This exhibition encourages contemplation of how we remember the dead, especially those killed in battle. The texts are versions of epitaphs and poetic fragments by the ancient Greek poet Simonides. Said to have developed a special art of memory, Simonides is associated with atrocity, war, loss, and remembrance. He made epitaphs for people, including friends, killed in the Persian Wars. Two and a half millennia ago, the city-states of Greece fought in conflicts against the empire of the Persians, which included the territories now known as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.
Written in what many regard as a “dead language,” the work of Simonides survives often in tiny fragments, drawing our attention to the fragile boundary between loss and remembrance. Poems such as Simonides’s famous epitaph for the Spartan dead at Thermopylae seem set to last forever. Robert Crawford’s versions of Simonides’s epitaphs in the Scots tongue give the work a vernacular edge and bring out its pithiness, while heightening our sense of the loss of language, as well as the language of loss.
Though Norman McBeath’s photographs are not of combative themes, they resonate subtly and tellingly alongside the Simonidean texts. The apparent timelessness of black-and-white photographs encourages a contemplation of loss and remembrance. Such contemplation is as awkward and necessary in the era of the so-called War on Terror as it was in the days of Simonides.
This project is one of several artistic commissions marking the 600th anniversary of the founding of Scotland’s first university, the University of St Andrews. A larger version of the show was one of the highlights of the 2011 Edinburgh Art Festival. During 2012, the exhibition will tour several venues including Oxford, St Andrews, Glasgow, and Yale, where it is being shown in conjunction with the Franke Seminar “Contemporary Reception of Greek and Roman Classics,” taught by Professor Emily Greenwood.