The vivid short text which comprises Conscientious Objectors takes a fragment of testimony from Alfred Evans, a conscientious objector during World War One. Evans was part of a group of 50 men, who in May 1916, were imprisoned and then sent from Britain to France, convinced that they’d be forced to fight against their will.
The conscientious objectors in Evans’ group were deported in secrecy, without the chance to tell families or friends, and informed that once in France they’d be under ‘active service conditions’, meaning that a refusal to obey orders could make them liable to be shot.
Kept in harsh conditions, ‘the Frenchmen’ as they became known, suffered numerous attempts to coerce them into accepting the role of combatants. Etchells’ neon takes and reworks a short phrase from Evans in which he describes the scene one afternoon at a camp the army called ‘Cinder City’ where Evans and the other conscientious objectors were distributed among a thousand or so soldiers lined up there. Military drill began, but as Evans later recalled, on the order to march not a single one of the conscientious objectors moved. “It must have been an amazing sight..” said Evans, to see the small group of them “scattered motionless over the huge parade ground”.
After that incident many other kinds of tactics were unsuccessfully employed in the attempt to bully or frighten the conscientious objectors into obeying orders. Some of the regular soldiers, however, treated the objectors with respect, aware that the refusal to fight in this circumstance required principles, bravery and conviction.
In working with Evans’ text Etchells creates a vivid image of stillness and individual resistance as a way of insisting on change – recalling the bravery of the refusal of the conscientious objectors, it also links to the spirit and strength of contemporary protest movements often founded in a refusal to participate. For more information on Alfred Evans and conscientious objectors, see the resources curated online by Peace Pledge Union. Evans’ narrative is also featured in the book We Will Not Go to War: Conscientious Objection During the World Wars by Felicity Goodall.
About Tim Etchells’ neon and LED works
Etchells’ neon and LED pieces often draw on his broader fascinations as an artist, writer and performance maker, exploring contradictory aspects of language – the speed, clarity and vividness with which it communicates narrative, image and ideas, and at the same time its amazing propensity to create a rich field of uncertainty and ambiguity.
Through simple phrases spelt out in neon, LED and other media, Etchells strives to create miniature narratives, moments of confusion, awkwardness, reflection and intimacy in public and gallery settings. Encountering the neon sign works, in the streets of a city or in the space of a white cube gallery, the viewer becomes implicated in a situation that’s not fully revealed, or a linguistic formulation that generates confusion or ambiguity. As often in Etchells’ work, in the neons the missing parts of the picture are as important as the elements that are present. Invoking a story, or projecting an idea out-of-context, the work invites us in, but into what exactly we can’t be sure.