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The hope of remembering

  • 10 November 2022
During the aftermath of the First World War, the construction of the Shrine of Remembrance was not without controversy, with parties disagreeing on the design that might best honour the nation’s war dead. War leaves fragility in its wake, and perhaps behind all disagreements lay the notion that no matter the construction, the Shrine could offer little promise of real solace.

The discussion around the Shrine’s design begs the question: what is the use of art in the face of war? Novelist Ralph Ellison observed how ‘war could, with art, be transformed into something deeper and more meaningful than its surface violence’. This is the hope behind spaces like the Shrine of Remembrance. With its classically inspired columns and its art deco reliefs, the Shrine seems to belie war’s devastation. But in its monumental grey façade, its statuary and its carvings, it is a sacred and sombre place. 

The final design for the Shrine was modelled on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, a tomb built around 350 BCE in modern-day Turkey for a ruler named Mausolus, but this man and his rule had become time out of mind. The Mausoleum endured sixteen centuries before succumbing to damage wrought by foreign invaders and natural disasters. When the Mausoleum fell into decay, no efforts were made to rebuild. As with any grave marker, the structure had been intended to give form to death’s intangibility, and persisted as a sacred space as long as memory demanded it. Where memory persists, time’s oblivion is held at bay.

When people gather on Remembrance Day, commemorating the cease-fire at the end of the First World War, people take great pains to remember; a small acknowledgement of the horror of war, its loss, sacrifice and suffering. And in that time, it’s also worth pausing to reflect on those for whom wartime sacrifices and suffering are a daily reality. What do these people wish to remember?

This year, among the thousands of images to emerge from the war in Ukraine, was a short video of cellist Denys Karachevtsev playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in the ruins of Kharkiv amidst buildings scarred by fire and streets littered with debris.

Karachevtsev no doubt took inspiration by a musical predecessor in Sarajevo. In 1992, cellist Vedran Smailovic famously took his cello into the ruinous streets and performed for passers-by. This was the musician’s response to the deaths of twenty-two people who had been