Despite the efforts of those with power and pen to spray pine scent on the foul 12 months that was 2014, it will be remembered – at best – as a soul-crushing year. Think back, if it’s not yet a blur, to the sheer consistency of horrors: medieval insurgencies and vanishing jets bookended by sneak invasions and disease. Happy adjectives gathered dust in newsroom bins while dictionary dons recorded new words for terror. Still, the holiday season implores us to look back – to reflect and to find lessons – despite a lack of any obvious silver linings.
During the Christmas downtime I sought perspective at London’s Tate Modern. Currently underway is Conflict, Time, Photography, a stunning exploration of the way wars are remembered and an event that marks the centenary of the First World War. Rather than organise the photographs chronologically – from the Somme to Fallujah, say – the material is instead displayed based on the passage of time following an event. And so we see images of Dresden seven months after being bombed, Nagasaki 18 years later and so on. It’s a neat feat of curation. The chaos of the mushroom cloud at Hiroshima – captured by a student moments after detonation – is contrasted with an unsettling shot of a woman stroking a harp in what was, decades earlier, a Nazi office complex. It’s now a music school.
One wonders how such an exhibition would work 50 years from now. How will the museum of the future explore the destruction and bloodshed of 2014: in Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine, Iraq, and Gaza? And through which multimedia lens will the mayhem beyond our time be captured and remembered by the next generation? The unyielding pace of technological change will surely have an impact on the process of memory.
Yet the exhibit highlighted one lesson relevant to our present circumstances more than ever – that very human foible of shortsightedness. Those who have lived in conflict zones know well the insanity of war; how it devastates generations, how it alters a city irreparably or destroys it entirely. Just ask a former resident of Aleppo how the unthinkable became reality. It’s a truth that policymakers in the West, often far from any battlefield, struggle to comprehend but they might benefit from taking a trip to my neighbourhood in north London. On a brick wall overlooking a roundabout near my flat is a small red plaque. It commemorates the deaths of 26 people killed when a V1 flying bomb destroyed a train station there in 1944. It often goes unnoticed.
We make laws and build institutions to temper humanity’s more base instincts such as war. But in the new year, those in power would do well to also take a few extra steps. Take deep breaths. Meditate. Think long and hard before you act. And why not take a trip to the Tate?
Daniel Giacopelli is a producer at Monocle 24 and presenter of ‘The Entrepreneurs’.