ANZAC Day: art and remembrance

Anzac Illuminations, Auckland War Memorial Museum. Photo: Su Leslie 2012

Anzac Illuminations, Auckland War Memorial Museum. A silent display of war footage projected on the museum facade which attracts thousands of Aucklanders each year. Photo: Su Leslie 2012

April 25th in ANZAC Day here in New Zealand and Australia; our most important national day of remembrance, for all Australians and New Zealanders

“who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served.”

 A bit of history you can skip over if you already know it

ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps; a term – and an entity – that came into existence in World War One. The ANZACs first major engagement was the ill-fated and disastrous attempt to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula, in what is now Turkey, from troops of the Ottoman Empire – with whom the British Empire was at war.

The Gallipoli offensive – involving troops from Britain, India, Canada and France as well as Australia and New Zealand – began at dawn on April 25, 1915 with thousands of soldiers landing along the rugged, hilly coast of the peninsula. The objective was to charge Turkish posts (which unsurprisingly were on high ground), and capture key points along the landmass. That offensive, and each subsequent attack over the following EIGHT months, failed to capture significant ground. The defeated and exhausted remnants of the Allied expeditionary force were finally evacuated in January 1916.

Around 120,000 troops lost their lives during the Gallipoli Campaign (Allies and Turks); 8709 of them were Australian; 2721 were Kiwis. That may not sound like a lot, but remember that New Zealand’s total population at that time was only about a million people.

ANZAC troops fought and suffered terrible casualties in all the major WWI European battles too, but Gallipoli shaped our national psyches like no other.

What ANZAC Day means to me

I’m a child of the ’60s, a mother, an internationalist rather than a patriot. Yet I commemorate ANZAC Day, not out of glorification of war, but because it is such a stark reminder of human suffering. The Allies failed at Gallipoli; and in sending wave after wave of soldiers ashore, their commanders killed and maimed almost 200,000 mainly young men. ANZAC Day reminds us, not of boys-own, gung-ho, biff, pow, comic-book war, but of mud and blood and fear and misery. And in that, it has become a force for peace.

Strange Fruit, by Turtle Donna Sarten at the Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington.

Turtle Donna Sarten, ‘Strange Fruit’. Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington, 2013. The ‘strange fruit’ of the title is 3890 military dog tags – one for each of the New Zealanders who served in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972. Vietnam was a war people wanted to forget, yet the suffering of veterans is immense and ongoing. I’ve written more about this work here. Photo: Su Leslie

Art and remembrance

Art makes some of the clearest and most powerful statements about the world. Art which draws on, and references the military can be particularly powerful.

Helen Pollock, 'Victory Medal' 2010. Photo: Howard Williams

Helen Pollock, ‘Victory Medal’ 2010.Feet lined up in ‘Standing To’ formation; scarred, naked, battle-weary. Photo: Howard Williams.

NZ Sculpture OnShore is a biennial sculpture exhibition that raises money for Women’s Refuge. It is held at Fort Takapuna, a Historic Reserve that was once part of New Zealand’s coastal defense and has a long association with the military. In this blog post  I’ve looked at some of the artistic responses to the site over the last few exhibitions.

NZ Sculpture OnShore ANZAC Day blog post 2014

NZ Sculpture OnShore ANZAC Day blog post 2014. Click on the image to see more of the post.

To me, these are beautiful and poignant works. I’d like to know what you think.