Aspex Portsmouth

Week 32, The Cenotaph Project, 40 Stories

Les Buckingham, Director 1984-99

As the West leaves Afghanistan I am reminded of some of the artists who have attempted to understand the last hundred years of war and military intervention.

One sculptural monument has come to symbolise both war and the sacrifices it inevitably brings – the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1920, its unadorned sparseness and austerity has become the blueprint for monuments to war dead the world over. 

In the mid 1980s two artists decided to take a closer look at the Cenotaph. Stuart Brisley and Maya Balcioglu were interested in exploring the impact of the sculpture and the political implications of its symbolic power. Working with the idea that the monument had been left unfinished in 1920, they made copies at one fifth size and began to conceive of the idea to make a new cenotaph for each of the different venues, the changes being dependent on the local reactions to the display. A visual record is now in the national collection at the Tate. Click here to find out more.

I was determined to bring the show (or idea!) to the naval city of Portsmouth. Historically, politically and artistically this was a prime location for the artists. Bracing ourselves for what we thought might be a highly controversial display, we advertised a public meeting at which Stuart and Maya would answer questions. Expecting 10 or so people to attend, it was amazing to find we had an audience of over 100 people. Among the artists and intellectuals present one group stood out because they all wore military medals*. Throughout, each of them outlined their involvement with the armed forces and went on to condemn war and all its effects. The general consensus of the evening was that the future should contain no more cenotaphs.  

*The group Veterans for Peace carries on its work to this day.