British artist Richard Wentworth took different modes of communication as the starting point for a commission that explores the relationship between public and private, official and personal.
The First World War was the first to be fought by an almost entirely literate generation. On a personal level, this made it possible for soldiers abroad to keep in touch with their wives, sweethearts and children via an extraordinarily swift postal service. Official agencies, meanwhile, took advantage of the potential of mass communication via such innovations as the public information poster. As war broke out in 1914 the power of communicating with the public through the Tube network became clear, posters were displayed promoting war work and encouraging travellers to enlist.
The first instalment was a poster entitled When You Look You May Not See. The work uses for its source material a postcard written by soldier Herbert Ernest Wilson to his wife Martha Emily Wilson on 4 September 1918, taken from the University of Oxford Poetry Archive. Dated one week before the Armistice was signed, its poignancy is heightened by the halting style in which it is written: a husband enquires after his wife’s health, hoping that she might write to him soon, complaining only of the weather. The poster made use of the original Johnston font, designed by Edward Johnston for public information posters across the Tube network and which is still in use today.
The artist effected two changes to the soldier’s words in producing the network-wide poster. By reversing the text, he emphasises the distance that separates us from the experiences, attitudes and expressions of one hundred years ago; and by presenting the correspondence in the format and typography of an official notice, he asks us to consider the relationship between public and private notions of duty.
Two further commissions expanded upon these themes. Both entitled If history could be folded, where would you put the crease?, these large-scale works adopt the same techniques: reversing and upending the eponymous text so as to render it less easy to read. The difficulty of decoding the sentence—presented on the outside hoardings of Southwark station and as a mirror installation in the subways of Piccadilly Circus station—forces the reader to dwell upon its disorientating implications of foldable time and hidden pasts. What would it mean, it seems to ask us, to blot out a part of our history?
Reminding us that the Tube has always served as a space for the transmission of official ideas, these works of art also ask us to reconsider our perspective on the past.
Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW and Art on the Underground.