LIGHTS OUT by Jeremy Deller is a digital artwork commissioned by 14-18 NOW, created for LIGHTS OUT (an invitation to everyone in the UK to turn their lights off on August 4th from 10pm until 11pm, leaving on a single light to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War).
To experience Deller’s digital work, you are invited to download a free app, and from the 1st to 4th of August a short film will be released each day. The culmination of the work happens at 10pm on 4 August when the final LIGHTS OUT film will be available – for just one hour.
We just downloaded the app, where the first short film was available. It’s a clip from a 1964 BBC interview with WWI veteran Stefan Westmann, who was called up for national service in Germany, April 1914. He served as a Corporal with the 29th later as a Medical Officer, and when the Nazis came to power he emigrated to Britain.
In the extraordinary clip, the transcript of which is below, Westmann describes the horrors of war:
“What was it that we soldiers stabbed each other, strangled each other, went for each other like mad dogs? What was it that we, who had nothing against them personally, fought with them to the very end and death?
We were civilised people after all. But I felt that the culture we boasted so much about is only a very thin lacquer which chipped off the very moment we come in contact with cruel things like real war. To fire at each other from a distance, to drop bombs is something impersonal.
But to see each other’s white in the eyes and then to run with a bayonet against a man it was against my conception and against my inner feeling.”
Deller has created an animation that resembles a solar eclipse, which you watch whilst listening to the voice clip. According to the artist, the animation is of the total eclipse of the sun, Belarus, 21st August 1914. The animation, although simple, is a really powerful visual metaphor to accompany Westmann’s account. A black and white circle emerge in separate corners, cross over, and eventually meet - so the whole screen ends in darkness. It reminds me of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (translation: sunless). I see the white sun in the animation as the white pupils that Westmann describes, which close and transform into darkness. It’s the transition from life to death.