My wife, a landscape architect, has been writing regular critiques of Australian projects for Landscape Architecture Magazine, the journal of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Her latest focus is on the SIEV-X memorial in Canberra. Since people are typically very cautious about critiquing memorials, this struck me as a particularly unusual piece. Full text over the fold.
By Gweneth Newman Leigh
To mention the term “memorial” can bring any variety of images to mind: obelisks, engraved walls and walkways, running water and commemorative plaques. Their scale often relies on the circumstances of their origin, their permanence on the desires of the affected people and funding body. Walking down the Mall in Washington DC, it is easy to see how big budgets and permanent siting can allow many of these traditional monuments to have a long and enduring establishment.
But then there are those which are more spontaneous and temporary, whose purpose is personal, and the meaning of their placement frequently more profound. In New York City one may occasionally encounter ghost bikes chained to a light pole or street sign. Painted white and accompanied with a nametag, the bikes signify where a cyclist was killed or hit on the street. More familiar are roadside memorials, where faded wreaths, flowers and crosses propped against trees and guardrails mark a place of tragedy. Such personal expressions of loss and love can have the indirect effect of altering the perception of a place. What may have appeared to be an innocent curve in the road or busy intersection may take on more threatening undertones, and cause people to proceed with more caution.
The SIEV X Memorial in Canberra, Australia falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, a temporary memorial that has evolved into an unofficially permanent installation, a construction whose purpose was to not only provide individual healing but also aimed to send a broader message of social welfare to the public. Its origins arose from the tragedy of an Australian-bound overcrowded boat filled with refugees from Indonesia – later coined SIEV-X (standing for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel ‘X’, meaning unknown) – which sank in stormy waters in October of 2001 and killed over three hundred fifty people.
The accident spurred a small group of Australians – including a landscape architect, Dr Sue Anne Ware – to recognise and publicise the plight of these and other refugees in similar circumstances through a landscape installation in the nation’s capital. Dr Ware was involved in all levels of the project, including working with participatory groups, liaising with authorities, coordinating environmental and logistical issues regarding pole production and advising on their siting and installation.
The project encouraged a massive amount of collaboration, involving the ideas and feedback of hundreds of people across the country over a five year period. Its physical creation incorporated the help of organisations and communities from across Australia who helped to paint individual components of the piece. Consequently, the project has gained publicity as an example of “design activism”, whose intervention on the landscape has been hailed as a “physical catalyst for social change” (http://www.aila.org.au/projects/ACT/RMIT-SIEVX).
But can memorials with philanthropic origins such as this truly claim to have altered the behaviour of those who have seen or helped to create it, simply by the way in which it engages with the landscape? I raise this question not for the reasons of trying to diminish the memorial’s impact, but rather to have an honest discussion about the role such projects play within the framework of landscape architecture and their bigger impact on society.
SIEV-X departed from Indonesia on Oct 18 2001. The small boat carried over 400 asylum seekers from Indonesia to Christmas Island, an Australian Territory 310 miles south of Jakarta. On October 19th, the boat sank in international waters, killing 146 children, 142 women and 65 men. Many of those who perished were the wives and children of men who had already arrived in Australia and were waiting to be reunited with their loved ones. Those who were rescued by fishing boats the next day had spent over twenty hours in choppy seas waiting for help.
The tragedy occurred during a politically volatile time in Australia. Prime Minister John Howard had made clear that illegal immigrants seeking to reach Australia would be stopped by the Australian Federal Police. This conservative stance was incredibly controversial and split the country. Many of those who supported it reasoned asylum seekers were anything from “queue jumpers” in gaining entry into the country to being a security risk. The lack of compassion being shown to asylum seekers alarmed more left-wing people, religious groups and human rights organisations, who campaigned for their acceptance into society. The SIEV-X disaster occurred just weeks before the 2001 Australian Federal Election on November 10th; some believe it led to the re-election of the conservative government.
The memorial project formally took off in 2002, when primary and secondary schools from across the country were invited to develop ideas for its design. The collection of entries – which numbered over 200 – toured capital cities throughout 2003 and 2004. Consultation with a wide group of interested parties, including school children, church and community groups, academics, politicians, and family and friends of victims helped the project to evolve. Eventually, the design idea proposed by an eleventh grade Brisbane student, Mitchell Donaldson, was selected for implementation. Various groups and individuals from across the country helped paint and decorate the white poles that comprise the memorial, which were then transported back to Canberra in 2006 to be erected on the fifth anniversary of the event in a ceremony on Oct 15th.
The bigger ambition of the SIEV X Memorial was to demonstrate how “physical interventions in the landscape can register…the intangible qualities of deep social concerns” (http://www.aila.org.au/projects/ACT/RMIT-SIEVX). Being a landscape architect and seeing as that the project was close to my house, I was curious to experience the memorial and its intrusion on the landscape for myself.
