This article is part of the series ‘Made You Look’ which aims to explore the meaning behind the art we see every day in and around Durham.
By Caitlin Allard
I remember walking out of the library, the sun having set, and jumping at the sight of four children running and falling in front of me. Outside the Bill Bryson Library, just before the Geography department, stands a sculpture by North East based artist Fenwick Lawson, ‘Cry for Justice – the Scream’. I may have spent too long doing my reading, but for a moment, the sculpture appeared to come to life. I then asked myself: who made it? What is it? Why is it there?
Lawson is from a mining family in South Moor village, Durham, and attended the Sunderland College of Art, then the Royal College of Art in London where he was spotted by Jacob Epstein. He uses wood and chainsaws to create his art, sculptures which are often eventually coated in bronze to preserve them. He is a member of Hatfield’s Senior Common Room after over 30 years of links with the University, and in 2008 received an honorary degree from Durham University.
Inspiration for the sculpture came from two obvious sources. The first is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by photographer Nick Ut during the Vietnam War in 1972. It shows a girl, commonly known as ‘Napalm Girl’, running naked on a road after being burned by a South Vietnamese napalm attack. The desperation and fear in the photo are portrayed clearly in Lawson’s sculpture.
The second is in the title, Edward Munch’s The Scream (1893). The painting is known for its vibrant, swirling colours and abstract, isolated figure screaming with despair. Why is it screaming? Why is it alone? Who is it screaming to? Edward Munch was part of the art movement often referred to as the fin de siècle. Earlier artists in the 1800s focused on technical skill and ‘accurate’ portrayal of their subjects, whereas artists like Munch chose to express more psychological aspects in their paintings through colour and simple shapes, paving the way for Expressionism. The despair in the painting is evident in Lawson’s sculpture, as is Munch’s unique approach to artwork: Lawson’s use of the jagged viciousness of the chainsaw in his creations creates a sense of the pain of the figures. Furthermore, like Munch, Lawson chose to depart from the popular art style. Lawson rejected the London art scene, as he believed the London galleries were insincere and used the artists for their own gain. Avant-garde in his choice of location as well as style.
Why is it there?
The sculpture is placed between the Geography department and the Bill Bryson library. In 2013 Durham University spent £1.4m on art and this was one of the installations that was rather controversially chosen. It is actually owned by the Geography department. However, its prevalent placement seems to have greater depth than a tenuous link with human geography. Lawson argued that art is not just for its aesthetic value, which is partly why he left the London art scene. Art is meant to challenge and question those who see it.
In being placed outside the library, we, Durham University students, are reminded of the privilege we have in taking our fate into our own hands. We must appreciate the opportunities that we have. The girl in the photograph of the Vietnam War actually has a very hopeful story. Her name is Phan Thi Kim Phúc. After taking the photograph, Nick Ut took Kim Phúc and the other children to a hospital in Saigon. After 14 months in hospital and 17 surgeries, she was able to return home. In 1997 she established the first Kim Phúc foundation in the US, with the aim of providing medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war. This soon expanded internationally and still exists today. It is the moments before she is saved that Lawson chooses to capture and eternalise for us, a reminder that people in crisis can be on the brink of destruction or salvation and perhaps we have the chance to save others.
The lack of clear signage around the installation makes it confusing, and without context, it could simply be a depressing sight to greet people coming in and out of the library. But, as is obvious to so many walking past, without its signage, the installation still has the capacity to evoke emotion. Its power is easily seen, even without any interest in art. Without a label, the pain of the piece is easily applicable to events far beyond the Vietnam war, in particular, the refugee crisis. This was most likely intentional, and reminds us that history repeats itself without due care.
The emotion of the piece is timeless, and when combined with context it becomes an important reminder that we have power in the world, and that we should make use of it.
Featured Photograph: Maddie Flisher