Gallipoli, Te Papa, Wellington

Jade Le Grice

I have to confess I am writing this reflection on my experience of Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibit seven months after a visit where I penned my initial thoughts, and ten months after my first visit. With some distance from the visit, on the eve of ANZAC day 2016, it seems a timely opportunity to remember, and reflect on the abject horror of war, and the palpable audio-visual narratives I encountered through the exhibit. If you haven’t been yet, I’d strongly recommend going to see it. Not only to admire the gigantic yet curiously detailed soldier giants, constructed by local craftsmen at Weta workshop, but for the carefully curated artistic zones that draw in all of your senses to allow you to experience moments when you feel like you might actually be in a war zone.

You may end up spending a substantial amount of time in the queue, politely waiting, listening to music and playing on your phone, alongside mostly middle aged people with children, as I did. The banal phase of the exhibit is almost like a palate cleanser, preparing you to experience the full ambience and range of emotion the exhibit will evoke in you. The first signpost presenting somewhat lonely white text on a solemnly black background highlights ‘parental guidance recommended’ and cautions those waiting in the queue on the possibility of being ‘disturbed’ by the graphic content drawn from words and images of ‘real’ New Zealanders. The sense of the ‘real’ is often highlighted through the exhibit, evoked by the primary source material that was created by those who were present in Gallipoli during the war, and enhanced to full effect through a realistic yet fabricated assemblage of audio and visual material.

The first soldier encountered is Lieutenant Spencer Westmacott in gigantic proportions, nursing a bloodied hand, while his face is contorted in a pained grimace, reaching out with a gun in sheer determined desperation. His narrative is communicated through projected written text and audio conveying a grim tone and accompanying grim music. While recovering from the initial affective changeover from boredom to quiet horror in the presence of depictions of raw pain and desperation, the darkness in the room beset a curious sense of morbid fascination. I found myself wondering, ‘are those actual hairs on the soldiers face and hands? The uniform must be heavy to wear, it looks so starchy. How did they get those perfect wrinkles on his sleeve?’ Pulling my attention away from this focus on the detail in order to focus on the ‘spirit’ of the exhibit, I moved over to the next zone, chastising myself for not taking it as gravely serious, as I should. Further exhibits document the story of Lieutenant Spencer, someone I have come to understand as a clearly articulate person with an authoritative title, who has pulled a sense of sympathy from me as a consequence of learning the horrors he had to endure.  Written in partially emboldened, capitalised text, a somewhat unexpected sentence jumps out in front of me – “So ended THE MOST GLORIOUS DAY of my life”. I can’t recall the context of this statement, but reading it brings on a sense of confusion, at understanding how delight can manifest in the most horrific of circumstances. I suppose victory and achievement is the goal of each side in a war, and despite a likely constant affective battle with a sense of persecution and victimisation, there are still affective breaks brought about through opportunities for triumph and glory.

It might be useful to mention here, how the affective power of these displays were cushioned, enhanced, or reduced by the presence of other spectators. Many of my fellow spectators were walking around quietly and respectfully as stories and war logs were broadcasted to foreboding accompanying orchestral music. At various stages I heard men behind me noting how young the boys were going to war, and watched as children snuggled up to their parents in the more intimate audio spaces, noting one child crying. In the presence of the morose yet respectful emotional tone of those around me, coupled with the dimly lit setting, the space felt cavernous. I also noticed moments of awe, particularly palpable on one child’s expression in response to their mother explaining that 'these were real people' motioning towards the displays of giant soldiers, which was highly amusing. I could just imagine being a child and telling my teacher and friends at school that I went to Te Papa and found out there used to be huge giant soldiers at the war in Gallipoli.

Affective resonances were not confined to boredom, horror, awe, morbid fascination, misery, quiet contemplation, amusement, and confusion – the physically interactive displays brought about a further range of affect. Compelling snippets and emotionally evocative quotes conveyed the soldier’s experiences and sense of complete abjection, and questioning life itself. At one stage of the exhibit, a corridor was developed to look, feel, and shake like a life sized trench, with life sized video projections of soldiers darting across the wall – utterly thrilling! The speakers were vibrating to mimic the sound of cannons or gunfire, with haunting echoes. This audio, visual, and physical sensory onslaught was simultaneously compelling, moving, and brought about a distinct sense of total chaos. Another particularly visceral physical display depicted the account of someone being so weak, ‘they fell into the latrine (basic toilet) and couldn’t get out’ – shadowed images of men, the emboldened text, and physical structure of a well-used latrine evoked a sense of abject disgust in me, and prompted me to recall an experienced of having campylobacter, and falling asleep on the toilet floor. A much less extreme experience, but the most I could relate it to, nonetheless. There were interactive drawers that you could pull out and see a mixture of original and recreated items from the war experience – including meagre food and beverage supplies, complete with requisite flies, ants and mould. Forgetting the exhibit context, and thinking more of my stomach, I thought ‘eww.. is that it?’ then it dawned on me that soldiers would not have had any other choice and I was prompted to feel slightly listless, and forlorn, before moving to see what further meagre supplies were in the next box, waiting as the person beside me had moved on to another and there was no chance I would step on their toes. Opening a box to see hand knitted woollen hats and scarfs carefully packaged for their recipient brought about a pang of sadness, in feeling the level of care and effort someone had gone through for their special someone, who may not be alive to receive it.

Moving through the latter stages of the exhibit, red poppies were quietly introduced to the background imagery, marking a shift in phase towards depictions of battle, and abject living conditions, towards those responsible for nursing the wounded, the men who died, and those who were left behind. Leaving the exhibit I was moved by the images that depicted a sense of quiet despair, and moved towards a greater sense of reverence for the hardship and struggle these men endured, but also felt quite bitter at the futility of war, greed, power, and domination that circumscribes the conditions for war to occur in the first place.