Professor Kingsley Baird

On 11 November 2018, 100 years after the signing of the Armistice to end the First World War I, New Zealand artist Kingsley Baird will be in Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, contributing to the Memorial Chairs project, conceived by Val Carman (In Flanders Fields Museum’s 2018 Artist in Residence) and supported by the museum and the Flemish government. Over 100 chairs from countries and regions involved in the First World War in Flanders and symbolising those who served in the West Flanders front region and did not return home, have been sent to Ieper. The empty chairs will form an installation to be exhibited in Ieper from 9-11 November 2018.

Baird’s contribution, a custom-built deck chair, takes the first part of its name from words carved into New Zealand battlefield memorials such as the tall, stone obelisk at ‘s Gravenstafel. That memorial, a few kilometres from Ieper, honours the men of the New Zealand Division at the battle of Broodseinde (4 October 1917). The words, ‘From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth’, refer to the distance travelled by New Zealand servicemen to take part in the First World War and has become a cliché, often employed by contemporary New Zealanders as if distance magnifies the sacrifice of the nation’s soldiers and possibly their own pilgrimage efforts. ‘The great adventure’ is similarly a hackneyed expression describing the motivation of soldiers setting out from their homeland with ‘a great adventure’ in mind.

The deck chair might evoke travel and adventure, leisure and relaxation, and the exotic – a world away from the horrible reality of the West Flanders front. Its materiality references the origins of many of New Zealand’s soldiers: rimu (a native timber) and oak (a reference to the Mother Country and empire). The chair’s wooden parts are held together by ‘bolts’ (bearing a New Zealand Army button) which are fastened by ‘nuts’, inspired by the tail feathers of a pīwakawaka or fantail bird (often considered a symbol of death in Māori culture). From the Uttermost Ends is a memorial; but not one intended to assuage loss for those whose loved ones will not return home. There is no consolatory gesture of resurrection here. No one will sit on this chair without its cloth seat, neither the living nor – even symbolically – the dead.

The use of solitary chairs or collections of chairs as memorials is not new. However, even if a well-worn trope, an empty chair can be a powerful metaphor for absence. How will visitors to the two-day exhibition engage with the chairs? Over the course of the exhibition, Baird will observe how the public who visit the Memorial Chairs exhibition respond to the chairs, and in particular, From the Uttermost Ends. Will they interpret the empty chairs as an invitation to sit on them or read them as memorials that are too sacred to touch? The artist will take photos of, and enter into conversation with, members of the public who show an interest in Memorial Chairs to gauge their responses to an outdoor exhibition of temporary memorials in a city inextricably linked to human and materiel destruction in the war of 1914-18.