The Art of Memorial
With the end of the Paralympics, London 2012 has drawn to a close. But the Olympic Games had not even finished before the media’s attention turned to lobbying for the memorialisation of the events by the British honours system and the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award.
The BBC’s award rewards personality over achievement (until his Olympic triumph Andy Murray seemed to have no chance of ever winning that gong). Dave has shown that he can’t even follow his own rules for our increasingly discredited honours system, dishing out knighthoods for four minor ex-ministers whom he sacked last week.
The only hope we have is that Wiggo remains just that, no prefixes or suffixes, the fake throne from Hampton Court safely consigned to the royal palace’s skip, garlanded only by his gold medals. The public’s adoration had been freely and vocally given and his status as the leading latter day Mod was secure (even down to the roundel on his Olympic helmet). What more could a sporting hero want?
Well possibly a stamp. The imagination of the public was certainly captured by the Royal Mail’s issue of a commemorative stamp and the painting of gold letterboxes for each of our Olympic and Paralympic champions. Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking’s disbelief at winning a rowing gold was seemingly capped by just one thing: ‘We’re going to be on a stamp tomorrow!’ said Copeland to her team mate as soon as she could draw breath.
Is there something special about stamps as a way of recognising our heroes? When appointed as an official war artist, Steve McQueen would have been aware of the august footsteps that he followed, Gertler, Nash, Nevinson and Spencer to name but a few. But his fantastic Queen and Country bears comparison with any of his predecessors’ work.
The use of stamps to commemorate 160 service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq is a moving and fitting tribute. The rights and wrongs of the war are not played out in McQueen’s work. The emphasis is on the people who lost their lives, the image of each person chosen by their families. As one pulls out a drawer displaying a sheet of stamps, one thinks of the individual, not the conflict; the human being, not the statistic. The stamps are the perfect medium to communicate their and our loss, the symbolism of the soldier receiving letters from home, writing back from the front line.
On a recent trip to Washing DC, I visited Arlington National Cemetery which displays a similarly moving memorial artwork. Julie Feingold’s Lost Heroes Art Quilt depicts one person from each state of the USA who lost their lives during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each serviceman is represented as a child in uniform. It could be sentimental, but it is not and it makes great use of the American tradition of quilting. It is just as moving as McQueen’s Queen and Country. Like McQueen, Feingold’s work focuses on the individual, asking when does a hero become a hero? Are heroes born or do we create them? And when does a soldier stop being a child or a sibling or someone’s partner?
Unlike Feingold’s work which has been officially recognised by being displayed at Arlington National Cemetery, McQueen’s work awaits official recognition. He considers his masterpiece to be incomplete until the Royal Mail actually issues each stamp, a tangible reminder for all of us of the true cost (on all sides) of war. It is only right to celebrate our sporting champions. But having seen the power of the Olympic and Paralympic stamps, come on Royal Mail, it is time to finish Steve McQueen’s incomplete masterpiece.
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