From thick edged panels of paper hanging in the empty spaces of the gallery, young men appear deep in thought. In military uniform, amidst romantic swathes of brush-stroked, vaguely gothic gloom, the soldiers of Paul McLachlan’s Home Ground portraits appear steadfast, noble and heartbreakingly young.
McLachlan imbues his works with empathy and gravitas while maintaining a lightness of spirit and technique that ensures the images aren’t didactic or overtly sentimental. In the quiet intensity of these works he explores an atavistic response to bereavement and memory far more powerful than mere nostalgia; populating our understanding of our nation’s history with characters we can imagine we know and communicating a sense of loss around this tragic part of our history we might otherwise feel disconnected from.
To give some context to the works we must explore the concepts of memory and history. History is an objective inquiry into the past, whereas memory is a conviction about the past. In this vein, we can define memory as the key to personal and collective identity, to defining ourselves as individuals, and to defining ourselves as a nation. What we choose to commemorate (and what we choose to erase) creates our personhood, a key component to the experience of self-identity. Throughout history, art has been a way to preserve those memories, perhaps most obviously in public memorials.
The story of these works begin with the thirty-eight marble statues of soldiers commemorating the Great War, which were carved in Italy, and erected throughout New Zealand.Some of the statues were produced from photos of particular soldiers, in an attempt to capture a New Zealand likeness within these soldier figures. Each statue is usually created standing at attention, with rifles reversed and their faces lowered. Though there are some brave exceptions, such as the digger in Kaiapoi, or the aggressive stance of the soldier in Te Aroha, most of these statues maintain a conflicting and ambivalent line between pride in “our brave lads” who had upheld the myth of ‘the glory of war’, and the grief at the loss of so many young men (Todman, 2005). These are young men who are depicted in a blandness of expression, in an almost faceless quality which allows the viewer to imprint their own loved one onto the statue.
Using digital sculpting software McLachlan has digitally remodelled ten of the soldiers from the South Island, fleshing out the forms to create a pseudo-realistic interpretations of the forms. The process of creating these images is aptly described as digital taxidermy. A smooth virtual sculpture is digitally constructed, then coated with a texture or flesh, or hair, or a more ambiguous texture that eludes to the landscape and the origins of the source: the organic lichens, mosses and debris that have formed a skin over the memorials. The tactile nature of the photo-intaglio prints reflects the textured quality of the virtual sculpture.
Therefore, McLachlan has become a virtual Dr Frankenstein, bringing the monuments back to life, investing them with personalities, narratives and emotions. In these newly awakened characters it is possible to feel a stronger sense of kindred and familiarity. Here now, they are people. The brothers, sons, husbands, friends and comrades now stare out unflinchingly from their papered homes as men we can recognise as our own.
Home Ground is technically masterful, McLachlan’s consummate skill in the craft of printmaking provides a clear image both handsome and profound. The connections drawn between personal grief, collective consolation and imaginative representation are suggestive, but seldom conclusive. In this series, McLachlan has continued his exploration of interior spaces, allowing room for the viewer to draw their own conclusions as to what is being shown or hidden.
New Zealand’s war memorials commemorate an event that is now absent from living memory and the memorials themselves suffer from neglect, existing on the peripheries of the towns they inhabit. With the centenary of WWI almost upon us, McLachlan’s work seems both vital and timely: stimulating a sense of national recognition and encouraging an awareness of the history that has shaped us. Home Ground is an innovative, affecting and sensitive exploration of the history of emotion and memorialisation in New Zealand and a beautiful evocation of memory come to life.[i]
Suzannah Newton 2013
Winter, Jay. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. The Great War in European cultural history. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Gregory, Adrian. The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1919-1946. Berg, Oxford, 1994.
Todman, Dan. The Great War: Myth and Memory. Hambledon and London, 2005.
Stephen, M. The Price of Pity: Poetry, History and Myth in the Great War. London, 1996.
2011, School of Fine Arts Gallery, University of Canterbury, Christchurch