Exhibition Review: Ink in the Lines, Australian War Memorial

This is an incredible, intimate exhibition that is less about war and conflict, and more about empathy and the human spirit. Beautiful photographs and oral histories that surprise in their capacity to share.

As a pacifist, it seemed a rather odd decision to take myself off to the Australian War Memorial (AWM) to review an exhibition, but I have to say, it has been one of the best post-COVID experiences I’ve had.

The message of hope and empathy was not one I expected. And the commitment of gallery staff and invigilators to ensure it was a safe, welcoming and personal experience, was not lost on this misguided cynic who expected only gloom of an institution that commemorates war.

The lesson learnt: remembering is also about community, pride, service, self-worth and yes, a dose of joy.

It was an exhibition titled Ink in the Lines that caught my attention – a look at tattoos in the Australian Military. Elegantly presented in a darkened gallery with black walls and dramatic pin lighting, the viewer moves through an incredible journey of personal stories. It is totally captivating.

As the gallery reminds: ‘Tattoos are a conversation starter.’

Installation view Ink in the Lines, Australian War Memorial. Photo Artshub.

We talk a lot about the role of storytelling in museums, and the kinds of intersections between technology, oral histories, objects and heck, even old dioramas. But there have been great leaps in 21st C museum models, and we are finally starting to see that balance is right.

The exhibition is the culmination of The Memorial Tattoo Project, which documented the stories of servicemen and servicewomen through oral history interviews and portrait photography throughout 2019.

It is loosely divided into four thematic zone: Loss, Grief & Commemoration; Healing; Mateship & Family, and Identity & Belonging. It is less about organising material on display, and works more as a trigger for viewer consideration.

Read: Exhibition Review: Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia

These are incredibly candid accounts; these service men and women literally pop off the walls with an intensity and an intimacy that stops you in your tracks. And while there is a voyeuristic, luscious eye candy quality to the tattoos themselves – and worthy of the label art – there is nothing ghoulish about this run of images.

After all, being tattooed in itself is an incredibly intimate experience, and in an uncanny way, the staging of this exhibition matches well that act of marking your body.

Kevin. Video detail. Ink in the Lines, Australian War Memorial. Photo Artshub.

‘Most people get a tattoo for a game of footy. We get a tattoo to remember, and commemorate, our service, our mates, our careers… the blokes we serve with. Still serving,’ says Kevin.

Many talked about their struggle with PTSD and mental health. Others talked about allegiance to a unit – a family, a regiment. One service woman reminds, ‘Mothers are soldiers too.’

Overall – and holding this exhibition together at its foundations – is an expression of pride. These are not only records of experiences, but symbols of self and mantras to move forward – an essential part of the healing process.

Video detail. Ink in the Lines, Australian War Memorial. Photo Artshub.

Another said: ‘Yeah, tattooing took on a whole new thing. I mean, I was – it almost became therapy, if that makes sense.’

What we walk away with is this idea that these tattoos are an affirmation for these service people, in a world where so many things are untethered, traumatic or couched in forgetting. Their bodies have become personal diaries that are a consolidation, compressing time.

It slows you down. And any exhibition that slows you down is doing something special.

Everything has been thought through meticulously, whether it be online or in person.  There is also the invitation for audiences to share their ink on social using #InkintheLines. AWM has also produced a podcast episode in conversation with curator Stephanie Boyle, tattoo artist Peter and service person Louise Maher; and made available the video oral histories from the exhibition online. To view.

Thinking back on Ink in the Lines, this exhibition becomes less and less about war or art, and is just about co-existing in this empathetic place between things. I was totally surprised by my reaction.

5 stars out of 5 ★★★★★

Ink in the Lines
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
Memorial Tattoo Project
25 September 2020 – 27 January 2021

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina