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Runa Islam, 'How Far To Farö', 2004

I take a seat on the Tate Boat, and look north across the Thames towards St Paul’s. Earlier this morning I was really looking forward to my visit to both London’s Tates. Not so much because of the art on show at either gallery, but because of the journey between the sites in this vessel. Why? Well, because yesterday I was on much the same bit of the river in another boat tracking an ambitious site-specific piece of art, and today the Tate Boat offers a chance to relive that unique experience.

Yesterday’s party boarded east of Tower Bridge. The idea was that we would get a chance to see the message that Beth Derbyshire was having transmitted by semaphore from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to Whitehall, where it was to be decrypted and laid on a wreath at the Cenotaph as part of Remembrance Day commemorations. So we had breakfast on board and then our boat set off, and sure enough there was a signaller on the HMS President naval base, waving his arms about. He had a red and yellow flag in one hand and a rolled-up high-visibility jacket in the other. Why not a flag in each hand, as is customary? Because one had been forgotten, I dare say. But the important thing was that the war veteran hadn’t forgotten the semaphore code itself, which would have been ingrained through his training. And so we presumed that the artist’s message was successfully communicated to the next signaller standing—miles away it seemed—on the deck of HMS Belfast. Apparently, earlier in the week there had been a dress rehearsal, sending a dummy message down the line of twenty veterans. But yesterday, Remembrance Day itself, only Beth Derbyshire knew the actual message until it was communicated to the first signaller in Greenwich. Anything else would have been an insult to the professionalism of the armed forces. Of course it would.

Semaphore signaller aboard HMS President for 'Message', an event created by Beth Derbyshire and commissioned by the National Maritime Museum for Remembrance Sunday 2005
Semaphore signaller aboard HMS President for 'Message', an event created by Beth Derbyshire and commissioned by the National Maritime Museum for Remembrance Sunday 2005

Already the Tate Boat has glided as far as London Eye for a pick-up. Where I am now is as far upstream as our boat travelled yesterday, though we were on the opposite bank allowing us to disembark and see what was going on at Whitehall, where the message arrived and was decoded. Dr John Reid, former Minister for Armed Forces, was being interviewed by the BBC, while Beth Derbyshire, National Maritime Museum commissioned artist, was next up for such a public conversation. And I thought I might just walk past the Cenotaph and loop back to the boat for the return journey to Greenwich and the opening of Beth’s related show, also called Message . But I miscalculated the density of the crowd, and got stuck there. If I’d known that I would be standing on the same square foot of pavement for the next two hours, I’d have been seriously disturbed at the prospect. As it was, I thought it would be for about half an hour, until the minute’s silence, and then maybe another few minutes for the Queen and the Prime Minister to lay a wreath and for the military bands and soldiers to disperse. I was so wrong. As I stood there, as my bladder slowly filled and my feet turned to ice, thousands, and thousands, and thousands of uniformed old men, young men, women and children, trooped past the block of stone with the main war years chiselled into it. And as they did so, a representative from each body of marchers took the opportunity of laying down a wreath. In the building on the opposite side of the street—the Home Office, I believe—senior members of the establishment and royalty kept an eye on what was going on. Though it seemed to me that their commitment was nothing to that of the rest of us: foot soldiers, standing shoulder to shoulder. I was physically out of sorts, and frustrated as well, because my mind was as numb as my lower limbs were. Only now, as the Tate Boat gets going again, leaving the Houses of Parliament in its wake, can I recall some of the inspiring art world stuff I’ve seen over the last week. Indeed, it isn’t hard to think of work directly relevant to what was going on yesterday.

Roderick Buchanan, 'History Painting', 2004, film still 
Roderick Buchanan, 'History Painting', 2004, film still

Camden Arts Centre has a two-person show, featuring video works by Roddy Buchanan and Runa Islam. For History Painting, Buchanan lets the camera pan up along a row of Scottish soldiers, then down along a row of Indian soldiers, then repeats that pattern, encouraging a comparison. The faces are different in colour and hue as one might expect, but seem similar in youth, solemnity and subservience to the uniform. An attitude to life that has led to self-sacrifice on the part of millions in the last century. Yesterday, it was noticeable that the old English soldier standing behind me saved especially warm applause for the Gurkhas as they trooped past my glazed stare.

Runa Islam’s engaging three-screen piece ‘How Far to Farö’ was mostly shot on a boat travelling to the Swedish island that Ingmar Bergman retired to live on, though there was also footage of the forest once her crew got to the island. As ever with Islam’s work, the editing was sharp, the scenario chocka with ambiguities: a tribute to the history of film-making using a present master’s eye and touch. I can feel the sea-wind biting into my face as I think about the multi-screen video; I can feel the ship heaving beneath me. Even though my actual progress across water at the moment is sedate.

Jim Lambie, 'The Kinks', 2005, mixed-media installation 
Jim Lambie, 'The Kinks', 2005, mixed-media installation

Also in London this November, there is a major showing of Francis Alÿs’s work, organised by Artangel, in a classic building on Portman Square, entry into which is half the attraction of going along. One of Alÿs’s ‘Seven Walks’ involves a film of Coldstream Guards—the ones with red tunics and bearskin hats—taking part in a bizarre exercise. Sixty-four guardsmen set out at different points in the City of London, walking in random directions. But whenever they see a fellow guard or guards, they fall into step, and gradually over the half-hour of the film the single soldiers became pairs became larger units, until eventually they are a marching army, eight-by-eight, in-step and not to be interfered with. Or so it seems, until they simply disperse when they come to a bridge across the Thames. But recollecting the work brings to mind that the self-discipline of soldiers is not intended to lead to sacrifice. It’s intended to lead to efficiency, progress and the achievement of a military goal. ‘Victory’, you might say.

