The memorials in our heads: the Im/material Monument (Gail Ritchie)
by Allan LEONARD
11 April 2023
As the information sheet for Gail Ritchie’s exhibition, The Im/material Monument, points out, 25 years after the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement there is no memorial to commemorate the collective dead of the Troubles. Through a series of objects, Ritchie challenges our imaginations as to what our memorialising could be. With a guided tour, she explained the motivations and intent of her work on display at QSS Artist Studios.
Ritchie began her curated tour by remarking that she had regularly made work about conflict in some sense, whether it was the First World War or the Cold War. She said that she found herself wondering why she never made work about the Troubles. This led her to pursue a practice-led PhD in international relations at Queen’s University Belfast, looking at art as a way of talking about politics. Her three supervisors spanned politics, history, and the fine arts.
She explored questions about why is there no memorial to the Troubles. Should there be one? If so, who would be for it and who would be against it?
To ease herself into the project, she made what she called “epistemic objects”, paying attention to the process of creation. For example, in peacebuilding you have to build both sides together, slowly:
“It’s slippery, it’s precarious, it’s fragile. The whole thing can fall apart. And it all has to come together, joined in the middle under a certain tension.”
The resulting object, Building Bridges, isn’t big or grand, but creating it gave her information.
Ritchie revisited her study of war memorials, decoding which was republican, loyalist, etc. She added her own novel designs, inspired by the work of Donna Haraway and her focus on ecology — the environmental trouble we’re in and the need to stay with the trouble. Also, Haraway talks about how a memorial shouldn’t be for the dead only, but for the living as well, with life and not fixed. Ritchie thought about applying this thesis to our Troubles, with a capital ‘t’. The result is Memorial for Critters, with its waving tentacles.
Another influential writer for Ritchie was Karen Barad, a theoretical physicist. Ritchie described herself as “numerically challenged”, but admired the poetry of her ideas, especially of the double-slit experiment, where light and matter can display characteristics of both waves and particles. Ritchie thought:
“What if I made some sort of double-slit space, where people entered different ways and something happened that may be changed or challenged their behaviour? Say, someone with a very fixed identity or set of beliefs went into a space and something happened within it to change — maybe they come out less a particle and more of a wave, more receptive to change and influence to things?”
The resulting object, Crossing Thresholds, is a small architectural model, with three small cardboard panels of passages in a near-straight line. From its entrance, you can’t see the exit until after you enter the first passage.
Ritchie quoted another writer, James E. Young, who said: “Sometimes the only monument you need is the one in your head.” She thought about how people get ideas lodged in their heads — things that have happened in their lives and their memories. Ritchie mapped this out on paper, using Y-shaped marks that result in a sort of map of a neural network. The three-lined marks are intentional: “It’s not just always ‘you-and-me’ in binary opposition, but ‘you, me, other’.”
She materialised this mapping with a three-dimensional model using matchsticks, called Monument in the Head.
In May 2020, the world’s population was exercising residential isolation during the Covid pandemic. George Floyd was murdered in the US; his words, “I can’t breathe,” went around the world. Meanwhile, Ritchie noticed a neighbourhood boy spending his summer blowing bubbles. Together, these made her think about breath and breathing. Who gets to breathe and who doesn’t? Who has the power to take a breath, to have a voice? She went back to the innocence of a child making bubbles, and experimented with splats and dribbles. Her resulting three-panel piece, For Those Who are No-one’s Exhalation, can be a visual interpretation of biology, cosmology, and/or play.
She developed this thinking to the Troubles — how many times would we have to breathe in and out to remember those who had passed? 3,700 times?
“But who am I to remember for anybody else, really? What if the families of the victims of the Troubles did this and they came together — how big a space would we need to encapsulate all of their breathing and remembering?”
The space would need to be monumental, Ritchie said, but it wouldn’t necessarily need to be big and heavy. She came up with the idea of an airship which would drift around Northern Ireland. If people wanted to engage with the airship, it could let down a rope and they could pull it down, or if not, it could drift on. This airship could also be invisible, one you can’t see but could still sense: “Maybe disturbing the horizon or in the edges of your vision. It casts a shadow as it passes… analogous to the legacy of the Troubles.”
Most of the exhibition objects are deliberatively monochromatic, Ritchie explained, “because colour here is so contentious”. The Shape of Mourning is of two parts: a wreath and a bowl of pebbles. The wreath petals are not red, nor is there green laurel. Instead, the petals and pebbles are hand-formed from a bioplastic that comes in like little grains of lentil that you dissolve in water. Through the process of making the petals and pebbles, they’re all unique, allowing for individuality within the entirety; no two are the same.
On the floor and propped up against a wall and column are three polished granite pieces, collectively called Elegies for the Dead. Like in the book, Lost Lives, Ritchie pondered what if each person who died in the Troubles had a short elegy written by somebody who knew and loved them, and they were done like traditional headstones, except spread out in a massive field. The idea is that in 500 years they would all be broken and fragmented, and a future archaeologist might find them, and in trying to refit them, create a totally different narrative of the Troubles: “These are them in their unbroken state.”
All written by Ritchie, one of the stones has the line, “If we framed the air to shape our mourning, then it would float in clouds of memory…”
Time and the Troubles is Ritchie’s response to the challenging question of when is it time to commemorate. For some people, it will always be too soon; for other people, it will always be too late. Ritchie referenced the work of Jenny Edkins, who has written much about “trauma time”. Rather than ordinary, linear time, when you’ve been traumatised, you’re encircled by that and your time is not linear; time goes on around you.
Instead of numbers around the circumference, Time and the Troubles has 12 words, which make up “absurdist time”. The “time” could be a quarter-past “Forget”, or half past “Forgive”. Ritchie pointed out that you could hang this clock any way; there is no fixed top hour.
She explained how she wanted to acknowledge those people for whom time runs differently:
“That they could find their own temporality within this, without being dictated to move on, or to let go. Everybody experienced the Troubles differently. Some people were definitely more fortunate than others and less exposed to the realities of it. But there were some people for whom there was no getting away and who suffered.”
A monitor plays a loop video showing Ritchie’s creative process. This includes Melting Memorials, where she placed ice in the form of letters making up the words “I, we, you, us, them” on the shore at Barr Hall Bay at the entrance of Strangford Lough, and let the waves come in and dissolve and carry them away into the sea. The idea is that maybe the memorial is something that is carried out by the tide or that dissolves, “and in that way, it’s constantly circulating around the island of Ireland”.
For Ritchie, this dissolving/circulating characteristic is analogous to grieving:
“How much more you grieve and you grieve and you grieve, and at what point can you let it go? Do you let it go? Or is it just always something that’s there, reducing but will never disappear?”
Melting Memorials provides an opportunity for a more inclusive act of remembrance, for the letters of the chosen words, “I, we, you, us, them” become entangled as they get washed away. There are no named perpetrators or victims. There is no hierarchy of father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter. As Ritchie explained, “I distilled it. It’s a distillation, as inclusive as I could be. As always, the other, and it’s always the widest parameters.”
The Im/material Monument exhibition is open from 6–27 April 2023 at QSS Artist Studio, The Arches Centre, 11 Bloomfield Avenue, Belfast.