Re-shaping a First World War narrative : a sculptural memorialisation inspired by the letters and diaries of one New Zealand soldier : a thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Fine Arts, Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand
The First World War saw the creation of what Jay Winter describes as a plethora of ‘sites of memory and sites of mourning’ in response to catastrophic loss of human life and the need to recognise the sacrifices and contributions of combatants. Memorialisation of war can take many forms including monuments, architecture, and military rituals, or performative, written, and other acts. War memorials contribute to (self or national) conceptions of identity and sacrifice in their acknowledgement of the costs of war. Often, they straightforwardly record and commemorate military service or deaths and help define the public’s relationship to those deaths, or survivals. Memorials may warn against future war or condemn conflict; they may take the form of the counter-memorial and question the role of monuments, especially those of a didactic nature that celebrate heroics or glorify sacrifice. They might even reject the idea of the monument altogether.
This creative practice PhD research thesis, located in the First World War and with memory at its centre, comprises two parts, a body of creative work and a supporting exegesis. The creative practice is concerned with sculptural memorialisation inspired by the self-written testimony contained in letters and diaries of one First World War New Zealand soldier, Alfred Owen Wilkinson, 2/1498, New Zealand Field Artillery, First New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The research proposes that miniature sculptures may be used to negotiate between the actual and the fictional, to memorialise the experiences of this soldier. While these miniature sculptures, primarily made from found materials, are concerned with the universal story of combatants in the First World War, they are simultaneously intimately bound with the imagined experiences of a particular soldier. A series of fictional speculations that could be described as being ‘based on a true story’ are manifest in the miniature sculpture’s ‘compressive’ capabilities that make the unimaginable scale of the First World War landscape comprehensible.
The exegesis locates the miniature sculpture against a theoretical backdrop of memorialisation, memory, and narrative. The sculptural process, aesthetic choices, and the interpretation of the nine episodic, narrative sculptures selected as a coherent collection are discussed. The choice of exhibition site (the Hall of Memories at New Zealand’s National War Memorial) and its evocative resonance, and the display means used to elicit an affective viewer response are also examined. A field of related sculptural memorialisation practices is reviewed and through a process of analysing points of similarity and difference, the distinction between the works in this collection and other works concerned with the miniature and the sculptural depiction of war is established.