During a recent visit to Kiev as part of a selection panel for a call for sound and art works made by the ECAS network, I visited the Ukranian capital's World War Two memorial. I made my way through the Soviet era metro and out to the hills overlooking the wide Dnieper River, with clusters of imposing looking tower blocks beyond its opposite banks. After passing through a park, the gold-domed Pechersk Lavra and Memorial To The Holodomor Victims (the Ukrainian “terror-famine” in the early 1930s) I enter a pedestrian boulevard. At the head of it sit kiosks and cafes, with small groups of visitors escaping from the hot weather, sipping beer in the shade of umbrellas.
The broad boulevard stretches out under the hot sun for nearly a kilometre. I hear the muffled sounds of distant music being played. Suddenly, a loud and mournful male voice starts singing in contrabass right next to me. The entire boulevard is lined with speakers, blasting out a loop of emotionally piqued funereal songs, the sound crackling and warbling from disintegrating speaker cones and what could be poor MP3 compression. In the distance is a giant sculpture of a steel-plated woman warrior.
Further down, I come up to a large, covered section, partly made of poured concrete, shafts radiating out in rhythmic echoes from a Soviet star, embedded crater-like on a monolithic pillar to the left as you enter. There are several grottos, with the tinny sound of mournful singing reverberating around the cool space and bouncing off its hard walls. A roughly hewn socialist-realist frieze depicting rows of super-sized soldiers, workers and peasants, sits against the hard edged abstraction of the concrete. The march of figures lead through the grotto, and out to the other side, guns, farming tools and reinforcement bars pointing towards the warrior woman “Mother Motherland” (intentionally built just taller than the Statue Of Liberty).
Onwards, past another large cluster of gargantuan soldiers frozen in the midst of battle, two tanks face each other with their gun barrels crossed, both bizarrely painted in bright blue and orange, and covered in dots.
The elegiac songs continue, and from this position the guttural stops and warped, soaring vowels puncture the airspace with delayed echoes around the figure, the multitude of speakers sounding out the vastness of the space; a journey from the everyday to cosmic-scaled history at the foot of Mother Motherland.
Here she is, gleaming in the light, a sword thrusting skywards in one hand, in the other a shield emblazoned with Soviet hammer and sickle.
Inside the bunker-like pedestal supporting the Mother is the National Museum Of The History Of The Great Patriotic War (Of 1941–1945), that tells the history of World War Two and the Eastern Front from the Ukrainian, and Kievian perspective. Finished in 1981, the building and its collection are a time capsule from the late Soviet era. The figure was designed by the socialist-realist artist Yevgeny Vuchetich, famous for his grandiose sculptures glorifying Soviet heroism.
The two floors of exhibits take in much of the horror of that time, and aims to convey war through feeling, creating dramatic displays. Like how a title sequence of a movie sets up a tone for the following feature, music acts as a lead-in, preparing visitors for the main event ahead and helping define the emotional parameters of the experience.
The objects on show create a bleak impression: many are simply bits of detritus left over from battles, rusting shards of metal, decomposed boots. There’s the wreckage of an airplane, photos of unnamed victims hanging on its torn wing. Panoramas of fiery battle scenes are framed by soldiers’ heads cast in heavy bronze. A cluster of old speaker cones emit a painfully high pitched static tone (appropriate, though I imagine they were meant to be broadcasting something different). Elsewhere a vitrine containing a child’s jumper dangles off some barbed wire, tiny shoes sitting next to a pair of shackles.
In one section, if any visitors might have missed the point, a barrel of a cannon points at an old hessian textile, dotted with pictures of victims, a flower pot at its base.
In the last room are thousands of photographs of people, surrounding a banquet table lined with the canteens of the dead, phonographs placed intermittently along its length. Different brass instruments are suspended in the air, a swarm of disembodied horns mutely signalling victory.
The materials used emit feeling: cold concrete, lofty marble and austere granite, proud brass, melancholy bronze and energetic steel. All of them strong and hard wearing, each resonating at their own sensorial register.
The whole impression is one of overdriven, screeching emotion. It's so bombastic that my first reaction is how pushy and crass it is. My mind muddles the Soviet kitsch and atrophied, dramatised feeling with the caricatures of the former Eastern Bloc. And now updated to include cruel nouveau riche oligarchs with their tacky gold enamelled Louis XIV furniture, rudimentary capitalism and unrestrained ambition next to abject poverty – and other myths help to reinforce old assumptions about the East as depraved and barbaric.
Contrast the above experience with another type of remembrance: the British Commonwealth’s various iterations of Remembrance Day. They’re all based around a main event of two minutes of silent observance by attendees – performed by veterans and active members of national armed forces – and most usually organised around a cenotaph (empty tomb, in Greek). Communal silence rendered into a monumental sculpture. This silence is followed by a poignant, yet sometimes incongruously peppy tune called "The Last Post", a bugle call signalling the end of the day's duties, widely used in remembrance ceremonies.
Compared to a ten hectare complex of reverberating elegies and up-the-ante monumental sculpture, two minutes of silence seems a stoically restrained and tasteful method of remembrance. But crassness and refinement are to taste as politeness and rudeness are to manners. They are spectrums in which public performances of adherence to a social order take place. And both these examples don’t tolerate much deviation from obedient behaviour. If the National Museum Of The History Of The Great Patriotic War (Of 1941–1945) is a platform for individuals to play out a type of reverential melodramatics, the two minutes of silence reach just as authoritatively into the psyche.
Below is a video from the Australian Army Headquarters's YouTube channel showing a lone soldier playing "The Last Post". They've decided that it's more effective to have the bugler alone in the posh architecture, with dramatic worm's eye views of him and close up shots on blood red poppies and lists of the fallen on stone. It plays off of ideas of restraint and stoic poise, but it also overflows with a kind of melodrama.
As the distance from World War Two increases, its horrors slowly disintegrate in the mausoleum worlds of mediated myth and pomo relativism. The two World War's were proof of how we are always precariously close to tearing ourselves apart. Remembrance Day was started in 1919 and repeated so as to never forget World War One as the war to end all wars – but memorisation by rote learning hasn’t worked and never will.
Historian and broadcaster David Hendy once told me that “ultimately when people want silence, or when people complain about noise, there's a power struggle going on”. This links the above examples of ritual and memory, showing the role that power has in repeating these spaces and rituals – and being the cause of this ongoing misery. It’s clear that rituals of silence and melodramatic reverence are preventative measures against noisily active remembrance, something that at this moment can only be understood by the powers that be as an unpatriotic, violent attack on memory. But of course this noise would be a protest against hollow traditions, empty things used to perpetuate war-mongering, and the greed that usually drives it.
Music questions power and authority as much as it reinforces it. Kiev's memorial complex made me try to think of different types of music and remembrance that act against this mind erasing monumentalism. Enter that other ritual of self-forgetting, nationalistic memory and feeling control: the national anthem. Specifically, Albert Ayler's "Spirits Rejoice", a free jazz call and response riffing off the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise". Without irony it transforms all the hollow rompitypomp of a national anthem and makes it distinctly noisy and present. Its power lying in the fact that it has a very real object that it is ecstatically freeing up, rather than trying to escape from: