Since at least the First World War, UK conflict commemoration has focused on staging the absence of bodies through cenotaphs of various kinds. Within the complex and varied memorials raised to honour the dead of the Great War, this is perhaps the single shared theme: bodies are absent – either lost or found and buried in cemeteries elsewhere. Even if close by in a burial plot of a war cemetery, the memorial marks the collective absence and provides a focus for all those both present and absent, those with names inscribed but also those without even a name.
In these memorials, personal artefacts are eschewed; they would provide too direct and personal a sense of the individual behind the rank, regiment and other dimensions of military identity. Military identity, embodied in name and rank, and the conflicts in which the dead fought, takes precedent over religion, class and ethnicity.
Yet staging absent bodies in a different way, through a collective of individual memorials, each marking one lost life, is a theme in a small temporary exhibition in the Chapter House of Chester Cathedral: Empty Chairs by Mike Yorke. Focusing on two chair sculptures, empty chairs are miniature wooden chairs, one each implying an absent, never-to-return body. 452 chairs are incorporated into the installation one each commemorating a lost British life in the war in Afghanistan. The BBC list now has 453 service personnel fatalies in Afghanistan. Yorke aims to raise money for the Royal British Legion.
The reason I mention this exhibition is because it is currently juxtaposed this week with our own exhibition about both presence and absence linked to the “Speaking with the Dead” project, part of which is about exploring cenotaphs and citational memorials within cathedral spaces – monuments that stage an absent body interred elsewhere. Whether a bishop, duke, sheriff or soldier, nurse or saint cathedrals are not simply ‘one great coffin’ as a child visitor remarked in response to the exhibition, they cite and stage bodies whose burial locations are lost, unknown and/or elsewhere.
Note: a few days after I wrote this post, it hit the news that UK combat operations in Afghanistan ceased with Camp Bastion being handed over to Afghan forces.