Ori Gersht, ‘Will You Dance For Me’
It wasn’t intentional, but at 11am, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month I was at Imperial War Museum North, taking a look at their brilliant and provocative new show Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War which contains exhibits that range from the wittily satirical to those that are disturbing or deeply moving.
The exhibition – which consists entirely of works from IWM’s collection of twentieth and twenty-first century British art – explores various artistic responses to war since the first Gulf War in 1990, and sets out to find answers to an interesting question: what do artists contribute to our perceptions of war and conflict in a time when our general understanding of conflict is increasingly shaped by the media and the internet?
Many of the works displayed here are by artists who were commissioned by the IWM to respond to recent conflicts. The first British official War Artists’ Scheme was set up by the government in 1916, during the First World War (Paul Nash and Christopher RW Nevinson were among those commissioned then). A larger scheme was established under the War Artists Advisory Committee during the Second World War, resulting in over 3,000 commissioned works being given to the Imperial War Museum (by artists such as Laura Knight, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer and Graham Sutherland). Building on this tradition, IWM has been commissioning contemporary artists since the early 1970s, at first to create documentary work, but more recently shifting towards encouraging more personal artistic responses to conflict.
The IWM suggests that, ‘working outside the pressures of journalism, artists can propose ideas, urging the viewer to think deeply about what war is, about its immediate impact, its long term repercussions and how we remember it’. Viewing the response of the artists displayed here, there’s a clear critique of the way in which war and conflict is presented in the media. While at the time of the Vietnam war it seemed that TV news crews and photo journalists had opened up a new space for critical argument and debate about the war’s objectives and the means by which it was being pursued, now the media are more tightly controlled in conflict situations, and there is a growing emphasis on the media spectacle and instant coverage of events as they unfold. This leaves little room for more critical or thoughtful perspectives.
This exhibition looks at how artists have questioned and confronted the way in which the media tends to cover conflict in the last 25 years or so. Some mock the style and methods of the media, while others produce art that rejects the mainstream media’s need for spectacle.
Paul Seawright, ‘Camp Boundary’, 2002
In 2002 the IWM commissioned Paul Seawright to respond to the war in Afghanistan. Seawright was particularly interested in how an artist might engage with the conflict in a way that was different to the dramatic spectacles of photojournalism, and the photographs he made of minefields are radically opposed to that tradition. They show a seemingly empty landscape, which in reality is both lethal and inaccessible. Seawright says that he had ‘always been fascinated by the invisible, the unseen, the subject matter that doesn’t easily present itself to the camera’. The Museum suggests that Seawright’s work ‘highlights the changing nature of contemporary warfare with its increasing emphasis on remote technology and hidden enemies’.
John Timberlake, Another Country XV, 2001
In his series Another Country, John Timberlake combines well-known Romantic landscapes by Turner or Constable with nuclear mushroom clouds, taken from sources in IWM’s archives. He’s interested in exploring the idea of the ‘sublime’, used by the Romantics to describe scenes both terrifying and awe-inspiring, in a modern context. These qualities of scale, drama, shock and spectacle are features, he implies, that are increasingly a feature of the contemporary media’s portrayal of conflict. The Museum caption suggests that ‘the cloud is both toxic and fascinating, almost beautiful. The multiple layers in the work remove us from the event, leaving us as passive spectators, simultaneously seduced and disturbed’. I thought of how we all watched those planes smashing into the towers on a September morning, the sky a beautiful blue.
Trio, ‘Olympic Games Sarajevo 1994’
Trio is a graphic design group made up of husband and wife Bojan and Dada Hadžihalilović with Lela Mulabegović Hatt. Trapped in the four year siege of Sarajevo and disheartened by the lack of worldwide interest in the conflict, the group produced darkly humorous postcards (later remade into posters) satirising icons of pop culture such as the Coca Cola logo or (as here) the famous image of US soldiers raising the US flag at Iwo Jima to raise awareness. Their image references the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, which drew huge numbers of visitors to the city. A decade later the city’s residents felt abandoned by the world.
David Tartakover, ‘United Colours of Netanyahu’, 1998
Another example of this satirical approach is provided by David Tartakover’s poster, United Colours of Netanyahu. Tartakover is an Israeli artist and political activist who uses the medium of the poster, often satirising or re-appropriating visual symbols to present a politically provocative perspective on Israel. Here he uses an image of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, posing for a press call with his family, in a re-make of a United Colours of Benetton poster. It is a clear criticism of Netanyahu, and his resistance to the peace process with the Palestinians. The poster suggests an Israel, security-conscious and militarised, maintaining the illusion of a united, happy family.