The memorial is tucked away in the far corner of Weston Park, one of the many green spaces surrounding Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, Australia’s national capital. While you can see snippets of the poles when driving along the major roadway across the lake, it’s unclear why this out-of-the-way location was chosen – in the setting of a space used primarily for family barbeques, bike rides, and other similar recreational activities. However, as a project undertaken solely by volunteers, it is understandable that this may have been the only space granted to them by the local government (who owns the land) to erect what was to be a temporary exhibition that has endured through the years.
The design of the memorial is simple, consisting of 353 white poles – one for each of the drowned victims. Tall poles represent adults, shorter ones children. Each has a mural, painted on by volunteers from schools, churches and affected families from across Australia. Assigned to each pole is the name of a victim when it is known (other
wise “Unknown Man, etc) and the name of the organisation who painted the mural. At one end of the memorial the poles are arranged to frame the outline of the sunken boat, communicating the shocking smallness of the vessel. Elsewhere the poles follow one another in a single line which wraps and snakes its way around the lakefront.
My visit to the memorial was definitely a moving experience. Viewing the names inscribed on the poles and the ages of the victims – especially those of the children – was particularly heart wrenching. What wasn’t clear to me was how their placement – their intervention – on this particular landscape made the experience any different. Their footprint along the edge of the lake was minimal, their connection to it unclear – this accident had happened within the choppy waters of the ocean, not the picnic grounds of a placid lakeshore. If a memorial is going to highlight the impact of its “physical intervention in the landscape”, then I guess I was expecting the memorial to engage more with its surroundings.
Similarly, I didn’t entirely understand the reasoning for the orderly assemblage of the poles. The victims of the SIEV X drowned in a stormy ocean, scattered and separated from their loved ones. What the victims of this accident experienced was horrible. If the purpose of this piece is to try and communicate the tragedy of the refugee crisis in Australia, do we really want such a piece to be arranged in aesthetically pleasing sunkissed curves and surrounded by birdcalls? Or would such a collaborative artwork have been better placed as a travelling exhibit, where the focus on the names and murals on the poles would be more concentrated and experienced by more people?
The memorial was launched during Prime Minister John Howard’s administration, so placing it on the grounds of Australia’s national capital – the PM’s backyard – may have felt like a powerful message which questioned current policy on refugees. But it’s a new administration now, and it’s unlikely that as time goes on, more people will make the connection as to why it’s here. Perhaps it’s not a problem with the memorial, but just a problem with a temporary memorial that turns permanent. Similarly, there are only two signs on the site which provide the uninformed viewer with background information. The first introductory sign closes with lines which come across as obscure and cynical:
Our message in making the memorial is that Australia is not a country defined by fear and greed. Love is stronger than fear. Kindness is stronger than greed.
The bitterness of the message left me with a sour feeling as I began to tour the memorial. Was this really their overarching message?
Going on site, the SIEV X Memorial accomplishes the goal of any effective memorial – to honour the memory of these people. But did this piece “intervene” with the landscape in a way that subsequently altered or changed the behaviour of those who saw it? Probably not in any way that would differ had it been viewed on a public square in Melbourne or in an art gallery in Sydney.
Writing such critique for the design of a memorial that evolved from a high school art competition into an ongoing installation leaves me feeling incredibly conflicted. The success of this piece in joining people across Australia with similar feelings to express their grief and recognition of the hardships refugees face is a tribute to the dedication and commitment of its organisers. The involvement of a landscape architect in its delivery demonstrates how designers can contribute in giving voice to social causes, as well as bring more awareness to the profession by the public. I’m not trying to suggest that such actions should be halted or diminished, but rather to clarify the outcomes of such efforts and ask the question of how we can do it better. In this circumstance, the evolution of the memorial and the contributions by the hundreds involved in its creation is amazing and the impact of the individual poles incredibly sobering. What gets me frustrated is that it’s the lack of its involvement on the landscape which diminishes its overall effect.
If we are to consider the achievements of this memorial through a landscape framework, more rigorous questions need to be asked about its design and placement. What is the purpose of the memorial – the act of creation or the act of viewing? And how does its underlying message carry through time? Just as consideration should be given towards how one would frame a picture, similar reflection needs to be given towards defining and reasoning why a particular environment is suitable for a piece such as this, particularly when there is such a disconnect between the history of the memorial and the history of where it is sited.
Memorials can be provocative, reflective, celebratory or sad. But the fact that they exist means that whether it’s to an individual or to a wider community of people, they are also personal. Trying to load such a space with the predefined purpose of “enacting social change” diminishes the true impact of this piece: giving the refugees a name and an identity, and a presence in life beyond death. Its strength rests in the history of its making, not on its placement or “intervention” within the landscape. As a temporary memorial – which was probably how it should have remained – this piece is effective in leaving a permanent impression. Ironically, it is the landscape, combined with the passage of time, which is tying it down into obscurity.
Gweneth Newman Leigh is a landscape architect living in Canberra, Australia. Contact her at gweneth.leigh <A> gmail.com.
The piece prompted the magazine’s editorial, available here.