Entertainment & Arts

Bob and Roberta Smith: 'My father was obsessed by WW1'

Bob and Roberta Smith Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Bob and Roberta Smith's art is often in the form of painted slogans

Bob and Roberta Smith is one of the artists who has been commissioned to create a work to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.

As he explains to BBC arts correspondent Tim Masters, this latest project is one that resonates with his own family history.

"I'm very cognisant that I'm here because both of my grandfathers fought in the First World War and survived," says the artist known as Bob and Roberta Smith.

Smith, real name Patrick Brill, is perhaps best-known for making hand-painted signs on wooden panels.

His latest project, announced this week, will be a large scale work in Belfast using thousands of candles to illuminate giant letters that will spell out the phrase:

"What unites human beings, ears, eyes, loves, hopes and toes is huge and wonderful. What divides human beings is small and mean."

Image copyright Bob and Roberta Smith
Image caption The words that inspired the Belfast artwork (image courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith)

The words come from a letter Smith wrote to the statue of the Unknown Soldier at London's Paddington Station.

Each letter in the artwork - measuring 60 cm square - will be made by community groups which will be displayed on the lawn of City Hall on the night of 4 August - 100 years on from when Britain declared war on Germany.

Smith recalls from his childhood how his mother's father, who served in Palestine, "talked a lot about the war".

His grandfather on his father's side was "buried alive" on the battlefield at Ypres in Belgium.

"He was a sapper - he was one of the people who dug underneath no man's land to blow up the German soldiers. His tunnel collapsed but he was got out.

"In a way he was quite lucky because that invalided him out of the war. He was really traumatised by it."

Smith adds: "My father was absolutely obsessed by the First World War and used to take me to the Imperial War Museum every six months."

As well as Smith's Belfast project, other public artworks have been commissioned for England, Scotland and Wales.

The level of public participation in Smith's artwork has echoes of Martin Creed's mass bell-ringing on the opening day of the Olympic Games in 2012.

Does he think the public will engage with this one? "There is a bit of artist control but beyond that you can do what you want with the letters. You have to make something which is genuine and heartfelt which people can really engage with.

"The bell ringing was a wonderful thing," Smith adds. " It was very much a clear instruction, whereas this is a bit more textural. It might be its weakness. People might think this is a load of nonsense.

"But it's a complex thing to come up with. Although it might seem trite or glib to do something like this, it's a very difficult subject you wouldn't want to shy away from."

Lights Out takes place on 4 August from 2200-2300 BST.

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