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21 September 2016

Representing Peace: Can peace be set in stone?


Today is the International Day of Peace, a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace around the world. What are some different ideas of peace? How is it represented in urban spaces?  
In considering these questions we turn to Paul Gough, who gives an interesting narrative of the changing nature of peace monuments over time. 




‘I thought we had quite enough memorials that seemed to revive the war spirit rather than to consider peace, which is, after all, the aim and end of every great struggle’. 


So reflected the sculptor Adrian Jones as he prepared to cast the symbolic figure of ‘Peace’ for the Uxbridge war memorial in 1924. For artists working in the classical style, ‘Peace’ usually took the conventional form of a female figure holding aloft an olive branch, palm frond, or occasionally, a dove. ‘Peace’ was rarely a solo act. Invariably she was a junior partner to the more strident figure of ‘Victory’, and always located at a lower point on the pedestal arrangement.

In Colchester where the citizens raised £7,500 to erect a five metre high war memorial of Portland stone, the figure of ‘Peace’ rests at ground level and is overshadowed by an massive winged figure of ‘Victory’, in her right hand a sword representing ‘the Cross of Sacrifice and Sword of Devotion’ and in her left hand a laurel wreath – the classical emblem of Victory. During the ‘monumental era’ of the 1920’s the representation of‘ Peace’ was riddled with ambiguity. For example, the ‘Peace’ figure atop the Thornton Memorial, near Bradford, holds a wreath in each hand, offering us a perplexing choice between olive leaves of peace or victorious laurels. The popular inscription Invicta Pax could mean ‘undefeated in war’, ‘undefeated by death’, or even ‘peace to the undefeated’. Few, if any, memorials celebrated peace in its own right. British memorial sculpture implied that ‘Peace’ was the consequence of ‘Victory’, not an ideal worth promoting as a separate or distinct entity. Only the keenest horticultural eye might be able to tell the difference between an emblem of peace - the olive - and those of victory, the laurel.

Not until after the Second World War do we find public artworks exclusively intended to promulgate the ideas of peace. Often prompted by a fear of the consequences of nuclear proliferation, the most memorable artworks are located in such blitzed cities as Dresden, Coventry and Nagasaki. As a designated ‘peace city’, Hiroshima functions simultaneously as a reliquary, a funerary site, a civilian battlefield, and as a locus of political and social debate. Invariably, most ‘peace memorials’ have taken the form of designed landscapes, preserved ruins and counter-monuments. As a communal and collective act, gardening became the favoured rhetoric of peace, resulting in the 1970s in a network of local, national and international peace gardens and peace parks. They served various functions: in Central America they were created as ‘cordons sanitaire’ to help promote trans-national co-operation, in the Middle East ‘peace parks’ have been created as de-militarised buffer zones between warring factions. In central Africa they have been created to erase recent military turmoil and to protect bio-diversity. Perhaps Ken Livingstone’s greatest legacy will be the network of peace gardens in London planted to symbolize the GLC stance on anti-nuclear proliferation.

Perhaps the most recent, and infamous, act of activist – or guerilla -  gardening took place during the May Day marches through central London. Protesting against globalism, capitalism and war, marchers not only attempted to reclaim official spaces of state, but to stain it with irreverent markers, of which the most memorable is the green ‘mohican’ placed on the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square.  It was not the disfiguration of a state icon that was held to be most heinous, rather that it should be done with dug-up turf, a material normally associated with manicured lawn, horticultural order, and the ‘green coverlet’ of official commemoration. Compare this irreverent, but rather witty, action with the state-condoned act of mass tribute during the grieving for Princess Diana, with its floral aneurysm bursting out of St James Palace – a triumph of cellophane wrapping and recreational grief.

Where ‘peace monuments’ do exist, they are often presented as fluid, open-ended artworks that require active co-operation from the public. A peace cairn in County Donegal, Eire, for example, consists of a mound of hand-sized stones individually contributed by pilgrims wishing to create a ‘permanent monument to peace’ which is, in fact, in a constant state of change. Such a ‘monument’ seems to suggest that if ‘peace’ cannot be represented because it lacks the necessary rhetorical language, it might be promoted by continuous public involvement. After all, a peace cairn symbolises, at one level, the laying down of ‘arms’ but also the need for maintenance, commitment and persistent effort.

Peace is most often represented aesthetically and polemically as transient, dialectic and fluid. It is rarely state-sponsored and eschews the plinth and the plaza. It has also reclaimed the temporal, as well as the spatial. Bristol-based web artists Annie Lovejoy and Mac Dunlop have extended the domain of peace into the fourth dimension; their web project The Numbers and the Names refers to the global impact of September 11th. Words drawn from Dunlop’s poems float on a colourless screen, creating an orbital movement circling a void. The words appear in an order generated according to an inverse reading of the viewers’ IP address and, significantly, those of previous visitors to the web site. By using the mouse, the orbit of words – celebrated, wind, bomb, missing - can be slowed down or re-orbited, but they cannot be stopped altogether. As a virtual monument, The Numbers collates a record of mourners rather than a conventional listing of the dead; it is endlessly iterative and inclusive in a way that extends our understanding of the memorial act. In its refreshing simplicity, the anti-rhetoric of peace has moved some way from angel’s wings and ambiguous laurel wreaths.

Original publication details: Paul Gough, ‘Can peace be set in stone?’ from the Times Higher Education, 4th April 2003, pp. 18-19.


Paul Gough is Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice President, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University. Paul's research interests lie in the iconography of commemoration, the cultural geographies of battlefields, and the representation of peace and conflict. Visit Places of Peace to explore some of his work in these areas. Learn more about Paul through his RMIT staff profile: Professor Paul Gough.




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