The Culture Of Display


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Essay for BA Photography at University of Glamorgan

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The Culture Of Display

  1. 1. Alan Stephen Evans BA (Hons) Photography 2006/07 Critical and Contextual Studies Stewart Roberts April 10th 2006 The Culture of Display
  2. 2. Peacocks and Flamingos From the earliest times, objects have been placed on display. We could go back to the very beginning and take the Christian belief that God made everything. If this were the case, it may be the first example of an artist exhibiting his work. Moses scribed his ten commandments onto stone. Was this an early example of an artist exhibiting his work? Were the commandments meant as a guide to live one’s life or a trendy, contemporary statement of the day? The subject matter that has been displayed has been varied. We could make a link between the work of ancient Egyptians and that of the artist Damien Hirst. Both preserved dead animals for exhibition. We could also make a link between the Aboriginal cave painters to the modern day graffiti artist. Both painted symbols on walls for expressing their identity, environment and culture. Displays have throughout history evoked mixed reactions and had varying affects on people’s daily lives. The transport system has seen a rapid development since the invention of the motorcar. Before there were cars, lorries, and other forms of high-speed transport. The roads were reasonably safe to stroll along. T he roads were in fact, carriageways or bridle paths meant only for horse drawn carriages. The chances of an accident occurring were minimal. One might see the occasional sign, milestone or boundary stone at the side of the road. There was nothing for the traveller to look at save for the beautiful, unspoilt landscape. Compare this with the chaos on today’s roads, airways and rail tracks. The world has been opened up and we are able to travel from one end to the other in a matter of hours. We are confronted at every turn by information, advertising, warnings and controls. Each of these items has been prepared to maximise the chances of getting our attention. These displays range from the basic road sign to enormous billboards. Large sums of money are spent on updating them. They are seen as a necessary distraction. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of roadside memorials appearing. These memorials mark the place where a tragic accident has occurred. There is no other evidence at the scene. The memorials take many shapes and forms. They juxtapose
  3. 3. the presence of mass commercialism and neon lights. Usually a simple bunch of flowers marks the spot. Some contain headstones, crosses, oil burners, poems, personal items, etc. The memorial tends to remain until it fades away, is removed or overgrown by nature. For a time, the site of the accident becomes as important as the actual burial site. The place where death occurred becomes the focal point. Anniversaries are remembered there. The grave is the final resting place but the crash site plays an important part in the grieving and remembering process. Although the roadside memorial is a relatively new phenomenon, we can look back in history and find examples of similar gestures. Bunches of herbs have been found in the hands of mummies. In Greece in the sixth century gardens were formed which paid tribute to Adonis. At the Festival of Adonis, celebrated at midsummer Athenian women sang dirges over the death of Aphrodite’s lover. They placed a figure of Adonis on the rooftop. Round this they placed earthen pots filled with soil. The women planted fennel lettuce wheat and barley. The plants sprouted rapidly and withered just as quickly. They believed that this signified the fate of all vegetation. After its great beauty in springtime it fades early, dried up in the hot summer of a Southern land. This is symbolised in the mourning for the early violent death of the beautiful youth Adonis. Throughout the World wars, soldiers have placed flowers where their comrades had fallen. So much so that on battle sites throughout the world, a rich variety of flowers have appeared. The poppy is the most recognisable and symbolic for the British armed forces. It is used on Remembrance Day every year. Flowers have been used in art throughout history. Vincent Van Gough painted irises, sunflowers and poppies. Salvador Dhali used flowers in his surrealist paintings. Primavera by Boticelli depicts the Three Graces surrounded by nature on a carpet of every imaginable flower. This may be interpreted as symbolising life, birth, and regeneration. The presence of the wind is dark. He is reaching for one of the graces. This could be interpreted as symbolising the rape of the land, winter, death, and destruction. The presence of innocence and its ultimate loss. A
  4. 4. contemporary version might feature a car in place of the wind. The carpet of flowers replaced by a stretch of road. An innocent life taken before its time. In his book, ‘If We The Shadows’, the photographer David Bailey includes a number of images, which focus on death. One of the first images we see is of a gravestone with his namesake on it. We see girls embraced and kissing with a skull between their bodies. The image ‘St Margaret’s Cemetery’ shows a group of stone angels with a covering of snow. There are images of dead animals, hands bearing deaths heads, crucifixes and images of Christ. This is something, which has become apparent in my own work. It could be described as a morbid curiosity similar to that when we slow down to look at the roadside memorial. As we grow older, the prospect of one’s own death grows closer. My own reasons for focussing on death, as subject matter is a conscious way of dealing with the fear I have for it. There are a number of other photographers whose work features death as a subject matter. David B Nance has been photographing roadside memorials in America. He has also traced the history of roadside memorials. The custom of marking the site of a death on the road has its roots in the Hispanic culture of the Southwest, where memorials are often referred to as Descansos ("resting places"). He makes a link between the memorials erected at the site where funeral processions paused on the journey between the church and cemetery. He surmises that an association is created between the road, the interrupted journey, and death as a destination. This is where he believes the present day memorials found expression in the practice of marking the location of fatal accidents on the road.1 Nance describes the first ‘Descansos as, ‘resting places where those who carried the coffin from the church to the camposanto paused to rest.2 The symbolism or presence of flowers also has its roots here. Nance believes that some of the mourners would have been carrying sprigs of juniper, wild flowers. or small branches 1 2 Ibid
