the impact of absence

6 09 2014

Last month we went into Birmingham to see 5,000 ice men. It was a WW1 commemoration, by Brazilian artist Néle Azevedo, commissioned by Birmingham Hippodrome. War commemorations are something I’m wary about, but the prospect of seeing these thousands of ice figures arrayed on the steps of Chamberlain Square was an irresistible photo opportunity.

After doing all sorts of other arty things in the pouring rain, we turned up just before the start of Minimum Monument. The crowd was surprisingly large and cheerful, considering the weather, and their reward was that as soon as Néle Azevedo started to explain the project the afternoon was transformed into a gloriously sunny one.

Once the mayor had placed the first 20cm high ice figure on the steps, the rest of the crowd began collecting them from their nearest freezer, peeling off the plastic covering and arranging them on the steps.


As the number of figures grew, so did the impact.


It became clear that part of the significance lay in the uniformity and repetition and part in the small differences both in the moulding, some customisation by the crowd, and in the melting.

Two adorned

And being made of ice, there seemed also to be a commentary on things that are barely there – by virtue both of transparency and their brief existence.


Getting down to the level of the figures gave the impression that they were enjoying themselves in the sun, watching the crowds and exchanging observations.

We sit and watch, together and alone

life in the sun

There was nothing melancholy about it.

watching the crowds

They disappeared so quickly, though, losing limbs and coherence.


The sheer scale of the spectacle made an impact all its own. Tiny ice people, giant living people.

Standing in contemplation

present and absent

uniquely disappearing

It was lovely to see the mass engagement, and to experience the happy atmosphere and sense of something magical happening. I took it not as a jingoistic expression of pride in war, but as a recognition of each brief life and the unique and ongoing impact of every absence.

— words by Elizabeth
— pictures Elizabeth & Paul




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