At the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, an LED-lit corps of 60 etched-glass soldiers titled Unknown provided an eerie and powerful provocation to consider our culture's uneasy relationship with military means of solving conflicts. The work explores how individual lives are subjugated to the need for a unified army capable of taking orders and functioning with machine-like and deadly efficiency when diplomacy between governments breaks down. During the centenary anniversary of World War I, one of the deadliest wars in history when outdated military tactics met new technologies of mechanized killing with devastating carnage the result, Scottish artist Alison Kinnaird debuted the piece in association with poppyscottland, a charity that supports Scottish ex-servicemen and women as well as their families. After showing at the parliament from October 4 through November 2, 2014, Kinnaird's installation has begun to tour between 11 venues throughout Scotland through December 2016.
“[I made this] because I was horrified at the situation in the world. I wanted to say something,” Kinnaird told the GLASS Quarterly HotSheet in a discussion of her work. “I started this piece three years ago. It’s really quite depressing, we don’t seem to learn anything from the past, we keep making the same mistakes.”
Kinnaird noted the similarities in fragility between glass and life in wartime as an inspiration for the piece. As a whole, the work is an embodiment of her general anti-war sentiment, not commenting on any particular contemporary situation but the quickness by which our leaders take us to war. Kinnaird hopes to remind people the constant presence of war in history, and, to her mind, its futility.
Though the first impression of the soliders is of a unified, anonymous force, a closer look reveals that the soldiers are each painstakingly rendered through a combination of waterjet cutting and classic diamond/copper wheel engraving. The individual soldiers were then arranged into regimented rows which are lit from below by an LED light (either red or white) at the base to make them more striking to the viewer.
Red poppy flowers made of silk are placed along the base of piece due to their longstanding symbolic significance as markers of death. Kinnaird sees a direct connection to World War I, though their use as a symbol of death is centuries old. “It was because so many were killed in the fields of France, and the poppies grew so abundantly in those fields, they came to symbolize the dead,” she explained. “They are red and look like drops of blood as well, quite a lot of significance.”
Though Unknown is on tour, it is hardly finished. Kinnaird continues to add more pieces to her work, “I’ve put in a piper and was inspired to do that after I saw an iron medal that had been struck in Germany in the First World War: death as a kilted piper strutting across the land; so I put in a skeletal piper as well.“
Kinnaird hopes that the piece will eventually end up as a permanent installation in a gallery or museum, but for now, Unknown is in transit to the Aberdeen Art Gallery, where it wil be displayed through March 2015. Follow the tour schedule on Kinnaird's website for other dates and locations across the UK.