Art review: Dead Man's Penny commemorates national and private loss
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Art review: Dead Man's Penny commemorates national and private loss

This exhibition remembers not only the artist's great-uncle, who died at Gallipoli in 1915, but also the wider sacrifice in that campaign.

Dead Man's Penny: An exhibition and installation by Michael Keighery​. Watson Arts Centre. Until October 5.

Michael Keighery's great-uncle, Frank Keighery, died at Gallipoli 100 years ago on September 11, 1915. His family was one of more than 1 million in the British Empire who received a memorial medal that quickly became known as the Dead Mans' Penny, the Death Penny or the Widow's Penny. The medal was actually a plaque, as it was decorated on only one side.

Michael Keighery commemorates his great-uncle in ceramic artillery castings in <i>Dead Man's Penny</i> at Watson Arts Centre.

Michael Keighery commemorates his great-uncle in ceramic artillery castings in Dead Man's Penny at Watson Arts Centre.

The sculptured image by Edward Carter Preston (1885-1965) is replete with images of empire. The draped figure of Britannica is surrounded by two dolphins symbolising Britain's sea power, with a lion representing Britain's military might standing dominant over the vanquished German eagle.

The soldier's name was engraved on the medal, but listed without his rank, because it was considered that all combatants were equal in this sacrificial death. Six hundred of these medals were sent to the next of kin of women who also died in this conflict.

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The memorial plaque sent to soldiers' next of kin quickly became known as the Dead Man's Penny.

The memorial plaque sent to soldiers' next of kin quickly became known as the Dead Man's Penny.Credit:Ron Cerabona

Michael Keighery has commemorated his great-uncle in this exhibition with work that includes a series of ceramic plaques, cylindrical vases and a wall installation.

The inscription on Frank's gravestone in the Lone Pine cemetery at Gallipoli celebrates a clean, straight life nobly ended. Frank comes to life through his poems and his wartime diary. The diary, taken from his fallen body and sent to his grieving parents, is in the Australian War Memorial.

Frank was a reporter and printer from Lang Lang, a small Victorian town in South Gippsland. The diary, written in Pitman shorthand and full of the slang and colloquialisms of the day is slowly being translated. One of his poems available to read in the exhibition was written in the heat and dust of Egypt while waiting embarkation to Gallipoli. In this poem he poignantly remembers the smell of the wet peppermint gums and South Gippsland scrub – a smell he was never to experience again.

The series of cylindrical forms by the artist is a reference to the two brass vases in the exhibition made by soldiers from the castings of brass artillery shells. This art, arising from the detritus of modern warfare, is sometimes referred to as trench art. The two ornamental vases are incised with graceful sprigs of flowers, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to domesticate these feared objects of destruction.

Small, white ceramic pieces of clay moulded from human knuckles on two walls of the gallery represent the 8709 Australian soldiers killed at Gallipoli.

Small, white ceramic pieces of clay moulded from human knuckles on two walls of the gallery represent the 8709 Australian soldiers killed at Gallipoli.

Keighery has incised, painted or printed his vase forms with poppies and native Australian flowers, as well as prints of his great-uncle's portrait. The spiky lengths of barbed wire that appear on some of these vessels and their blood-red interiors are a stark and dramatic intrusion in what is otherwise a sombre and reflective exhibition. The ceramic plaques impregnated with wartime memorabilia evoke the portraits of dead soldiers with their medals that hung in many Australian homes.

However, the most significant aspect of the exhibition is the installation of ranks of small, white ceramic pieces on two walls of the gallery. There are 8709 of these squeezed and fired pieces of clay moulded from human knuckles. They represent the official number of Australian soldiers killed at Gallipoli. The artist has made the end of each uniformed row irregular to symbolise the unknown soldiers who were not included in the official war dead lists, but died after the war of war-related trauma and injuries.

The wall installation is impressive in its visual and symbolic impact. Every twisted piece of clay represents an individual. The work questions our inability to comprehend the sheer numbers of the casualties. The enormity of death on this scale seems to blur our senses, until we come face to face with an individual such as Frank. What we respond to is the human face of this vast tragedy.

Keighery has successfully brought together these two aspects of the Gallipoli campaign by interweaving the terrible loss of human life to the nation and the private loss by a family. Through our insight into Frank's story, we can comprehend the tragic end to the lives of so many Australians like him – young men and women who never survived to smell the wet peppermint gums again and see the families that loved them.

Every twisted piece of clay represents an individual.

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