A monument that casts a human light

IRISH TIMES The Arts- Culture Shock:

Fintan O'Toole
Sat, Sep 22, 2007

Omagh is rising to the tough task of creating a memorial that doesn't seem trite and cliched

If you think public monuments in Dublin such as the Spire or the proposed Anthony Gormley sculpture in the Liffey have divided people, imagine how hard it is to conceive a memorial to the victims of a violent sectarian conflict. The Troubles reminded us, again and again, that even the basic rituals of burying and remembering the dead could themselves become occasions of violence. The IRA killed 11 people attending a Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Enniskillen in 1987. Loyalist Michael Stone killed three men at a Republican funeral in Milltown cemetery in Belfast in 1988. The Somme commemoration at Drumcree churchyard turned, throughout the mid-1990s, into a proxy war.

It is not surprising, then, that it has been so difficult to find ways of marking atrocities. Words still come easier than visual images. Evelyn Conlon's memorial anthology, Later On, is a superb verbal response to the Monaghan bombing. The extraordinary book, Lost Lives, with its accounts of the deaths of every victim of the Troubles, is perhaps the finest record of any conflict compiled. But physical monuments have been harder to envisage. The memorial to the victims of the Dublin bombing in Talbot Street, for example, has a simple and austere dignity, but it seems too small and too insignificant to do justice to the scale of the atrocity.

A look at the brief for the Omagh memorial, which is to be erected in time for next August's 10th anniversary of the Real IRA's assault on the town, gives some idea of the conceptual and, in the narrow sense, political challenge. The Omagh Memorial Working Group, which is running the project, consists of community groups, churches, local government and business interests. It in turn is overseen by the British, Irish and Spanish governments - representing the nationalities of the victims - and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

There is no avoiding this kind of complexity of consultation, but it does remind one of the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. How do you get a genuine artistic statement, adequate to the grief and outrage that linger after the atrocity, out of such an inevitably bureaucratic process? And that's even before you start to think about the physical and emotional constraints. The space for the monument on Market Street, where the bombs exploded, is limited, so it has to be split between that site and the temporary Memorial Garden 300 metres away. The message that the monument must give is equally divided.

The brief sets out what seem to be contradictory demands: "we must move forward in a positive and progressive manner but all the while remembering the atrocity inflicted and the carnage suffered." The monument must be "reflective and reverential but positive, optimistic and forward-looking". The sensitivity of the task is underlined by the row that has already broken out about the wording on the monument and how explicitly it will name the perpetrators.

Yet, in the seeming impossibility of meeting all these demands, there is a reminder that art can reach the parts that other ways of thinking cannot. The impossible is what art does best. The resolution - or at least the containment - of contradictions is its natural element. And the very complexity of the brief - two sites, opposing impulses, a wide range of interests to be satisfied - rules out the obvious.
It leaves no room for the sculptural realism that so often turns trauma into kitsch and cliche. Whatever was going to emerge from this process would have to be abstract, fluid, metaphorical.

There is thus something wonderfully appropriate in the fact that the winner of the competition is an artist whose metier has been the subversion of literal realism. Sean Hillen, who designed the winning project with landscape architect Desmond Fitzgerald, is best known for his brilliant series of photomontages, Irelantis, Newry Gagarin and LondoNewry. All of them work by exploiting incongruity: the Great Pyramids in Carlingford Lough, cosmonauts splashing down in Annalong Harbour, the Virgin Mary appearing above a British Army patrol, watchtowers in Piccadilly Circus and London buses in Newry.

Hillen has visualised contradictions by splicing together the mythic and the mundane, hilarity and horror, the local and the global, vitality and violence.
What his work most emphatically is not is reverential or solemn. Yet, he's managed with Fitzgerald to distil some of his capacity for myth-making and playfulness while adding the necessary sense of gravity.

The design centres on that most primal yet mobile of elements: light. A heliostatic mirror in the memorial park tracks the sun, and directs a constant beam of sunlight onto 31 small mirrors, each etched with the name of a victim. They in turn bounce the light via another hidden mirror onto a heart-shaped crystal in an obelisk at the bomb site, which is almost constantly in the shade.

The light suggests optimism, but not in a trite way. The ideas of reflection and connection have obvious symbolic meaning. The design quietly fuses different traditions: the obelisk references Great War memorials, while the passage of light is reminiscent of Newgrange. The whole thing is complex in its resonances yet simple in its content, reconciling diverse demands.
It shows why we need public art to do what politics struggles to achieve.

2007 The Irish Times