Measuring 90×30 inches, The Flooded Trench takes its inspiration from the poet Siegfried Sassoon’s (1886-1967) work The Redeemer, 1915, focusing on the fatalities of WW1 soldiers who drowned in their own trenches. Responding to the pain and suffering of trench life, Fraser has captured the soldiers’ tragic plight as they ‘struggle along the ditch’ heaving their leaden limbs and ‘lugging clay-sucked boots’ through ‘the muck’, as described in Sassoon’s poem.
The Flooded Trench offers the viewer an opportunity to consider the plight of these doomed youths, trapped in the mire through fatigue or injury. By translating these scenes into the photographic realm, Fraser has imbued this imagery with a new tangibility; we too feel ‘soaked, chilled and wretched’ to the core.
Visually the work relates to painted imagery seen in The Menin Road, 1919, by Paul Nash and Paths of Glory, 1915, by CRW Nevinson, which depict the realities of life and death in the trenches. Nash’s war commissions in particular achieved a new reality in war art, his vast canvases capturing what he defined as ‘the lights going down on the horizon, the voices dying away, the transformations of the last scene of the drama that one might call The End of the World.’
The work was shot on a large format analogue field camera, not unlike the kind of equipment used by some photographers at the front in 1914. The scene itself has been staged, using a mixture of ambient and artificial lighting to create a sense of contemplation. It owes as much to early nineteenth century painting by artists such as Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) as it does to recent photographic work such as Jeff Wall’s (b.1946) The Flooded Grave.
The medium of photography allows Fraser to explore complex notions of reality and performance; fact and fiction. Its reference to painterly depictions of warfare sits in sharp contrast with the photographic documentation of artists such as David Cotterrell in Shock and Awe, where scenes that appear staged are in fact barbarically real. Here, Fraser collapses our traditional notion of remembering by placing us within the memory, merging past and present beneath the artificial glow of the camera’s lights: and ‘Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch’.
Text by Gemma Brace, Curator, Royal West of England Academy