Steve McQueen, the actual winner of the Turner Prize in the year best remembered for Tracey Emin’s bed, has created a remarkable memorial to members of the British armed forces who lost their lives in Iraq.
Jointly commissioned in 2006 by the Imperial War Museum and Manchester International Festival, where it was first shown two years ago, Queen and Country has just gone on display at Wolverhampton Art Gallery as part of a national tour promoted by The Art Fund.
It takes the form of a large and immaculately crafted wooden cabinet containing 155 pull-out drawers arranged down both sides. Each drawer contains a sheet of designs for postage stamps, juxtaposing the queen’s profile with a photograph of one of the war’s victims.
The work is a collaboration with their families, who each selected the image of their loved one, and the stamps are arranged in the chronological order of their deaths, beginning with 35 year-old colour sergeant John Cecil of the Royal Marines (March 21, 2003) and ending with 19-year-old private Eleanor Duglosz of the Royal Army Medical Corps (April 5, 2007).
Of course the casualties did not end then, reaching a final count of 179. While Queen and Country is already two years old it comes to the West Midlands at a particularly sensitive time, with deaths in Afghanistan having passed that figure this month, raising the issue of what is expected of our servicemen and women to the top of the political agenda.
Leaving aside its incompleteness as a record of casualties in Iraq, McQueen has devised an ingenious form of war memorial which, while addressing its own conservation needs (the drawers ensuring that the images are protected from light), ensures that there is something deliberate in each encounter. As the artist puts it, “it addresses our individual response to a face-to-face meeting with those who have died in our name.”
This is made more acute because, more than the images often published with the reports of individual deaths, the families have chosen pictures which show their children or partners in a relaxed, smiling context.
According to McQueen, the work is incomplete in another sense. He would like these designs to be adopted by the Post Office for official use, so that they will “enter the lifeblood of he country”.
The Art Fund is running a petition to support the idea which has so far attracted more than 19,000 signatures. Visitors to the exhibition can register their support, or you can do it online at www.artfund.org/queenandcountry.
n Queen and Country is on display at Wolverhampton Art Gallery until September 26 (Mon-Sat; admission free).