Tom Sutcliffe: An open space to remember

The Week In Culture

Share
Related Topics

We wanted it to be user-friendly if you like," said one of those bereaved by the 7/7 bombings, giving an interview to the BBC about the permanent memorial to the dead, which was unveiled in Hyde Park this week. It seemed a slightly odd phrase to use about a solemn monument, but Graham Foulkes's meaning was clear from the context. He wanted people to feel at ease with this object, for children to use it as a playground even, and for it to play a part in the park's continuing life. It seemed a generous sentiment to me, a recognition that not every stranger will bring to this spot the same gravity of feeling as those directly bereaved, and that some will come and treat it simply as a piece of modern sculpture, unaware (until they see the nearby plaque perhaps) that it enshrines great sorrow.

I was most struck by the word "friendly" though, because the aesthetic style of the Hyde Park monument, a kind of Carl Andre minimalism, with 52 virtually identical steel pillars ranked in geometrical lines and bearing only the date and location of the death they marked, isn't one that you would have thought a random selection of the public would have found amiable. Put it in a gallery and I'd guess that a lot of people would find it cold and unyieldingly conceptual, yet in this context it met with what seemed to be unanimous approval.

One explanation for that would be that no informed viewer will struggle with what the concept is. This work isn't taciturn in the way of some contemporary structure because what it's "about" is no mystery. It's about grief and memory, and it leaves the exact elaboration of those ideas to us. But the bigger story is surely that abstraction in sculpture really doesn't cause people problems any more. And you can trace the arc of that story through commemorative sculpture alone. When Edwin Lutyens designed the Cenotaph in 1919 he was attacked from both sides – by modernists who felt he'd compromised on stark simplicity and by traditionalists who wanted something representational, showing noble Tommies. Similar anxieties were in play some 60 years later, when Maya Ying Lin's minimalist design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington provoked such controversy that a representational statue of three soldiers was eventually commissioned to appease traditionalists. In both cases modernity caused a problem and solved it simultaneously, enraging more conservative mourners with the absence of conventional narrative (heroic poses, solicitous angels, images of comradeship etc), but doing nothing that would get in the way of whatever story people wanted to bring to the site. Now, perhaps because of the durable success of both those monuments, it seems that stark minimalism simply isn't any longer regarded as a kind of omission of feeling. It's regarded instead as the conventional form of commemorative decorum. Oddly, it has a link with the large poster of Michael Jackson that stood outside the Staples Centre in LA – its empty expanses almost immediately filled with the individual scrawls of fans' farewells. It wasn't the picture that mattered, it was the white space. In a far more permanent way the Hyde Park memorial (and minimalism) leaves open space for mental inscriptions. It's user-friendly.

Dolls not welcome

An intriguing report in The Art Newspaper reveals that the current director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg has banned "traditional" matryoshka dolls from the museum shop on the grounds that they aren't traditional at all, but an idea imported to Russia only in 1890, when a folk painter called Sergei Maliutin was inspired by a set of Japanese dolls to produce his own version. After that, as we would put it now, the idea went viral, and there can be very few visitors to Russia who don't contribute to the economy by buying a set, all broadly convinced that the souvenir they're purchasing has a long Slavic folk-history.

There's no huge mystery as to the appeal of the thing – there's just something deeply satisfying about this kind of recession – but it is surely curious that the Japanese, with their passion for miniaturisation and ingenious containment, didn't capitalise on the appeal first. It also makes me ask two other questions. How many of these hidden aliens are there in world culture? And has anybody produced a fine art equivalent, showing Braque nested inside Boccioni inside Kazemir Malevich and so on?

Surely that would qualify for the Hermitage gift shop.

* I attended one of Artangel's drop-in life classes recently, part of a project that has included Channel Four's series Life Class: Today's Nude (last one today at 12.30pm, when John Berger will be offering his thoughts on life drawing). I wasn't a bit surprised by my incompetence as a draughts-man, but I was a bit surprised at how frustrating I found it, and how disproportionately satisfying it is when something goes right. Our tutor didn't offer much in the way of tips and practical guidance, preferring a rather more numinous approach that was at times so transcendental that I had not a clue what he required of us. But, more usefully, he also insisted at one point that we do a rapid series of full-figure drawings in as little as 10 seconds. The only sketch I could bear to look at without wincing came out of that session, as if the speed of the operation had set aside the possibility of fiasco. Frankly, I felt like David Hockney, though sadly that sensation lasted only as long as it took to produce the drawing itself. A salutory act of self-flagellation for any professional critic though, and a reminder of just how hard it can be to produce something that's even mediocre.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high