An interview with Charlie Fegan

Email interview with Marta Pellerini (Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator) and Charlie Fegan (Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, September 2020-September 2021)

And besides, in this case
there is no mistake.

Romans do hate (as I say)

a stranger. And
their reasoning is empirically

What is the holiness of empire?
It is to know collapse.

Everything can collapse.
Houses, bodies
and enemies

when their rhythm becomes

Anne Carson
The Fall of Rome: A Traveller’s Guide

Photo by the artist.

Marta Pellerini: Where does your interest in the architect Edwin Lutyens, who designed the façade of the BSR, come from? And how do you intend to develop this interest over the period of your award?

Charlie Fegan: The majority of ancient Roman aesthetics were Greek in origin, but the triumphal arch was a distinctly Roman invention. This makes sense given that their core cultural determination was militaristic expansion and domination. Lutyens put the triumphal arch through a kaleidoscope with his Memorial to the Missing of the Somme completed in 1932, commemorating just those whose bodies where obliterated during the exercise of industrialised slaughter called the ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918. The memorial’s complex descending arches and ziggurat refract a 2000 year old template and wouldn’t look out of place in The Fifth Element (1997). Futuristic not in the denuded stylistic sense but that which has the small shock of from the actual unknown. What are memorials supposed to do? If a death isn’t memorialised is it without meaning or importance? Is a materiality of memory an adequate approach to grief? War memorials tend to be macho physically and commemorate toxic masculine pursuits like murder and destruction. Where does this cultural particularity come from?

“The Romans have never been rivalled in their shrewd employment of cruelty […] Rome
was the first not only to threaten but to destroy the freedom of the world.” – Simone Weil, 1939.

Roman monuments made by those in power had untempered triumph in killing and
enslavement. War memorials post-1918 ape their renaissanced aesthetics but do so with a supposedly simmering introspection and apology, the need to copy ‘classical’ forms betrays a certain insecurity. The Cenotaph on Whitehall, London was originally a temporary structure hastily designed by Lutyens after the first World War. None of it’s horizontal and vertical lines are straight but subtle curves governed by a system of entasis or optical correction employed in ancient Greek temples. After its permanent stone sequel was erected the Catholic Herald dismissed the Cenotaph as “nothing more or less than a pagan monument, insulting to Christianity […] a disgrace in a so call Christian land” as it was for “Atheist, Mohammedan, Buddhist, Jew, men of any religion or none”. Influenced by his wife Lady Emily’s interest in Theosophy, Lutyens eschewed the cross.

“The Cenotaph is remarkable for the absence of any visible emblems or symbols on it
representing Triumph, or Heroism, or Victory; there are only carved wreaths and ribbons, and three flags along each flank. It speaks only of death, and loss. Nor are there any religious symbols: there is no cross, let alone a crucifix, nor representations of angels, of St George or St Micheal in armour. This is, perhaps, surprising in a nation with an established Church. The bishops, indeed were very unhappy about this and the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day 1920, when the permanent Cenotaph was unveiled, was the Church of England’s riposte to this official secularism. Stephen Graham later recalled Lutyens saying, ‘There was some horror in Church circles. What! A pagan monument in the midst of Whitehall! That is why we have a rival shrine in the Abbey, the Unknown Warrior, but even an unknown soldier might not have been a Christian, the more unknown the less sure you could be.” – Gavin Stamp.

Photo by the artist.

There is a cold violence to their design that resonates with those who now so often evoke the ‘memory’ of the two wars; English right-wing nationalists. The red poppy hegemony is queasy. World War 2 is now the more prominent narrative around Armistice Day, the battle between good and evil is a simple story. But these memorials were all made to commemorate the much more messy and less grandiose story of World War 1. ‘Never again’ was within only two decades broken and 1939-1945 carved into the same stone.

“To the British, it was and would remain their greatest military tragedy of the twentieth
century, indeed of their national military history…The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.” – John Keegan

Photo by the artist.

Britain’s world domination was bankrupted by this war and it’s Empires’ decline rapidly
hastened. ‘England’s war is Ireland’s opportunity’. The function of these memorials has
morphed in recent years, they have become less about remembrance of the
incommensurable human toll and more sites of mourning for lost Empire and an imagined past now taken away. Armistice Day a pagan poll dance of post-colonial melancholia. This was made as clear as the planeless skies in the right wing reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests in Parliament Square June, 2020.


Was a Racist

Sprayed on the granite base of the big bronze. A picture circulated online of a kid trying to set the Cenotaph flags alight. Lutyens originally wanted the flags to be made of stone, a much more powerful poetic symbolism. Frozen flags permanently petrified in time, but was overruled by the armed forces. Charlie Gilmour wouldn’t have gone to prison for swinging off them if Lutyens’ design was implemented. A possible moment for accurate historical eduction to counter the dominant rose tinted hagiography of Churchill and the explicitly white supremacist ideology of the British Empire was instead used to create a culture war false binary. Rightly drawing attention to the fact that Churchill undoubtedly held racist beliefs was disingenuously seen as an attack on the war dead by ‘thugs and vandals’. The Cenotaph and Churchill statue were boarded up, groups of English nationalists formed counter protests and rushed to ‘protect’ war memorials across the country from a confected and non-existent threat. The memorials were used as rallying points against the powerful and vital ongoing BLM movement for racial equality, they became solely pilgrimage sites of white supremacy and the triumph of empire. This was always under the surface of the ‘Lest We Forget’ middle aged Facebook profile-picture brigade. It’s a nod to a certain set of political ideologies, not an untainted act of remembrance. This bitter melancholia for a time before World War I and the might of Empire is undoubtedly a major nostalgic emotion in the phyrric drive towards leaving the European Union, also against immigration and the duty of providing safety for refugees. In 1955, Churchill expressed his support for the slogan “Keep England White” in regards to immigration from the Caribbean that was desperately needed to rebuild the country after the war. His views were extreme for even some in the Conservative party at the time. One quote punctures the unshakeable ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ mythos around him and was remembered by his doctor who treated his alcoholism and manic depression. Churchill confided in him one night:

“I want to sleep for a billion years. Stupendous issues are unfolding before our eyes yet we are only specs of dust that have settled in the night on the map of the world.”

It shows in sharp relief the priorities of the current Conservative government who have
since have passed a law allowing a jail sentence of up to 10 years for defacing a memorial or statue when jail terms for those convicted of sexual offences such as rape start at just 5 years. War memorials can function in an important way, they can be received as warnings from previous generations now unable to speak. From those that lived through human inflicted unimaginable horror reminding us never again.

Photo by the artist.

Marta Pellerini: How have you combined your study and understanding of classical history, which you’ve been focusing on these past few years, with a contemporary approach?

Charlie Fegan: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

One of the things I find compelling about classical history is that this hulking unwavering system of life collapsed. The arrogant stares of deified emperors lay in river silt and dirt for centuries. The renaissance has a science fiction quality to it; the remnants of a technologically and culturally complex civilisation were dug up and used as an aesthetic and cultural template. We are all acutely aware of where we are heading if things don’t radically change. The ecocide continuing to take place on the planet could very easily bring about the same covering of dirt upon our own systems of life. In this moment of radical potential when the seemingly fixed structures of our lives were halted and questioned what are we going to do with it? What is more likely to happen once vaccinations have been delivered around the world? Are the yawning inequalities of race/gender/class going to be addressed and balanced? Will we stop the companies that destroy our ecosystem? Or will there be a Covid-19 memorial erected and back to business as usual?

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” – Ursula K. Le Guin.

Photo by Antonio Palmieri.