Artist: Graham Gingles
Co-Commissioned by The MAC and the NOW 14-18 Project.
Reviewer: Kevin McCluskey
“At times like these men were wishing themselves all sorts of insects. And when they were shelling, it was common to hear a man say ‘I wish I was a worm now.’”
These words are heard as a barely audible whisper as spectators confront and are confronted by Graham Gingles’ installation entitled At times life these men were wishing themselves all sorts of insects. They are taken from the autobiography of Robert McGookin, a man from Larne who fought in the First World War. McGookin’s life, coupled with the brass boxes given as gifts to each British soldier by Princess Mary on Christmas 1914, were the major sources of inspiration for this installation. Overally the piece is sombre and haunting in its evocation of loss.
On display in the Sunken Gallery at the MAC, the installation is an upscaled version of maquettes that Gingles had been working on, loosely based on the Cloth Hall at Ypres. One of these maquettes, Citadel II, is displayed inside the structure. Constructed primarily of wood and glass, with doors and archways and steps throughout, the installation suggests an abandoned building – a telegraph poll located in one corner encourages the feeling of having stumbled onto the location. Pieces careen in all directions, some ending abruptly with jagged pieces protruding. As such, there isn’t any ‘logical’ resemblance to a single liveable space – instead the work feels like memory, refusing a pattern, bathed in a glow, and drawing from eclectic archives of experiences. A funereal quality is created by the smell of lilies wafting through the room and we are reminded that the memory is no longer personal, but collective – the last veteran of the war, a Women’s Royal Air Force steward named Florence Green, died in 2012. To engage with these memories a spectator must become an explorer by stepping inside the installation, fully engaging with the piece by crouching down and looking from multiple angles.
Objects inside reflect the fragmentary nature of memories. A chest of drawers holds teddy bears and toy soldiers, both painted white, as is much of the structure. Other drawers contain glass crosses, sculptures of gas masks, and faded playing cards displaying images of different women. The brass boxes turn up throughout the piece – coupled with the playing cards, they are the most explicit reminder of soldiers. Bees on top of a singed book and butterflies on broken glass suggest a summer stopped dead in its tracks. An intriguing part of the installation is a small mirrored triangular enclosure with a model of a rat placed inside – looking into it, the reflections of the animal are distorted, recalling the title of the piece and the fear that can cause men to want to be something other than human.
Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. The installation is on display the The MAC’s Sunken Gallery until August 17th. Free admission from 10am to 7pm daily.