Saturday, 13 February 2016

The End of Empire

TATE BRITAIN’s current exhibition Artists and Empire has an arresting, if melancholy, complement just upstairs in the long Duveen Gallery,  which is an awkward grand space for viewing any art that is not sculptural.   

Susan Phillipsz’s installation is a soundscape in the otherwise empty halls – a sequence of echoing notes that resonate gently through the air as background until one listens, drawn in by the insistent, sombre sounds even without knowing what they represent. 

According to the blurb War Damaged Musical Instruments features fourteen recordings made on British & German brass and wind instruments damaged in conflicts over the past two centuries.  Though the sequence is so fragmented that only aural glimpses are heard, it is based on the notes of the Last Post, now used a final farewell in British military funerals.  Hence the melancholy.  
Video images of the battered bugles,  horns and saxophone illustrate the recording process,  and though it’s not self-evident that  the instruments had to be war-damaged, the fact adds poignancy to the project.
Which was actually conceived as a contribution to the World War One commemoration that began in 2014, and as Tate points out, has a special relation to the site, part of which was then a military hospital (and was conveniently adjacent to the hospital for officers only, now occupied by Chelsea  College of Art.)

However, the fading notes sounding through the deserted galleries also reverberate fittingly with the memorials to the British Empire on the floor below, calling to mind the many deaths that short-lived enterprise was responsible for – mainly among those who resisted imperial aggression,  but  among the imperialist soldiery too.

The Last Post also seems to symbolize the death of Empire,  both as a politico-economic endeavour and as an idea that has now virtually vanished from British consciousness but has still-vivid traces of its impact on the colonized world.   As illustrated in the triptych Lay back, keep quiet and think of what made Britain so great, by Sonia Boyce, which is in Artists & Empire.

Sonia Boyce /Arts Council

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