14-18 NOW: the WWI Centenary Art Commissions

I tried to peg out soldierly,—no use! 

One dies of war like any old disease. 

This bandage feels like pennies on my eyes. 

I have my medals?—Discs to make eyes close. 

My glorious ribbons?—Ripped from my own back 

In scarlet shreds. (That’s for your poetry book.) 

— Extract from the poem, A Terre by Wilfred Owen (1893–1918)


Wilfred Owen wrote some of the most iconic, memorable poetry of the First World War, born out of his own experiences of military service. At the age of just 25, he was ‘killed in action’ at the Battle of the Sambre (in northern France), only a week before the Armistice. His death was a terrible tragedy, as were the deaths of all the millions of other soldiers and civilians in the Great War. The power and resonance of Owen’s poetic legacy stands testament to the vital potency of art in times of conflict.

November 2018 marks the centenary of the Battle of the Sambre and, not least, to the Armistice – the end of WWI. This year is also the climax of the incredible 14–18 Now: WWI Centenary Art Commissions across the UK:

“14-18 NOW is a five-year programme of extraordinary arts experiences connecting people with the First World War. Working with arts and heritage partners all across the UK, we commission new artworks from leading contemporary artists, musicians, designers and performers, inspired by the period 1914-18.”

In the spirit of the courageous and supremely gifted Wilfred Owen, this iteration of our regular blog celebrates the work of numerous British artists who have been gifted the coveted 14–18 Now commissions. You will find that we have superb books on these artists too, so please click the links to find out more about them.

No doubt, by now you know that we are proud to be a part of Manchester’s new multi–platform arts centre, HOME. Although, one thing you may not be aware of is that the award-winning film director, Danny Boyle is one of our Patrons. Danny was commissioned to commemorate this centennial Armistice Day with the creation of a nation-wide event that brought people to beaches all over Britain. Pages of the Sea united our communities on 11th November in a poignantly resonant reflection on those who gave their lives in the Great War.

“Beaches are truly public spaces, where nobody rules other than the tide. They were the perfect place to gather and say a final goodbye and thank you to those whose lives were taken or forever changed by the First World War. I invited communities to come together and watch as the faces of the fallen were drawn in the sand and to remember the sacrifices they made.” — Danny Boyle

Whilst we’re talking of ‘HOME’… we recommend a visit to our lovely arts centre, even if its only to see the statue of the German philosopher, writer and radical thinker, Friedrich Engels. Turner Prize-nominated artist, Phil Collins brought Engels back to the city where he made his name – Manchester – in the form of this Soviet-era statue which he rescued from dereliction and obscurity in Eastern Europe. It is now permanently, proudly installed outside the HOME building. Reflecting on the conditions of contemporary workers and the last century of change, Collins’ major 14–18 Now and MIF co-commission, Ceremony has returned the German co-father of Socialism to prominence, and thus reasserting Manchester’s crucial role in the history of radical thought. This summer we played host to the climax of Collins’ Engles project with the exhibition, Can’t Do Right For Doing Wrong.

From one statue of a political/cultural icon in Manchester, to another one in London — in the spring, Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing OBE unveiled her sculptural mark of respect to leading Suffragist campaigner Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. A feminist icon and a leader in the movement to fight for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century, Fawcett’s legacy is commemorated in this 14–18 Now art commission for the Centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918. Incidentally, Wearing was also the first artist to receive our HOME Artist Film commission with, Self Made.

Another favourite artist of ours from the HOME art commissions alumni is Rachel Maclean. Her edgy, kaleidoscopic 2016/17 exhibition, Wot u :-) about? was a blockbuster, not to mention the bestselling catalogue which goes alongside it. She sensationally went on to represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2017 which was a real coup. Make Me Up is Maclean’s official 14–18 Now and BBC co-commission: a darkly comic film of seduction and danger, surveillance and violence that’s a satire on the contradictory pressures faced by woman today.

We are big fans of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield, and so it was great to hear of its 14–18 Now partnership with Katrina Palmer’s commission, The Coffin Jump – inspired by the role of women in the First World War. The artist’s fascinating sculptural intervention in the rolling landscape of the YSP makes specific reference to the all-female First Aid Nursing Yeomanry which treated wounded soldiers evacuated from the battlefields.

Renowned South African artist, William Kentridge has enjoyed a particularly busy year of commissions. Most notably, his new large-scale theatrical work for 14-18 Now gained huge attention and critical acclaim. The Head and The Load is a multi-art-form piece which tells the story of the millions of Africans who were involved in the First World War. This summer its world premiere dazzled and moved audiences in Tate Modern’s majestic Turbine Hall.

Parallel with Kentridge’s homage to our African comrades, John Akomfrah’s new work, Mimesis: African Soldier is the award-winning filmmaker’s 14-18 Now commission in partnership with the Imperial War Museum (London) and the New Art Exchange (Nottingham). Once again addressing Britain’s colonial legacy, Akomfrah’s expansive, multi-media film installation commemorates the courageous African soldiers and porters who served in the Great War.

The bitter-sweet theme of our wartime colonial histories is further explored by the Indian artist group, Raqs Media Collective. Their immersive audio-visual artwork, Not Yet At Ease is a co-commission between 14-18 Now and Firstsite art space in Colchester. The collective harness the power of soldiers’ letters to explore the relationship between conflict, poetry and mental health disorders.

Founded shortly after WWI in 1919, the Forestry Commission went on to create and maintain woodland landscapes all over Britain. Its work continues today at a multitude of sites including Dalby Forest in North Yorkshire. During the war wooded places like this were used as locations for labour and prisoner of war camps and the iconic Nissen huts became the home of the inmates. For her 14-18 Now commission the Turner Prize winning artist, Rachel Whiteread has created Nissen Hut which nestles quietly inside Dalby Forest. Transforming the empty space of this wartime shelter into a sculpture, her haunting memorial is filled with resonance and deep meaning through its relationship with the British landscape.

Another member of the illustrious Turner Prize winning dynasty that we must mention (last but certainly not least) is Mark Wallinger, who has been comissioned by 14-18 Now and the Liverpool Biennial to create the football themed, One World video piece. It’s inspired by the legendary Christmas truce of 1914 when the British and German soldiers played a game of football in No Man’s Land. In Wallinger’s new work the football becomes a globe and thus also plays reference to the breathtaking Earthrise photograph (taken from space by Apollo 8 in 1968). We think the artist’s own words make for a very fitting conclusion to our November blog — we hope you’ll agree…?

‘Time to stop fighting and start playing. Playing the beautiful game. Let’s take that image of a precious and fragile world into the future and celebrate the joy of playing together.’ — Mark Wallinger

Image credit: Pages of the Sea by Danny Boyle (Murlough beach, County Down, Northern Ireland, 11 November 2018)
Posted on 14th November 2018
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