There is a word to describe the scale of monuments. As an adjective, “monumental” may refer not only to the great solidity of objects of commemoration, but also, more generally, to the enormity of a given task, to a colossal error in judgment, or to a transcendent experience. All four of these definitions—memorial, Herculean, catastrophic, awe-inspiring—may aptly describe the efforts and choices of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). Established in the wake of the atrocities of World War I, the CWGC was set up to determine how to memorialize the unprecedented number of military dead from Commonwealth countries. The outbreak of World War II, just as the construction of World War I cemeteries had ceased, extended the operation, it was ultimately completed in 1960. Today, the names of the 1.7 million Commonwealth dead from two world wars, including more than a 100,000 Canadians, are etched in stone across some 25,000 cemeteries, 21,000 other burial grounds, and 200 memorials to the missing in 153 countries throughout the world.
When War Is Over, British artist Daniel Alexander’s long-term and probing examination of this monument of monuments, explores the aesthetic, political, and moral choices that shaped the memorial’s design, and the complexity of its symbolism as a marker—not just of the many lives lost, but of and for its historical moment. To do this, Alexander and researcher Andrew Haslam mined the organization’s archives and travelled to many of the sites it oversees in Europe, examining various aspects of its physical imprint in the world. Alexander’s resulting photographs take a range of stylistic approaches and distances: appropriated satellite views of the cemeteries; documentary photographs of the industrial processes of their construction; closely cropped images of individual gravestones and epitaphs; and photographic copies of letters and other documents that tell the story of one man’s death in action. As we move from a distant overview to the most intimate encounter, how does our changing perspective reorient our understanding of, or alter our feelings for, this act of commemoration? What gets lost and what is gained, as we get closer or further away? What is the correct distance—physical, temporal, emotional—for making sense of war?
This text is excerpted from an essay originally published in Prefix Photo 37 and is reprinted with the kind permission of Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art, Toronto.