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Glorification or commemoration; a moving, disorienting exhibition at Te Papa

Scoop review (and photos) by Francis Cook
Te Papa and Weta Workshop have worked together to create an impressive Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibition which skirts the edges of glorification and commemoration to deliver an experience both moving and disorienting.

The focus is six rooms holding expertly crafted human figures at 2.4 times human scale. Entering the space, you are immediately greeted with the figure of a soldier in a frozen position of desperation (above) firing a shot from his pistol into the distance, while his diary is recited out loud and the calligraphy of his hand writing is projected upon the curved walls.

The immediacy and boldness of the first room ignited instant scepticism in me – another “glorious” soldier, pistol raised to “protect” New Zealand from a distant, barely palpable threat to compound our national religious sanctimony of ANZAC Day.

While the second figure paints a more sombre moment of warfare, with a medic kneeling in stoic dismay over a dead comrade, my uneasiness was further exacerbated by the exhibit’s pièce de résistance; the scene of the machine gunner pictured below.

I could not help but be impressed by the extraordinary amount of detail that went the figures. But it just screamed comic book war story too loudly.

Toward the end, the exhibition comes together. While most people will take less interest in them – they don’t have explosions and gunshots – the last two figures had the most profound effect upon me.

Firstly, we see a nurse weeping, having just discovered that her brother has died in battle. It was refreshing and relieving to see that Te Papa and Weta Workshop included the “other” side of the war. The figure presents a powerful display of vulnerability. Sir Richard Taylor has described the level of thought and debate that went into the smallest matters, such as how her feet should be positioned. It is a commendable achievement for the artists and sculptures who worked on it, and left the most lasting impression on this viewer.

The last room depicts a soldier attempting to climb out of a muddy ditch. Not the most exciting premise, but on reflection – a perfect end to the exhibition. The space walks the viewer around his plight on our way out of the exhibition and back to our everyday lives, while he remains, stuck but determined to move on to the next horror.

In between the figures, rooms hold an array of dioramas, items from the war, and facts about Gallipoli, including an elaboration on the personal stories of those portrayed. The space is technically small, but you won’t notice that – it has been crafted in a labyrinthine way to both make better use, and to deliberately disorient the audiences.

“The Scale of Our War” seems at first to be unfitting title for an exhibition which has a deliberate focus on the stories of a few soldiers and one nurse. On reflection, however, the small focus allows for revelatory personal experience, unravelling a history of New Zealanders’ experiences which is as informative as it is emotional. While I remain pensive about the more action-packed scenes, the exhibit manages to shy away from being inspirational or glorious and instead leaves an impression of desolation and tragedy.

And more
First look at $8m exhibition
Great War exhibition is open, too