Chris Harrison explores memory and mutual understanding in the aftermath of conflicts in his ongoing project and new exhibition.
Sites of Memory II features large-scale colour images of war memorials in Britain and Germany.
The exhibition is on at Wolverhampton Art Gallery until December 2.
It is part of an ongoing project Harrison has been developing since the mid-1990s.
A tangible connection
Harrison first encountered a war memorial at the top of his street as a child.
“It was overgrown and neglected and most of the names had been worn away,” he said.
“Even as a child I was fascinated by this tangible connection to the past.
“Hepburn, Dixon and Dodds, grandfathers of school friends, neighbours, people familiar and close, their names slowly dissolving in the acid rain from the local factories.
“Later as an artist I started to think about history from a local perspective.”
Making memory visible
Sites of Memory II continues and develops Harrison’s commission for the Imperial War Museum, London, in the late 1990s.
The original project observed how British memorials had survived in the 80 years since they were created.
Although his approach was ‘deliberately random’ Harrison photographed memorials in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In 1997, Sites of Memory went on show at the Imperial War Museum, the University of Brighton Gallery and Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno.
His new work fulfils a long-standing ambition to photograph the equivalent war memorials in Germany and present-day Poland and Belgium.
Photographs of memorials in Wolverhampton have also been specially commissioned for the new exhibition.
“Sites of Memory II seeks to provide an opportunity for reflection on how far we have come as Europeans and how much further we have to travel, especially since the Brexit vote in the UK,” said Harrison.
“This work is not about war, but the process of healing and mutual understanding that has grown out of the aftermath of world wars.
“In my practice I am interested in how memory is made visible and how these markers often say more about our collective consciousness and modern society than they do of the particular conflict being memorialised.”
Each memorial tells a story
Sites of Memory II comes a century after the end of the First World War and at a time of political uncertainty.
Harrison hopes the images will become a vehicle for a discussion on modern European identity.
“Whether they are modest village memorials, city statues or plaques on the walls of institutions, they show a range of responses to the tragedy of war as it was perceived in 1918, but also how more than 100 years of history and competing political and social narratives have changed the way we view these objects today.
“Surrounded by trees or overshadowed by modern buildings, neglected, displaced or carefully tended, all tell a story of where we have come from and where we are heading as a society.”
Reflecting contemporary society
Harrison used colour photography for the project because he wanted the work to ‘represent the world we live in’.
“It is not about remembering the past in any distant, sentimental way,” he said.
“It is about contemporary society – the kind of people we are and the kind of people we may become.
“The salient fact lost in the collective memory is that the communal memorials of the First World War in Europe, as opposed to war cemeteries, were erected by local organisations and not central government.
“This localism gives an insight into how individual communities responded to the cataclysm of war, how they now remember their history and see themselves in the modern world.
“By showing the binary of Britain and Germany the work questions our notions of identity and the notional other, which in reality, I would argue, is ourselves.”
Chris Harrison is a photographic artist specialising in large-format, documentary-style photographs.
His work is included in the collections of the V&A, The Imperial War Museum and the National Media Museum.
He started as an apprentice at the local shipyard when he was 15 years old.
It was later, while serving as a sniper in the British army that he took up photography.
Harrison graduated with an MA in photography from the Royal College of Art.
He was awarded the 16th Bradford Fellowship in Photography at the National Media Museum.
His first monograph I Belong Jarrow was published by Schilt and is part of the North of England photography collection held by the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Sites of Memory II
Chris Harrison: Sites of Memory II is on at Wolverhampton Art Gallery until December 2.
Spectrum Photographic produced C-type Matt prints for the exhibition.
Main image: Installation shot Chris Harrison: Sites of Memory II