Taysir Batniji, ‘GH0809: Houses #3, #9, #20’, 2009
Taysir Batniji offers another example of this satirical approach. He is a Palestinian artist, born in Gaza, but currently living in Paris. His work reflects on the situation in Palestine, but avoids the dramatic, drawing our attention instead to irrational aspects of the situation. GH0809 is a tongue-in-cheek comment on the situation in Gaza, portraying houses bombed by the Israelis in 2008-9 in the form of estate agent information sheets that present the home-seeker with desirable residences, offering the usual mundane details such as square footage and the number of rooms. But the sheets also also quietly state the number of former residents for each house. We do not know what has happened to these people, but the ruined homes shown hardly need a commentary.
John Keane, ‘Death Squad’, 1991
In 1990 John Keane was commissioned as the IWM’s official recorder in the Gulf , just before the first Gulf War began in January 1991. What could an artist add to our understanding of a conflict given extensive coverage in the media? Free from the responsibility of producing an official record of the war, Keane responded to events in a more personal and subjective way.Keane writes on his website:
I am interested in the process of painting, and I am interested in why human beings want to kill one another for political ends. These two apparently diverse preoccupations I attempt to reconcile by smearing pigment around on canvas in an effort to achieve a result whose success can be measured by how well it disguises the sheer absurdity of the attempt.
The first thing that crossed my mind looking at the ambiguously titled Death Squad, depicting a group of soldiers carrying a body bag, their sunglasses and masks concealing any emotion or expression, was the story of the Royal Marine found guilty by a military court only a few days previously of murdering an injured Afghan insurgent. But you can read this image in an entirely different way: a group of foot soldiers doing an unpleasant job, clearing the dead from the field of battle. It’s pertinent that Keane offers this quote on his website from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Then I reach what is perhaps the iconic image of war, and the revulsion felt by millions at the decision of the British government, led by Tony Blair, to go to war in Iraq in 2003, in the face of widespread public protest: Photo-Op by kennardphillipp.
kennardphillips, ‘Photo-Op’, 2007
Peter Kennard and Cat Picton-Phillipps have worked together since 2002, initially to make art in response to the invasion of Iraq. Their work has been shown online, in galleries and on protest marches. They describe their work as a direct means of communication: ‘the visual arm of protest’. Photo-Op, a collage depicting Tony Blair taking a ‘selfie’ in front of a huge explosion was produced in response to the personal anger the two artists felt, and to create something that reflected and validated the enormous public opposition to the war, which they felt had not been reflected in the media.
For me, though, the most moving and powerful works in this exhibition are those in which the artist seeks to explore the legacy of violence and the meaning of memory and loss. Much of this work looks at the links between violent events and the landscape in which they have occurred – and the memory that still resides there. Something of that sort would not lead you to immediately think of the homely landscapes of Britain.
Chris Harrison, ‘Sites of Memory: Sheerness’
But that is exactly what Chris Harrison’s project, Sites of Memory sets out to explore. It’s a series of photographs of First World War memorials that Harrison took as he travelled across Britain. They have a non-committal and unsentimental appearance, frequently (as is the case with the Tesco store in ‘Sheerness’ on display here) highlighting the incongruity of the juxtaposition between past and present. The monuments are surrounded by more recent buildings, overgrown greenery and street furniture – all emphasising the passage of time. Often the banality of the surroundings sits uncomfortably with the gravity of the events memorialised, suggesting the fading of collective memory and dwindling recognition of these once-resonant structures.
There were two works on display in the Museum which I had seen once before – on television, in a documentary about the art of war presented by Jon Snow. One was Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country, a work that commemorates the British service personnel who died during the Iraq War.
Steve McQueen, Queen and Country, 2006
Queen and Country was created by Steve McQueen in response to a visit he made to Iraq in 2003 following his appointment by the Imperial War Museum’s Art Commissions Committee as an official UK war artist. During the six days McQueen spent in Iraq, he was moved and inspired by the camaraderie of the servicemen and women that he met. He proposed that portraits of those who have lost their lives during the conflict be issued as stamps by Royal Mail.
