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Celebrated Australian sculptor Alex Seton will unveil his new Australian War Memorial commission on 22 February. The artist says he hopes it will offer healing and understanding at a time when serving members and veterans of the Australian Defence Forces are 20 times more likely to die by suicide than they are on active duty.

Seton’s 30-tonne marble sculpture installation, For Every Drop Shed in Anguish, will be revealed at AWM in Canberra in front of an expected 600 guests including veterans and families who have experienced trauma.

The work was carved from Queensland Australian Pearl marble. Seton told The Art Newspaper he deliberately selected marble that had been “rejected” because of its imperfections.

These putative flaws were veins of rust-red iron oxide and bandings of grey-blue and yellow that, for Seton, embodied the seen and unseen mental and physical scars borne by many members of military personnel and their families.

Seton carved the marble into 18 large marble droplets that reveal their durability and resilience when they are touched.

Seton said he hopes this embodiment of resilience will provide “a promise of hope and healing”.

The War Memorial’s brief for the sculpture included links to 500 stories about trauma and suicide among veterans and serving members of the military forces.

“The one thing that really struck me was the blood, sweat and tears that were present in each of these stories, and I just started thinking about the droplet form,” Seton said.

One inspiration for the work was a stone column at the Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba, Spain. When Seton visited the cathedral while taking part in an artist residency in around 2003, he noticed how generations of pilgrims, in drawing the sign of the cross, had worn away part of the column.

“I love the idea that the sculpture [For Every Drop Shed in Anguish] records its visitors [through touch],” he said.

“It’s about paying respect, and it’s a gesture. They’re highly polished surfaces now but over the years they will slowly wear in patches.”

For Every Drop Shed in Anguish includes specially-designed bench seating and QR codes linking to information and support services.

The installation of the sculpture comes at a critical time for the Australian military, which is under scrutiny by the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide. Royal Commission chair Nick Kaldas, in a speech to Australia’s National Press Club in September 2023, said military service-related suicide was a “national crisis”.

“There were at least 1,600 deaths by suicide between 1997 and 2020 of veterans who served on or after 1 January 1985. That’s more than 20 times the number killed in active duty over roughly the same period,” Kaldas told the National Press Club.

The Royal Commission will conduct its final hearings in March 2024, in Sydney, and will report to the Governor-General in September 2024.

War Memorial curator of art Anthea Gunn says For Every Drop Shed in Anguish marked a turn away from heroic monuments to war.

“It’s a genuine shift from monumental to reflective works,” she says.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. Other international helplines can be found atwww.befrienders.org.

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