  5. 5. of piñon. Someone would tie them together with a leather thong, then plant the cross in the ground. This became a permanent reminder. The roadside memorial could be interpreted as someone’s public exhibition. The items are usually carefully arranged and face the road. They are almost always hand-made They vary a great deal in form and style and are given a place of prominence. One could argue that this display should remain a private matter. In placing the objects, there is a defininte attempt to gain attention much the same as the advertising billboards do. The exhibitor understands or even expects that the display will be seen. There is nothing being sold. There are no obvious words to read other than the labels on the flowers. One would have to stop and take the time to read these. They are not led by fashion or driven or affected by media or commercial influences. Whilst the flowers exist and have a strong visual presence, they are signifiers of a life taken. They remind us of our own mortality. They confront us with the reality of death as an actual event that arrives for a particular person, at a particular place, at a particular time. Flowers have traditionally been placed on the graves of loved ones. This was their final resting place. Following the death of Princess Diana, flowers were placed at sites around the world. This was to be repeated in the case of almost every subsequent death of a celebrity or in the aftermath of disasters. The Heisel stadium disaster, the London bombings and the murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. In the United Kingdom, grief had always been a private affair. Restraint and a stiff upper lip were the norm for the upper classes. The working classes mourned and then held a celebration of sorts. This is taken further in Ireland where the wake is a very lively affair. These enormously publicised events appear to have had an impact on the public’s psyche. One could argue that the working classes were more likely to take part in a public display of grief. This had always been the case in the event of the death of a member of the Royal Family. In the event of Diana’s death, it took the Nation by surprise. One could argue that it becomes more emotionally charged when someone dies young. This is often the case in
  6. 6. car crashes. It is predominantly young males who are the victims. On hearing of the death of Princess Diana, I took a bunch of flowers up to Kensington Palace. It was early in the morning and there were approximately 5 bunches of flowers placed on the railings. No one could have imagined the quantity of tributes, which were to follow. It was an enormous outpouring of public grief. The events were to have a profound affect on people all over the world. The following are extracts from a BBC website which hosted reactions to her death. Watching all the events on TV is very saddening. I feel a sense of loss yet I never met Diana. It is very astounding to me how one person can touch so many lives. Debbie R Lancaster, California. When I heard of your death Diana, my life became more important. I know that sounds strange but I had forgotten the things that you held strong and give to other people. Now you have given us all something we had all lost in our feelings, LOVE. You will live forever. Kevin Such a great loss is felt all around the world, we pray for the two young princes. Your mother was a wonderful woman. The Ramsden family, Seattle, Washington. 3 Some people felt a need to make a public display of their grief. Each year, flowers are placed around a tree at the side of the road where Mark Bolan lost his life. Friends, fans or family paying tribute at the place where the journey of life was interrupted. They could be described as ‘Contemporary Descansos’. This is what the roadside memorials appear to be. People react differently to this form of symbolism. There are those who argue that the memorials are a danger and a potentially dangerous distraction. A county councilor from North Yorkshire has denounced the memorials as ‘appalling’. Councillor Richard Thomas, who lost his son Charlie in a crash in 1996, thinks the floral arrangements could distract drivers and cause more accidents. He is calling on North Yorkshire County Council to ban 3
  7. 7. the shrines. He believes that the trend has grown from Europe. He points out that he is a committed Anglican. One can only presume that he believes that it has its roots in Catholicism. Although Mr. Thomas could be correct in indicating its origins, the growing phenomenon does not appear to be the unique trait of any one religion or culture. 