsz, winner of the Turner Prize 2010. Her work is entitled “War Damaged Musical Instruments” and it is literally about the sound of musical instruments injured during the first world war.
The installation goes along with the artist’s sound-centered artistic research, through which she engages the audience with their surroundings while inspiring them thoughtful introspection (Tanya Bonakdar Gallery). A recurring element on Philipsz’s installations is the recording of her voice because, she said, everyone can identify himself/herself with a human voice. “I think hearing an unaccompanied voice, especially an untrained one, even if it’s singing a song you don’t know, can trigger some really powerful memories and associations. If I’d gone to music school and had proper training, I would not be doing what I do today” (Corner L. 2014).
When I first entered the museum, immediately perceived the unusual airy and bare space of the Duveen Galleries, which I have always seen filled with massive installations. Passing through the spacious Sackler Octagon, I instantly was penetrated by a profound and intense sound, which was very similar to an oboe. Later another sound came up, and this time, it was shrill and slow. While looking for its provenience, I noticed the white speakers affixed and inert in the center of the arches which flanks the pale corridor of the Duveen Galleries. Every speaker plays intermittently the recording of one of the fourteen broken instruments retrieved from battlefields of conflicts over the last 200 years.
It is fascinating to learn that “the notes recorded are based on the tone of the military bugle call ‘The Last Post’, but the tune is fragmented to such an extent that is almost unrecognizable. The tune signaled to lost and wounded soldiers that it was safe to return to base and it is used today as a final farewell in military funerals and Remembrance ceremonies.” (Karamani S. 2015). Besides the written explanation of the installation, there is the plan of the museum which lists short descriptions of the instruments and illustrates which speaker plays each of them:
14 Bugle B flat
Salvaged from the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. It was found beside the body of a 14-year-old drummer boy the day after the battle. It is thought it would have been used to sound the calls in his book during the day of fighting.
In the collection of the Museum of Army Music. Kneller Hall, Twickenham, London
The short description of the Bugle B flat gives you a little perception of the powerful meaning of the installation when it illustrates the object “found beside the body of a 14-year-old boy”. Music, as I shortly wrote on the first post of my blog, is a form of art. It holds the human “animus”, as I like to call it, referring to the ancient term coined by Aristotle. “Animus” is differentiated from “Anima” (soul). “Anima” refers to the “animation” -what animates any living creature, therefore, common feature between humans and animals, while “animus” indicated the cognitive capability of the human kind. Later Augustine, in “imm. an. 7”, “distinguishes between animus as ‘subject’ (subiectum), and science or art (ars) as being ‘in the subject” (in the animus, therefore, part of human consciousness) (J. P. O’Daly G. 1987, 87 p.36).
These instruments emit the “animus” of whom have lost his/her “Anima” during the crucial events of the war. Citing Apollinaire, the instruments are “soaked with humanity” (Caws A. M. 2000), as were the objects used by the Cubist artists within their artworks. The fact that these instruments are still emitting sounds, although wearily, is very inspiring: the broken object reflects the human’s ripped “animus”, capable of producing sounds even though it is injured, encouraging the listener to be mentally transported by its vibes. The fragmented military bugle brings hope to the audience. While the speakers communicate with each other, unconcerned about the outrageous actions they are openly reveling – homicides, sufferance, betrayals, rapes- their dialogue becomes means to reach the public awareness. This installation is a message of reflection about our ephemeral society to the ones who have shaped, and those who are shaping it – Us. “War Damaged Musical Instrument” brings into our mind the sense of being passionate, tolerant and Alive. The meaning of being human.
By Nicole Afonso Alves Calistri, 2015
References and further readings
Caws A. M. 2000, “Manifesto: A Century of Isms” University of Nebraska Press, p. 118
Corner L. 2014, “The art of noise: ‘sculptor in sound’ Susan Philipsz”, The Guardian, online article available at http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/nov/14/susan-philipsz-turner-prize-2010-sculptor-in-sound, accessed on 20/01/16
P. O’Daly G. 1987, “Augustine’s Philosophy of Mind”, University of California Press, p.36
Karamani S. 2015 “War Damaged Musical Instruments” description at Tate Britain.
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, “Susan Philipsz: Biography”; online source available at tanyabonakdargallery.com; accessed on 20/01/16.