At Imperial War Museum North, Gerry Judah’s new sculpture celebrates peace and life, not war and death, discovers Dan Feeney. Meanwhile, the museum itself witnesses new life at Salford Quays
Imperial War Museum North is a place where our everyday understanding of the world is up for negotiation. The museum’s collection examines the cost of human life shattered by conflict, while Daniel Libeskind’s building represents a globe shattered by war. The latest addition to this at times challenging museum is The Crusader, a sculpture by the acclaimed painter, sculptor and designer Gerry Judah. For Judah, it marks the end of an investigation into the impact of war that began with a model of the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp at Imperial War Museum London some ten years ago.
“That had a profound impact on me,” he remembers, “because what I was dealing with was a historical aspect, and people’s memories and experience. I was harnessing a lot of factors to make an art piece. What that made me do was develop the work further, and I started seeing that the wars and conflicts in Gaza, the West Bank, Baghdad, Beirut and so forth, all had a very similar texture and impact.”
Situated as it is in the entrance to the main exhibition space, The Crusader brings a new sense of presence to the beginning of most visitors’ engagement with the museum, unlike the hitherto-dominant Harrier jet. Imposing a sense of the impact of war, the seven-metre high, three-dimensional sculpture features war-torn, decimated cities and tower blocks sprouting from a white cross. The viewer is at once drawn to investigate the detail of the destruction whilst also standing back to take in the scale of the piece, and the concepts behind it.
“It was extraordinary the way these buildings had been ripped apart. You saw inside these buildings, and inside people’s lives.”
Judah focuses the viewer on the human aspect of war, and highlights the museum as much more than a repository of the technologies of destruction. “When I saw the photographs of Beirut, it was extraordinary the way these buildings had been ripped apart,” he says. “You saw inside these buildings, and inside these people’s lives. I’ve always been drawn to buildings not just destroyed by conflict but also by neglect and the environment. Regardless of what causes them, it’s the lives that were inside those buildings, that were lived and left because of these conflicts.”
Inside the museum, Judah presents cities and buildings rent asunder even as Imperial War Museum North itself watches Salford Quays and Media City develop around it. The BBC has taken possession of the keys to its new home, with plans to begin moving services into Media City from May 2011. Imperial War Museum North and The Lowry are well placed to capitalise on the continuing development of this once-neglected part of Salford. Jim Forrester, Director of Imperial War Museum North, believes the development of the Media City tram station and link bridge to the museum will “undoubtedly bring more visitors to the whole area as it grows into one of the most important cultural destinations in the UK. The first stage of external landscaping outside the museum is nearing completion, with a new quayside promenade to open this month, and linked to Media City in December by a spectacular new bridge. This will greatly enhance the visitor experience, creating a circular walkway around the major tourist attractions at the Quays.”
Much as Judah’s sculpture represents an internalising and personalising of Libeskind’s vaunted rhetoric, so too will Imperial War Museum North reflect its new partner across the Ship Canal. A special exhibition, War Correspondent: Reporting Under Fire Since 1914, is planned to coincide with the arrival of the BBC next May. Until then, The Crusader offers a timely interjection and new starting point for the exploration of both the collection and the notions of war as well as, more importantly for Judah, peace.
“I think it is the ethos of the museum that was far more important in this case than its collection,” he says. “It’s an odd thing to call this place the Imperial War Museum. For me. I see it as a museum for peace, not one of war. It’s also a museum of life, and I wanted to draw on that. It’s a great place, a great building, and a great city, so I felt I had to do a great piece and make it reach further than just the walls it sits on. That is the duty of culture, that it mustn’t be parochial, and to stretch beyond items of war.”
The Crusader by Gerry Judah, until November 2011, Imperial War Museum North, free. Images: The Crusader, Gerry Judah, courtesy Imperial War Museum/the artist (top and bottom); external view of Imperial War Museum North, courtesy Len Grant. Audioboo below courtesy Dan Feeney.