Entering the 808 Gallery, the eyes immediately drift upwards to the huge silk banners hanging from the ceiling. Shredded by wind and rain, faded by the sun, they are a ghostly presence in the expansive space. Closer inspection reveals a photographic image on each banner, showing parts of a naked man’s torso, head, or feet. Names are engraved in his flesh.
The banners form the core of the moving exhibition Paul Emmanuel: Remnants, on view through March 20. South African artist Emmanuel originally created the banners for his celebrated public art project, The Lost Men France, first installed in 2014 in a former battlefield adjacent to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in Northern France.
Unlike the Thiepval Memorial, a series of soaring brick arches commemorating the more than 72,000 British and South African men who died in the Battles of the Somme between 1915 and 1918 and whose graves are unknown, Emmanuel’s work is what he calls a “counter-memorial.” Where traditional war memorials are built to withstand the passage of time, Emmanuel’s project was designed to slowly fade away.
The Lost Men France is the third in the artist’s Lost Men installations, each tied to a specific war or global conflict, each a site-specific exploration of loss, memory, and public grief. Emmanuel created his first Lost Men installation in Grahamstown, South Africa, in 2004. That project honored the Xhosa people killed by white Dutch and British soldiers in the 19th-century Makana Wars. His second Lost Men installation, erected in Maputo, Mozambique, in 2007, was a memorial to those killed in the Mozambican Civil War during the 1980s.
For The Lost Men France, Emmanuel used the same painstaking process as in his first two counter-memorials. His body is his canvas—he imprints into his skin the names of men killed in action. To do this, he first maps out a series of poses. He wanted to convey the human body’s frailty in the face of war in The Lost Men France.
“I kind of visualized myself being on that field,” he says. “I wanted to have poses that were all about me clutching myself.” In one pose, Emmanuel huddles in a near-fetal position, in another his hands cover his groin, in a third, his hands are over his face as it to protect himself from flying bullets, and in still another, an arm and hand clutch his chest.
He next immerses himself in a bath of wet plaster of Paris for a half an hour to create molds of his body in those poses. The molds are lined with the names of the fallen men, arranged without regard to rank, nationality, or ethnicity. (A 3-D printer is used to produce the names, using very sharp edges.) Emmanuel then reinserts himself into the molds, and sandbags placed on his naked body press the names as deeply as possible into his flesh. It can be an agonizing process.
“The most painful was my head,” he says about preparing for the France installation. “There’s no muscle tissue in your scalp, and one letter dug into the side of my skull and it actually started to bleed.”
When he gets out of the molds the second time, a photographer has only minutes to record his bruised body before the names begin to fade. The photographs are then printed onto silk banners using oil-based archival printing inks. The banners are subsequently suspended from steel poles.
To prepare for The Lost Men France project, Emmanuel spent four months in France researching World War I and the Battles of the Somme. Why did he include the names of German soldiers along with British, French, and Allied servicemen? “The moment I start excluding anyone,” Emmanuel says, “I start taking part in the same politics that traditional memorials do. How could I justify that?”
His counter-memorial includes the names of some of the thousands of black South Africans, who, although not permitted to fight in World War I, died assisting South African and British troops as laborers behind the lines at the Somme. (Their names were excluded from the Thiepval Memorial.)
“I describe this artwork as everything a traditional memorial is not,” Emmanuel says. “It’s a reassessment of what happened, a questioning of what happened. The work is designed to be free of any political statement. I don’t believe that art—especially public art—is to have any particular statement at all. I want people to react to it whichever way they do. They can love it, they can hate it.”
And love it and hate it they do. Emmanuel recalls one observer offended by the nudity who wrote to say that The Lost Men France was “an insult to all who fought and died in this historic area.” Others have expressed how beautiful and moving they found the project. “An artwork is something that people interpret with their own baggage, with their own background, their own cultural assumptions,” Emmanuel says. “They’re all valid.”
The exhibition includes a fascinating addendum to the show—videos and preparatory sketches. One monitor shows a montage of production stills illustrating how the banners were installed, another a video produced and directed by the artist conveying the step-by-step process of creating The Lost Men France.
Pamela Allara, a Brandeis associate professor emerita and a Pardee School of Global Studies African Studies Center visiting researcher, cocurated the exhibition. She says she first spoke with Emmanuel about bringing his work to Boston even before the banners were installed.
“The Lost Men impressed me first as revealing the vulnerability of the male body,” says Allara. “It spoke powerfully to the senseless destruction of the male body in war and the need to rethink how we conceive our memorializing those whose lives were lost. Instead of muscular heroes, Emmanuel’s work presented tender and delicate images of men’s bodies, a radically different representation of the male body in public space from any with which I was familiar.”
Allara was struck by the way the banners, with their depiction of male fragility, become, she says, “a powerful metaphor for the suffering soldiers endure in war and what is left of their lives thereafter, should they survive.”
She and exhibition cocurator Lynne Cooney, BU Art Galleries artistic director, visited Emmanuel at his studio last year to finalize plans for the tattered banners to be exhibited at BU. At the time, Cooney (GRS’08,’15) was studying in South Africa on a Fulbright Fellowship. Like Allara, she felt an immediate response to the work.
“It is highly provocative and incredibly beautiful,” says Cooney. “The works, even in their transparency, are dense and layered. Emmanuel is working with complex issues around identity in South Africa and takes a very thoughtful approach to a very volatile subject.”
“We live in an era of perpetual war, and yet we rarely think about those who suffer its consequences,” says Allara. “Paul’s work takes this overwhelming topic down to the personal level, and asks each of us to think about what war means and why we so passively accept living in a society that devotes most of its ‘treasure’ to military misadventures.
Emmanuel says he’s not yet done with the project that has consumed his professional life for more than a decade. He hopes to create one final Lost Men installation, this one to be set in the United States.
Paul Emmanuel: Remnants is on view at the 808 Gallery, 808 Commonwealth Ave., through Sunday, March 20. Gallery hours: Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., Thursdays, noon to 8 p.m., closed Mondays. The exhibition is free and open to the public and is managed by Art Source South Africa.
An interdisciplinary panel discussion, Visual Memory in a Time of Endless War, presented in conjunction with Paul Emmanuel: Remnants, will be held today, Thursday, February 11, from 4 to 6 p.m. in the 808 Gallery, free and open to the public. Panelists will talk about collective experiences of loss and mourning and the processes of memory and memorialization during times of war and global conflict. Participants include Timothy Longman, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of political science and director of BU’s African Studies Center.