arch-peace editorials

18 August 2009

Public Mourning

Public mourning recently manifest itself in two curious forms in the state of Victoria, Australia. The first was a national day of mourning following the recent bushfires, known as Black Saturday, which killed 173 people. The second was a road side memorial commemorating the death of four teenagers that allegedly caused the death of another person at the same site two weeks later.

Commemorative events and spontaneous memorials gain resonance in the manner in which they appropriate public space. Sites that are used for one function are transformed for a period of time into a place of ceremony. Urban infrastructure becomes a prop for personal shrines. The form which these ceremonies and shrines assume demands respect regardless of the site’s former purpose or the manner in which the memorial is made. However, the location only partially assumes the status of a collective site of memory. Public space remains contested most clearly in matters of death and who can be commemorated, how, where and by whom.

The Premier of Victoria announced that the Federation Bells would be rung at 11 am on Sunday 22 February 2009 to commence the national day of mourning. He invited the ringing of church and town hall bells to join this moment of reflection.

I was unsure how to express my feelings at such a tragic loss of life and decided to be present. I imagined the air filled with the sounds of bells radiating out from the city centre to the suburbs. No words would be needed.

Federation Bells were commissioned as part of an earlier commemoration marking the centenary of the Federation of Australia. Designed by Neil McLachlan and Anton Hassell, the idea behind Federation bells is the question of whether secular society can have meaningful ceremony. In proposing a response to this question, the designer and artist team trace the spatial and sonic history of bell ringing from church spire to clock tower as the signifier of the city's collective ritual – the sound of religious ceremony is surrogated by mechanistic time in architecture and acoustic form that would be the medium of this work of art. Federation Bells is essentially a public artwork as instrument for which compositions are written and it was planned that these would be played daily at specific times or on specific occasions. It is an instrument consisting of 39 inverted bronze bells of various sizes standing at varying heights in Birrurung Marr. Birrarung Marr, the first park to be constructed in Melbourne in 100 years, means 'river of mists' and 'river bank' in the Woiwurrung language of the Wurundjeri people, and is a symbolic gesture of reconciliation with the original custodians of the land.

On the National Day of Mourning, in this location of historic symbolism, I was the only other person to join a television crew waiting at Federation Bells as 11.00am came and went with not a single bell tolled in the whole of the City of Melbourne. A dirge rose from the nearby Rod Laver arena, possibly the national anthem, marking the commencement of our national day of mourning. The bells to be rung turned out to be another set of much smaller, hand ringing bells and the televised ceremony was held inside the artificially lit and climate controlled sports facility. That the national day of mourning should happen inside a sports stadium and through the televised tears and speeches transmitted into the living rooms and towns across Australia is perhaps understandable from a practical point of view. But public mourning is unmediated and its impacts on the vicariously involved is through sound (or silence) and physical presence in a city or town. However, the capital city of Black Saturday could not be interrupted by even a sound, a moment of pause and involuntary collective reflection. The mourners could not be seen in public except exiting the sports stadium, caught, edited and telecast by the waiting television crew as they made their way into the car park and back home.

The public artwork in the public park, imagined as a place of public ceremony, ringing out through the entire city a mournful toll marking a national day of mourning could not be realized and was never even considered.

The only toll to permeate this car dependent city for its 70 kilometre radius is the road toll. Like the national day of mourning it is telecast into our homes and towns. The nightly news reports the aftermath of mangled vehicles and an endless, escalating and shocking series of advertisements graphically depict full impact, multi car collisions and dramatised reenactments of human tragedy. Bumper stickers feature a white line crucifix under the slogan of “Touched by the Toll” and spontaneous memorials sprout along the extensive and ever expansive road networks of Metropolitan Melbourne.

On the 27 June 2009 four young people were killed in a two car collision in the outer suburb of Lynbrook in metropolitan Melbourne. A memorial was erected by friends of the deceased which grew, scaling a pole to over three metres and strewing over the pavement at an intersection which was the site of the accident. Just two weeks later, a fatality occurred at exactly the same spot with a driver collided with a truck. It was suggested that the shrine either obscured the view or distracted the driver and caused the accident. The shrine was subsequently removed by the authorities to the protests of friends of the first fatalities.

People do not chose where they die. For young people in Victoria between 15 -29 this place is most likely to be on a road, in or hit by a car. Unlike the Lynbrook memorial, most shrines are modest and personal in scale, made as if to be visited and tendered by individuals while signifying a place of mourning to the general public. Made with tremendous care from everyday items, the spontaneous memorials demand acknowledgement for this very reason – they universalize the personal and personalize the collective tragedy of the road toll in a material and present manner. These shrines are defiant in a way that is inspiring and poignant, countering the speed with a shrine to the victim of this very velocity and marking a place in an urban form often described as a non place. These memorials are beginning to feature on freeways where, paradoxically, it is illegal to stop except for an emergency and where pedestrians are banned. I have yet to see one of these memorials on the privately managed tollway where there is no advertising, litter, life or presumably death.

Unlike the public day of mourning without a presence in a public place, the roadside memorial takes possession of space and forces the uninvolved to consider death in the course of our daily life. It cannot be ignored like the enclosed ceremony, shrugged off or generate repulsion like the graphic television advertisements and it is most certainly a citizen initiated action about the one thing we all share - mortality.

Post Script: In the Brazilian city of Puerto Alegre one metre wide, white stencilled butterflies on the black bitumen road mark the site of road fatalities and television advertisements for mental health are based on happiness.

Anthony McInneny
Architects for Peace, August 2009


Beatriz said...

This is a very important and moving editorial Anthony. It is sad to realised that even our moments of deep collective mourning are structured around convenience and order. This is awfully restricting--an absurd situation that regrettably may reflect our culture.

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