4 There is an ongoing debate amongst relatives of victims, parliamentarians, local authorities and pro-active groups as to whether they should become legal. It is a highly charged, contemporary and sensitive issue. At present, there is no legislation to allow or ban roadside memorials or shrines. Memorabilia, activist groups, parliamentary papers, etc, have begun to focus on these issues. A Hansard document in June 2000 reads as follows Mr. Bob Russell: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what procedures exist for the erection of roadside memorials to commemorate the lives of those killed in accidents; and if he will make a statement? [123874] Mr. Hill: Although Britain has a good road safety record there are still far too many people killed and injured in road traffic accidents. It is for local highway authorities to ensure that any roadside memorials to commemorate the lives of those killed in accidents comply with the provisions of the various Highways Acts and Road Traffic Acts and do not themselves become a road safety hazard either through obstruction of the highway or a distraction to road users.5 Since August 2003, hundreds of new signs started to appear on British roads. Small plaques, displaying a single red flower on a black background and carrying the message 'Remember Me' mark the places where someone has been killed or seriously injured in a road crash. The red flower represents a scarlet anemone - a flower associated in mythology with love and loss. Members of RoadPeace, the UK’s national charity for road traffic victims, placed the signs. The 'Remember Me' signs are the first ever nation-wide public 4 5
  8. 8. acknowledgement for those killed and injured on Britain's roads, and for their families. The organisation describes them as: ‘An arresting, universally understood and non-denominational reminder of the dangers we all face when using the roads’. 6 RoadPeace provides dedicated support and advice to road crash victims. The organisation has also sought to highlight the scale and preventable nature of road deaths and injuries. Floral tributes to road crash victims have become a common sight on Britain's roads. The shrines are a visible focus of grief for families and friends of victims. They also provide a warning to motorists, pedestrians and cyclists of the dangers that exist on the roads. The memorials are a non-permanent fixture. The flowers will eventually die. Road users have no lasting reminder of the dangers at the location. Brigitte Chaudhry, National Secretary of RoadPeace, said: "We would like to see the 'Remember Me' sign erected automatically wherever someone is killed or seriously injured in a road crash - to highlight the scale, remember victims and prevent future tragedies." 7 With the growing publicity and public reaction to national disasters, there are some who believe that the families of road death victims are entitled to place memorials at the site. Jenny Jones, Deputy Mayor of London, said: "We have monuments to recent tragedies, like the Paddington rail crash, but not to the thousands of people who have been dying for decades in an everyday slaughter on the streets." 8 Flowers have been used to display many emotions. The red rose may be associated with sex. It may also be associated with a Ruby Wedding anniversary or a number of other 6 7 Ibid 8 Ibid
  9. 9. occasions. They are given for engagements, births, weddings, mother’s day, anniversaries, etc. The meanings and associations are endless. When received, they are usually placed on display for all to see. The short lifespan of cut flowers reflects the fragility of life. In the long term, artificial flowers might replace them. One might conclude that this is a way of distancing oneself from the person. Less visits and eventually an overgrown grave or memorial site. As with fashion, art and the generations of life, the times change and the old are forgotten. There are already examples of virtual memorials. It is a worldwide phenomenon. America appears to have the largest collection of web based items on the subject. Ireland France and Australia also feature heavily. Websites exist which are completely dedicated to the memory of individuals or groups of people killed on the road. Some of these sites contain newspaper reports and details of the accident. The following appeared on an Irish website Arklow gardai have also appealed for witnesses to a hit-and-run that claimed the life of a young man. The victim, who is believed to be between 25 and 30, was found at the side of the N11 at Ballynapark at 12.30am on Saturday. Gardai have not yet released his name, as they are waiting for his family to return from abroad.9 I could not find any statistics to compare the responses of males and females to the roadside memorials. My own response is to momentarily think about what might have happened. Perhaps this is a typical male response. Wanting to know the mechanics rather than the emotions. There are numerous websites, which feature the roadside memorials. It may be significant that the sites created by males tend to focus on the mechanics. They are usually photographers. Females create the sites, which are quite emotionally charged. These online tributes also require looking after. Eventually, they too may be removed from cyberspace. With time, our attitudes to death may change. People are living longer. People are taking control over the way in which they die. The planet is close to meltdown if the scientists 9
  10. 10. supporting the theory of Global Warming are to be believed. The growing amount of controversy surrounding the placing of roadside memorials is akin to any contemporary movement. Modern day artists such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers have all faced the public’s disapproval. The trend has been that the greater the disapproval, the greater the chances of the subject matter gaining celebrity. It may only be a matter of time before an art dealer snaps up a roadside memorial. The shed, boat, shed Turner Prize winner could soon be standing alongside the pillar from the tunnel where Princess Diana’s life ended. My own Descansos would have to be a plaque, which could be, used as a camera, inscribed with the words, ‘just one more’. The following quote best sums up the way in which we live our lives in the seconds before the appearance of a new roadside memorial. We say that the hour of death is uncertain, but when we say this we think of that hour as situated in an obscure and distant future. It does not occur to us that it can have any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance".10 10 Marcel Proust, In Search Of Lost Time, Vol III -The Guermantes Way, Part Two : Chapter One