Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
From Burnt Norton by T S Eliot.
Monument was made by Susan Hiller, a pioneer of installation art, in 1980-81. She photographed a series of Victorian ceramic tiles in Postman Park, London and now they sit on the white wall of an art gallery, a series of matching memorials to single acts of conspicuous bravery. All of them were carefully chosen at the time they were made and the reasons for their inclusion are made clear in the inscriptions. They record moments of great drama and tragedy which would otherwise be forgotten. Sarah Smith, a pantomime artiste who died while attempting to save the life of her companion when her inflammable dress caught fire, David Selves, a twelve year old boy who supported his drowning playfellow and died with him clasped in his arms, John Cranmer Cambridge a twenty three year old clerk who was drowned near Ostend whilst saving the life of a stranger and a foreigner, and thirty six others. They are obviously moving to read and also fascinatingly brief but telling. Often they leave you wanting to know more. Exactly what was it that William Freer Lucas, a doctor at the Middlesex hospital did when he risked poison for himself rather than lessen any chance of saving a child’s life and died in 1893? Distant events are brought vividly into the present when you read these tiny stories, which have the power of a well written haiku, but their real meaning is also lost in the mists of time. We are not to know. They beg many questions which have no real answers, but which strike at the heart of our humanity, questions about memory, mortality, time, heroism, and representation. Right in the middle of them is a piece of modern graffiti scrawled nearby, which Hiller also photographed, “strive to be your own hero”. It links the past and the present and brings us up short as we are made to connect ourselves directly with what we are seeing in the present rather than merely look back sadly at a series of faded tragic incidents from the past.
Close to the tiles is a wooden Victorian park bench, painted green, with wrought iron ends shaped into leaves and a thirty year old portable CD player ( an object which is in itself now something from the past although it was cutting edge technology when the work was made thirty years ago) and you are invited to sit down and listen to a meditation on time, mortality and links between the present and the past given by a single female voice. We are not told whether it is the voice of the artist. We are only told that this is a voice speaking to us in the future from the past, while in their present. The stories from the memorial tiles are repeated and in a moving section the length of the people’s lives is juxtaposed with the length of time they have been in their new state of death. It is not chilling or depressing. It leads you to explore just how very strange the world is and wonder at how little we really know and how very astonishing it is that we are here at all.
The photographs are my own, taken with the kind permission of the gallery.