Art: MICHAEL SANDLE Tate Gallery, Liverpool

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The Independent Culture
Every November, at a certain minute of a certain hour of a certain day, the minds of millions of people around Britain focus on a piece of stone. It might be the Cenotaph in Whitehall or just a simple slab on the wall of a tiny village church. Wherever it is though, whatever its size, its purpose is the same. It is a channel for thought; an aide-memoire to the billions of individual histories and miseries that make up a war.

These stones know no appointed hour for grief. The war memorial is an everyday talisman, an essential artefact of the human condition. Michael Sandle understands that. He grew up with war. Four at the time of Dunkirk, Sandle was 10 when they dropped the Bomb and for the past 30 years he has been making art whose theme is war and remembrance. But there is no jingoism in these mute elegies. Not for Sandle the bronze ideal of the plucky British Tommy. He knows the power of memorials and he knows too how they can lie.

Sandle treads territory which most contemporary artists sensibly avoid. For over 50 years, despite the continuing savagery as such isolated conflicts as those in Vietnam and the Balkans, we have been spared global conflict. Consequently, with hindsight, we have an unprecedented awareness of the folly of war, of its brutality and of the bittersweet consolation offered by the empty rhetoric of "glory" and "sacrifice". In a climate of such honesty, further memorials to the fallen might seem unnecessary. That this is not so is demonstrated by Sandle's current Liverpool show, in which he both justifies the memorial as a continuing art form and explores the idea of the "anti-memorial".

The earliest work here, Twentieth Century War Memorial, is also the most immediate and brutal. A skeletal gunner with the head of a blind, android Mickey Mouse sits behind a polished brass Browning machine gun. With this one sculpture, Sandle can conjure up Armageddon better than any number of photographs of bloated bodies hung on the barbed wire of the Somme.

The room is dominated, however, by Der Trommler (The Drummer), a massive bronze dating from 1985, which, while it owes much to Epstein's Rock Drill, has nevertheless a relentless presence entirely its own. If, in his grotesque Mickey Mouse, Sandle portrays Death poised to fire, then The Drummer is surely the embodiment of the loathsome impulse which propels man into that inescapable hail of bullets.

The third major piece here is very different. The Malta Siege Bell Memorial, represented by a detailed model, has none of the savagery of Sandle's earlier works. Jutting out high up on the island's rocky coastline, a giant bronze figure rests in death, atop a massive catafalque. Behind, within a classical temple, hangs a huge bell. The contrast of the two creates a tense equilibrium which suggests that the passing of one has somehow stilled the other. Its imagery also recalls such unwarlike poets as Donne and Wilfred Owen. It is at once deeply moving and utterly untainted by sentimentality.

The war memorial might be, to the cynic, merely a vain attempt to reach the irrecoverable past, but at its best, in the work of Michael Sandle, it is much more. A monument not to war, but to love and hope and hopelessness, it also prefigures that which is yet to come. Certainly, and sadly, Sandle will never be out of a job.

n To 10 Sept (0151 709 3223)