Gathering outside the Hippodrome on Tuesday afternoon, the sun is shining gloriously. Yet despite the baking summer heat, inside a nearby, disused Birmingham warehouse, a congregation of miniature ice men is rapidly growing its ranks. This is the making of Minimum Monument, a stunning, frozen art installation to be displayed in Chamberlain Square on Saturday to coincide with the 2014 World War I centenary.
Over the past few days, a team of 20 dedicated volunteers have been tirelessly working alongside Brazilian “urban intervention” artist Néle Azevedo and her translator to complete an ambitious total of 5,000 ice figures. At 1pm tomorrow (Saturday 2nd August), members of the public will then be invited to set down the sculptures on the steps of Chamberlain Square and watch them slowly melt away in a powerful representation of human fragility and mortality.
Conceived as “a critical reading of the monument in contemporary cities”, the ephemerality of Minimum Monument contrasts sharply with the solidity and permanence of traditional stone memorials. There’s more to this than simply visual effect, however: through the transience of her work, Azevedo seems to acknowledge the importance of letting go as well as remembering.
One of the key aims of the piece is to celebrate the life of the common man, giving recognition to those whom history has tended to forget and challenging established notions of who is considered “worthy” of being remembered. We have all seen engraved in stone the names of “brave” soldiers who fought to defend their nations, but what of those who were brave in other ways – staying at home to raise a family, for example, or healing the wounded, or perhaps simply listening to their consciences and taking a moral stand in the face of unimaginable pressure to conform? And then there are those who fought, but who eventually found themselves no longer able to be brave, such as Birmingham-born John Osborn Walford, an army captain who, overwhelmed by the trauma of his experiences in combat, tragically took his own life soon after returning home. Because of the stigma surrounding suicide at the time, Walford was not only excluded from all war memorials, but was not so much as given the dignity of a marked grave: his surviving family will be amongst the first to display a sculpture in the square on Saturday. The faceless anonymity of each figure and the open invitation to anyone to take part in the creation of the installation make this a uniquely democratic venture that allows for quiet, beautiful moments of personal catharsis to take place alongside big, public spectacle, reminiscent of lighting candles in a church.
It is interesting that Minimum Monument should arrive in the UK at a time when the ways in which we commemorate war are already being called into question, with much debate focused on the wearing of poppies, for example. While for many these remain a potent symbol of how we should remember the past to ensure it is never repeated, for others, they are seen as a means of glorifying war by turning those who fight into heroes.
Nevertheless, Minimum Monument need not be exclusively about war. In fact, Birmingham is only the most recent destination for a much bigger project that initially began as Azevedo’s Masters thesis and has already been taken to various cities around the world, each of which has interpreted the installation in its own way. In Belfast, Minimum Monument remembered those who lost their lives on the ill-fated Titanic. In Berlin in 2009, it was timed to coincide with the G8 summit and understood as expressing concerns about the future of a world devastated by the effects of global warming. Asked whether any of these interpretations of had surprised her, Azevedo replied that she had turned down a lot of invitations, only accepting commissions which she felt offered compelling readings of her work. According to Néle herself, the examples from Birmingham and Belfast are closest to her own original conception.
Sarah Allen, Creative Programmes Manager for Hippodrome Plus (responsible for the theatre’s outdoor and outreach work), described herself as having been “blown away” when she discovered Azevedo’s “poignant and reflective” work. She also explained that this would be the largest Minimum Monument to date, with previous installations having featured less than half the number of sculptures aimed for here. It’s a huge undertaking, but one that Néle and her team seem confident they can pull off – provided they don’t encounter any problems with their freezers, that is!
Minimum Monument will be taking place in Chamberlain Square from 1pm on Saturday 2nd August. Those interested in participating need only show up on the day.