Signs for the Times

Since the violent terror attacks that rocked the globe in Sydney and Paris, the public sphere has been filled with images in response to the trauma of the shootings. This mass proliferation of signs and symbols revealed the power of images to speak for public opinion when words are at a loss.

Seeing images of thousands of flowers laid in memorial of the Sydney siege at Martin Place, and ‘Je Suis Charlie’ slogans covering Paris in response to the shootings at the satirical magazine’s offices, there is no denying the symbolic weight of the visual image. After all it was a cartoon that inflamed the extremist violence in Paris.

How did a cartoon prove to be so provocative? It unleashed both a violent outburst by Muslim extremists and yet mobilised an international unification at the Paris Rally on 11 January 2015. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon resulted in an unprecedented show of solidarity by world leaders, as well as sparking furious debate on social media. Public debate has been rife with images contesting issues of freedom and the right to self-expression.

Whilst cartoons are inherently humorous, the influence of an image to incite violence raises the question of “when is it not appropriate to provoke?”. In response to the attacks Pope Francis said, “One cannot insult other people’s faith. One cannot make fun of faith.” Gerard Biard, editor of Charlie Hebdo defended the French satirical newspaper’s skewering of religion, saying it targets faith only when it becomes “entangled” in politics.

In an interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press, Biard stated, “Every time that we draw a cartoon of Mohammed, every time that we draw a cartoon of a prophet, every time that we draw a cartoon of God, we defend the freedom of [conscience].”

When most called for freedom and liberty, graphic artist Joe Sacco responded visually, pausing to rethink the limits of free speech. “When we draw a line we are often crossing one too.” In the struggle for freedom and universal rights, are cartoons testing the boundaries for expression?

However while an image has the power to provoke violence, these events prove its ability to confront violence.

The influx of signs and symbols on the Place de la Republique statue during and after the solidarity demonstration in Paris, 8 January, 2015, created a defiant image of lasting relevance. The historic monument, Marianne, is a national symbol of the French Republic, an allegory of liberty and reason, and a portrayal of the Goddess Liberty.

The public’s mass acts of graffiti on the historic monument – silenced by a black spray-painted cross her mouth, ‘Je suis Charlie’ signs strung up, flowers laid in memorial, scrawled notes of freedom and liberty across the sandstone – initially seem out of place on this regal figure. However

within this context it is instead a new layer of history, albeit temporary, added to the classical sculpture. Exemplifying France’s history of liberty and freedom, it is only apt to use signs and symbols to demonstrate the ability of the visual to transcend languages, contexts and cultures, and extend a universal message of freedom of expression.

Combined with the overwhelming response of ‘Je suis Charlie’ written across Paris, graffiti extended an informal conversation of unity within the public space. The use of the hashtag #jesuischarlie after the shootings reveals the power of an image to be sensorially, emotionally and politically effective.

After the Lindt Café siege at Martin Place, the public’s response of laying thousands of flowers, as well as leaving handwritten notes and pictures in a temporary memorial, held immense visual impact. The colourful spread laid in a circular shape around the entrance to the train station was a peaceful yet powerful floral tribute to the acts of anger during the siege. The emergence of the #illridewithyou hashtag became widespread on social media, promoting a united front against the extremist terror attack.

As at the Place de la Republique’s Marianne statue, the visual was an informally emotional act in response to trauma – connecting people across the world. Acclaimed artist Ken Johnson, the father of Sydney siege victim

Tori Johnson, called for “the beginning of something new in this world”. Emphasising the importance of the floral tribute he stated, “Keep it rolling, get rid of cars and put flowers in the street, pave it all the way down to Central, that’s what I would like.”

Now with focus directed to planning a permanent memorial to the lives lost at the Sydney siege, the visual is used to unite and remember. The NSW government will work with the City of Sydney, the families of the victims and surviving hostages in designing the memorial. Plans so far have announced that the bouquets of flowers will potentially become compost for the new garden memorial. Used as the foundation for something new, the symbolism of the flower tribute will be enduring, a lasting memory of the victims of the siege.

The role of art to provide a fitting forum to respond to the trauma of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the Sydney siege is clearly a tradition with ongoing relevance. Imbued with a multiplicity of meanings, these acts of creating a symbol, a memorial or marking create refreshing signs of hope against terror for the times.

Photography by Laraine Deer, 2015

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