Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Strange fruit

I've already mentioned this installation by Donna Sarten, currently on display at the NZ Academy of Fine Arts on Queen's Wharf.But now I've been to see it as well, and I loved it.

It consists of 3890 military "dog tags", most of them individually stamped with a soldier's name and ID number, although some are blank because of missing information or to represent those men who, for various reasons, might not want to be identified. Some are cut in half, to show the men who died.

On the other side of the silver dog tags are pictures of red pomegranates. One of the things I liked about this exhibition was learning that the word for pomegranate in French is "pomme grenade", which gives us our word "grenade", perhaps because the two objects - fruit and weapon - are similar shaped. But whereas one contains seeds, the other holds tiny balls of shrapnel. The comparison is even more ironic given that the pomegranate is an ancient symbol of fertility, whereas the grenade is a symbol of suffering and death.

The dog tags are suspended - at approximately but not exactly the same height - by red threads from a meshwork grid near the ceiling.One side is a silver shimmer as it catches the light. On the other side, the red of the pomegranates and the hanging threads remind you of dripping blood, or the tint of a sunset sky, but of rich fruitfulness as well.

Each dog tag stands for an individual (the NZ soldiers who served in Vietnam), but together they make up one big group that nudges you to think of the wider groups beyond these names: the families that sent them and waited for them to return. They also make you ponder on how often disasters and wars are summarised in lists of casualties and combatants, but how people are more than just numbers.

And although I saw it indoors, it has also been shown outdoors, as here at the NZ Sculpture OnShore 2010 exhibition:

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