Much of Paul Emmanuel’s work has been concerned with the sacrificial waste of young human lives in war. He created a series of works called Lost Men, about South Africans whose lives were lost in wars both in Europe and in South Africa.
One of the ways in which he both memorializes these “lost men” and evokes their presence, is to take us to the fields in which they died in battle, to the sites of their last presence on earth. Emmanuel’s site-specific works there remind us that these men were once actual physical, living people.
This work, The Lightweights, was an installation made for his film 3SAI: A Rite of Passage made in 2004. Emmanuel started this work by looking at early archive material on the old South Africa army (the SADF) under apartheid – bringing to light its crushing, brutal impact on men who were not “masculine” or aggressive enough. Paul Emmanuel’s concern is with how society stereotypically decides what “maleness” should be. He brings to our attention the kind of masculinity that is vulnerable, “so intangible that it can be blown away by changing cultural currents in the air…”
For The Lightweights, on Topfontein Farm in the Free State, “Emmanuel assembled an army of one thousand white T-shirts, of the type worn by the inductees [recently recruited soldiers], and hung them on ten lines, each 100 meters long and spreading over 2.5 acres of field… the T-shirts, surrogates for the recruits’ hidden bodies, begin to tremble and finally to blow wildly in the wind: they are ‘lost souls’ …The recruit is at the mercy of forces that have the power of life and death over him.” (Pamela Allara.)
In this work, the once living, breathing bodies of dead soldiers, are evoked by their absence: the rows and rows of T-shirts that are hung on these lines, are empty. Each T-shirt is missing its wearer – the body gone, another “lost man”.