Okay, I’m off the boat and into Tate Britain. I intend to catch the Turner Prize show. Jim Lambie’s The Kinks echoes his recent show at the Modern Institute—The Byrds —with both installations featuring silhouettes of the members of the respective Sixties bands made from black T-shirts mounted on the wall. I suppose the show in Glasgow has the bonus that the installation’s main motif—large kitsch sculptures of birds—has resonance with the show’s title. However, here at Tate Britain, Lambie has gone to the trouble of creating one of his trademark floors, using strips of coloured vinyl—this time, silver, black and white—as a platform for his colourful and enigmatic winged creatures. Anything less like soldiers I haven’t seen since the hey-day of the Beatles!

Francis Alys, Rafael Ortega, ' Guards', 2005, film still 
Francis Alys, Rafael Ortega, ' Guards', 2005, film still

Simon Starling, also represented by the Modern Institute, is showing, amongst other works, ‘Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No.2)’. This shed was originally situated on the banks of the Rhine upstream from the Kunstmuseum, Basel. It was dismantled and turned into a boat that was paddled downstream to the Swiss museum where the boat was disassembled and the shed was rebuilt and incorporated into an exhibition. I wonder, in passing, if the armed forces were requisitioned to do such work. The commitment to process as well as form—a non-industrial manufacturing process for a privileged section of society, instead of mass-production for everyone with the money to buy it—contains within it politics and social critique.

I think about Simon Starling [who was subsequently awarded the prize], but soon get diverted into comparing the Turner Prize ceremony itself with that for Remembrance Day. The BBC and a Dimbleby, versus Channel 4 and Matthew Collings. Of course, the ceremonies are separated by almost a month and are in no way in competition with each other. The giving of a prize to a single elite artist is in such stark contrast to the laying of a wreath to millions of war-dead. But maybe both events deserve their place in the public calendar. Suddenly I get a vision of the Queen, with a deft flick of her wrist, birling a royal wreath across the floorboards of an ordinary-seeming wooden shed. Quickly followed by another vision, of Nicholas Serota presenting a cheque for £25,000 to a private in the new Scottish Infantry Division, who accepts it on behalf of all those who died in action while serving in the Black Watch.

Simon Starling, 'Shedboat-shed (Mobile Architecture No.2)', 2005, mixed media 
Simon Starling, 'Shedboat-shed (Mobile Architecture No.2)', 2005, mixed media

The fresh air blowing along Millbank clears my mind as I walk back towards the centre of town. Soon I’m thinking of the first thing I saw today, Rachel Whiteread’s ‘Embankment’. In the early 90s, the then-Turner Prize-winner was commissioned by Artangel to make a concrete cast of a house in Bow, East London. That wonderful monument to generations of people who had lived in a certain kind of domestic space, in a generic urban area, was demolished after a few months of national notoriety. Couldn’t it have been built again for the new show in the turbine hall of Tate Modern—the biggest and best-funded exhibition space in the country? Instead, ‘Embankment’, is based on the cast of a cardboard box that contained memorabilia from Whiteread’s childhood. But the new installation, using thousands of polyethylene boxes constructed from casts of a few such cardboard boxes, just doesn’t have the same gravitas as the earlier work. Indeed, from the viewing platform across the turbine hall, the piles of boxes look like constructions made from sugar-cubes.

I walk up Whitehall towards the Cenotaph. I’m curious to experience the site empty of people, and to see if I can spot the wreath with Beth Derbyshire’s encrypted message. I can’t get near the monument in the middle of the road for the iron fence that has been erected to keep members of the public away from the tributes, whose poppies have turned the foot of the Cenotaph scarlet. In fact, I do manage to spot the wreath, thanks to the word ‘MESSAGE’ boldly heading it, the word divided into red and yellow segments by a diagonal line, like a semaphore flag. There is no way I can read what’s written on the card from this distance. But as I was able to make the opening of the gallery show in Greenwich yesterday afternoon, thanks to a fast ride on a Jubilee Line tube, I know what it says:

Rachel Whiteread, 'Embankment', 2005, 14000 casts of different boxes, Tate Turbine Hall, 11 October 2005-1 May 2006 
Rachel Whiteread, 'Embankment', 2005, 14000 casts of different boxes, Tate Turbine Hall, 11 October 2005-1 May 2006

WAR TURNS US TO STONE

Actually, the Cenotaph itself is a plain stone monument. It might be better if it was a concrete cast of some object relating to everyday life. The truth is I would love to see another Rachel Whiteread ‘House’ right here, if I can’t have it in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Anyway, Beth Derbyshire’s message goes on:

IN REMEMBRANCE WE SHINE

Which is true. But rather than just commemorating the dead of the World Wars and subsequent conflicts, couldn’t the remembrance be for all those that have lost their lives in the last century? Or any other century, come to that. Not just soldiers, though for sure they would be included, but the likes of Ingmar Bergman, as well. Though, come to think of it, I believe he’s still alive!

AND RISE TO NEW DAYS

Now I am moved. I’m glad that curiosity about the final resting place of Beth’s message has made me revisit the Cenotaph. I no longer mind the fact that I sacrificed those two hours yesterday, rooted to the mindless spot. In retrospect, those old servicemen waving their flags under instruction from an artist-general set the Thames on fire. One more time, boys! Let it burn, letter by letter, with one word different just for argument’s sake: Life turns us to stone. In remembrance we shine and rise to new days.

Duncan McLaren is an author and contemporary art writer