In the early morning of April 25, 2016, two life-size and lifelike sculptures of soldiers appeared in public plazas in the center of New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. The figures, wearing World War I uniforms, were bound hand and foot and tied to posts. Their contorted poses reproduced the military’s “field punishment number one” position, which was used to torture conscientious objectors in an attempt to pressure them into taking part in combat during the First World War (1914–1918).
Each tape-and-cardboard sculpture was made by wrapping a person in plastic food wrap and clear tape until a stiff shell was formed. Once the person was cut out of the shell, it was stuffed, covered in masking tape, and spray-painted, with details added in cardboard and scrap fabric.
One figure was intended for the base of a flagpole outside the National Museum (Te Papa), but that plan was thwarted by the rapid intervention of Museum security staff, who stopped it from being secured; so it ended up at Frank Kitts Park, where it remained in place for a week. The second sculpture was installed at Civic Square and disappeared within hours (perhaps “souvenired”).
As objects, the figures were never intended to endure. They were put in place by the activist collective Peace Action Wellington as an intervention, a counter-narrative to the official celebration of ANZAC Day (April 25).
ANZAC Day (the acronym stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) is a national day of remembrance that commemorates the New Zealanders and Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. In particular, it commemorates the day in 1915 when troops from Australia and New Zealand landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula during World War I, as a part of the Allied invasion of Turkey. It was the first major action by Australian and New Zealand forces during the war. The campaign was a blunder and dragged on for eight months with great loss of life on both sides; and yet it became infused with myths of sacrifice, heroism, and nationalism in New Zealand and Australia, at a time when both British colonies were beginning to forge home-grown identities.
ANZAC Day commemorations, which include dawn services and memorial parades in just about every city, town, and village, have become increasingly popular among people of all ages in recent decades. Some observers have suggested that these revivals of public interest in the holiday, especially among young people who have not experienced war, are part of a rise of unreflective nationalism in New Zealand, a growing romanticism surrounding the ideas of heroism and sacrifice, and a “birth-of-a-nation” narrative that presupposes that New Zealand has always been on the “right” side of history. They point out that observances of ANZAC Day are selective in what they commemorate, overly politicized, and often commercialized.
With its bound-soldier figures, Peace Action Wellington set out to tell a very different story. While thousands of young New Zealand men willingly volunteered in the war’s early years, this attitude changed as the wounded began to return. When conscription was introduced halfway through the war, many refused to go on the grounds of pacifism. They were prosecuted and imprisoned.
In his book We Will Not Cease, New Zealand author and World War I conscientious objector Archibald Baxter described one 28-day punishment he received: “My hands were taken from round the pole, tied together and pulled well up it, straining and cramping the muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position.… I was strained so tightly against the post that I was unable to move body or limbs a fraction of an inch.”
The sculptures deployed on April 25 this year recreated the punishing position that Baxter and the other “conshies” had to endure. In addition to this kind of treatment, the objectors were subject to starvation and beatings; then, in 1918, the government decided to make an example of 14 of the staunchest pacifists by sending them to the Western Front and forcing them into the line of enemy fire.
For Peace Action Wellington, the patriotic luster of the ANZAC Day narratives also obscures other less-than-palatable stories of New Zealand at war, such as the violence inflicted on the indigenous Maori population during nineteenth-century land wars–a story that remains outside the national school curriculum. The group purposely sought to awaken people to the “forgetting” that is inherent in commemorative “remembering,” noting in a statement that “when you commemorate our actions in war, you’re commemorating this [brutal reality] too. Don’t forget that.”
The sculptures elicited a great deal of positive response from the public, and Peace Action Wellington suggests that one reason for the interest and approval may be that the action consciously melded art and activism. “It was striking,” the collective said in an email to the author, “that there was so much popular support when other actions we did, like the blockade of [a] weapons conference in November, didn’t seem to touch people in the same way. Both are actions standing up for peace, so why the disparity? It may be due to the power of art to provoke thought in a way that’s maybe less alienating than a mass demo.”
Though Peace Action Wellington is not an artists’ collective, they’re contemplating further “art actions.” “It’s really inspired us,” they said in their email, “to take more creative actions, in the most literal sense of the word.”
It looks as if the temporary creative action on April 25 may have some permanent results. The Wellington Museum, which helped retrieve the Frank Kitts Park sculpture, is currently storing it, and is considering including it in a permanent exhibition in the future. And the action inspired a public petition, addressed to the Wellington City Council, for a permanent memorial to conscientious objectors. The Council has announced that it’s awaiting proposals for the memorial, which will be considered by its Public Art Panel.