An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in defence of our national ideals. The stamps would focus on individual experience without euphemism. It would form an intimate reflection of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the everyday – every household and every office.
While discussions were under way with Royal Mail, McQueen made the Queen and Country installation – a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets bearing multiple portrait heads, each one dedicated to an individual, with details of name, regiment, age and date of death printed in the margin. The images were chosen by the families of the deceased. You engage directly with this work, sliding out panels that bear the sheets from the wooden cabinet, and contemplating the endlessly repeating images of the dead. There is something here that questions ideas of sacrifice, community and nationhood.
Jeremy Deller, ‘Baghdad, 5 March 2007’
The other exhibit – not in the exhibition, but in the main gallery space – was a piece by Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller entitled Baghdad, 5 March 2007. It consists of the wreckage of a car salvaged after suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives, devastating Mutanabbi Street, a historic street of book stores and coffee shops in a mixed Shia-Sunni area of Baghdad.
World Trade Centre steelwork
Perhaps deliberately, the Museum’s organizers have place nearby a piece of twisted steelwork that once formed part of a window section in the World Trade Centre, destroyed in the attack of 11 September 2001 and extracted from the ruins at Ground Zero. To one side a poem by Simon Armitage is displayed that follows the structure of a poem by Thomas Hardy with the same name:
The Convergence of the Twain
Here is an architecture of air.
Where dust has cleared,
nothing stands but free sky, unlimited and sheer.
Smoke’s dark bruise
has paled, soothed
by wind, dabbed at and eased by rain, exposing the wound.
Over the spoil of junk,
rescuers prod and pick,
shout into tangled holes. What answers back is aftershock.
All land lines are down.
Reports of mobile phones
are false. One half-excoriated Apple Mac still quotes the Dow Jones.
Shop windows are papered
with faces of the disappeared.
As if they might walk from the ruins – chosen, spared.
With hindsight now we track
the vapour-trail of each flight-path
arcing through blue morning, like a curved thought.
And in retrospect plot
the weird prospect
of a passenger plane beading an office-block.
But long before that dawn,
with those towers drawing
in worth and name to their full height, an opposite was forming,
still years and miles off,
yet moving headlong forwards, locked on a collision course.
Then time and space
contracted, so whatever distance
held those worlds apart thinned to an instant.
During which, cameras framed
moments of grace
before the furious contact wherein earth and heaven fused.
Ori Gersht, ‘Will You Dance For Me’
For me, there was no doubt which was the most moving and most powerful work in this exhibition. Ori Gersht’s film Will You Dance For Me is projected on two screens. On the left we see Yehudit Arnon, now aged 85, rocking in and out of the light. Arnon was a prisoner in Auschwitz who, when ordered to dance at an SS officer’s Christmas party, refused and was was forced to stand outside, barefoot in the snow for hours. She swore to herself that if she survived she would devote her life to dance. As she rocks, a windswept snowscape – a field of stubble reminiscent of simple wooden crosses in a graveyard, a distant line of trees – appears on the right hand screen, alluding to the place of her memories.
Yehudit Arnon did survive. She went on to become an internationally renowned dancer and choreographer, and in 1962 founded the Kibbutzim Dance Company. Aged 85 when Gersht filmed her, she had limited mobility, but in the rocking chair she was able to dance one more time. She died last August, aged 87.
My own personal liberation – it was as like death. We were made to stand in the courtyard. Suddenly we saw there were machine-guns there. And the Germans… It was clear to us that this was the end. We did not know the date. We did not know that in reality this was the last day. Instead we stood there and waited for the end. It was so extreme, the change, from the moment when I thought to myself “this is the end” – and then suddenly freedom… I could not even grasp it.
When the Germans … asked that I amuse them over Christmas – that was the first time in my life when I could say “No”. And at that moment I didn’t care if they would have shot me, because the conditions were so difficult, that it would not have mattered.
I was not shot. I was punished, and made to stand in the snow, I do not know for how long. And then I decided, that if I survived, I would spend my whole life working with dance.
Will You Dance With Me: 90 second clip from the 13 minute video
Stepping outside after viewing Gersht’s film of Yehudit Arnon, I recollected that the IWM North building was designed by Daniel Libeskind, a Jewish architect whose parents were Holocaust survivors. He designed it to resemble a globe shattered by the violence of war, from which a few fragments have been put back together rather chaotically. Once shattered by war, though things might be pieced together, nothing is ever quite whole again.