Current Conflicts

“Yet despite the perceived tranquillity there is a feeling of unease, for there remains indelibly ingrained in the fabric of this landscape, echoes from the histories of war. It is though the land itself is unwittingly offering forth traces of reference and suggestion from an archive of confrontation.”

Christopher Down, introduction to his “Visions from Arcadia” link here

‘Current Conflicts – Six artists respond to modern warfare through the medium of photography’ at the Space 2 Gallery, Watford Museum.

If the idea of the term ‘war’ is to describe the state of affairs between conflicted nation states, between ideologies then the impression I gained from this exhibition was that it didn’t achieve it’s mission. There seemed to be no discourse on the confliction of nationhood, nor, as the essay provided as research directed, was there any sense of economic or political grandstanding. No shock, no awe. But other, more personal conflicts, I found aplenty.

Arresting perhaps, the images by Richard Monje of spent bullets; retrieved by British servicemen, these 5.56mm rounds of ammunition that have, apparently, failed to hit their target and were brought back by serving soldiers to be involved in the project. These abstracting images, magnified and exulted to reveal the twisted forms of their misguided flight are depicted in beautiful tones, lit to re-present their form sometimes sensuously, other times less so. I wondered about the titular oxymoron, the bullets were tourists to Afghanistan, their purpose only to inflict death and destruction, shock and awe maybe? They were not Afghan bullets but from another country, Germany, Switzerland, the United States or maybe the UK. Their country of origin might not matter, their effect surely does, and to attribute them to the country to which they are causing the greatest damage seems an interesting choice.

These retrieved/found objects presented on black backgrounds behind glass presented to me both the impression of memento mori, that inescapable presaging of death, that these objects are designed for. And for how the artist considers that these bullets are uniquely altered by their experience. If, by allowing the anthropomorphic possibility to an inanimate object one might wonder, whether it might be disappointed not to have been exploited for its intended purpose.

Atlanta airport is a major air transport hub in the southern state of Georgia, and like many similar focal points of its kind will frequently temporarily house US servicemen in transit either to or from the many overseas adventures that the American foreign policy demands of it’s troops. Jamie Simonds series of images of these servicemen exemplified the directive power of the edit (for this exhibition – and additionally the presentation method) and the statement of (post) intent. The full series can be found here .

The statement reads: “The soldiers, all from the Southern states, mostly appeared relaxed but their pensive eyes and posture gave away their anxiety…”. The images were all presented at around 5X7, so quite small, difficult to engage with those anxious eyes. All in army fatigues, in an airport and going back to “the theatres of war in Iraq and Afghanistan”.

“From the Forest” a series very dark landscapes of an area is used by RAF service personnel in survival training. I suspect the aesthetic was chosen to depict a certain impression of the psychological effect that these exercises might have on the those being trained, bleak, dangerous, full of the concept of the unknown. Les Monaghan suggests that he is maybe subconsciously developing a self portrait, given his familial background in the RAF, his father and his father before him. Monaghan talks of his continuing investigation into how and why he feels as he does, this is a work in progress.

Olivia Hollamby’s partner is a serving soldier and asked that he bring back images of the banal from his tour of duty, to which she would her images of her time when he was away. His images comprised of bullets, and army paraphernalia, hers, the everyday images of absence – both had the same image of the two of them together – in an embrace and posed for the camera. The series is edited into a book thus controlling, as much as is possible, the reading of the images, the narrative being as controlled as possible. The sense of the one without the other is palpable.

Mimesis, the overarching project title – if I heard correctly – is the mimicry, or representation of the real. Interestingly the artist Matthew Andrew presented Fenton’s much discussed image of the Crimean landscape (the one with the cannon balls as opposed to the one devoid of the iron munitions), thereby introducing two tropes with one starting point, mimesis and the notion of truth. Andrew is interested in how spaces, landscapes can (re)build a representation of warfare space. How the medium of photography can be used to restructure the simulacra of a landscape in turmoil, though always, it seems, denuded of the means by which turmoil visits these ‘scapes, that of inhabitants and the protagonists of war. We are presented with both the imagery of war, through for example video game imagery or the land where those armed visitors have been, altering it, scarring it with their presence and echoing the Fenton image.

And then Christopher Down’s “Visions from Arcadia”. Visually referencing ancient and classical literature to present “..individual soldiers to step outside their engagement with contemporary conflict and its subsequent potential for traumatic consequence…”. I wondered about the Edenic reference, these soldiers going to war with a nation whose vision of paradise is situated in a similar place, claimed by all the Abrahamic religions, then the secular reference to Arcadia and how we had one beautiful portrait of an iconic western man with camouflage paint on his face, eyes uplifted to the heavens. In God we trust.

It was an interesting journey. The study research essay had my expectations set to expect a narrative (my thoughts on it are here), the introduction from Les Monaghan led me to change those thoughts significantly and my reflections post the study took me slightly further. The notes for the exhibition state “Six artists respond to modern warfare through the medium of photography”, which of course, because the backdrop to all the work is national conflict, cannot be denied; and similarly, these are personal responses, all be they exhibited collectively, statements that denote the artists personal responses with the notion of war as the binding element.

It is though the conflictions of the self that I came to realise, that for me, was the poignancy of the exhibition. I seemed to be able to detect the anxiety in Simonds’ soldier shots, certainly in the exhibition edit, that depicted more of the anxiety of the artist rather than the subjects. An inner conflict being far away from home, in a foreign country, awful weather, newly found responsibilities. Monaghan’s conflict of self, on the one hand rejecting the expectations laid on his shoulders and on the other finding, perhaps to his frustration, a sense of self in the landscapes he found himself in and capturing. Andrew’s notion of truth, that perennial conflict of so many artists, how the imagery of war which has so many visual conundrums, so many different masks of uncertainty that to provide revelation, no matter what the size of the means of capture, is and likely to be elusive. Hallamby’s personal conflict was much more visceral to me, the need to witness by the absence of her loved one, equaled by the same notion from her partner abroad; seeing him in the unopened letters, the lack of a place setting the touch of him still lingering on the car ignition keys, still here but away. Down’s work though seemed to have more conflicts, more discussions, more layers. I wrote on the day ‘“The construct of a pastoral English landscape” (I think this quote came from the book, or maybe the artist’s introduction to the work) is just that, a fabrication, a narrative construction to situate the piece within. The appearance is provided by the edit, by the means provided to deliver the message.’ This bucolic vision, perhaps Blakesian is conflated through the text with an Arcadian view to a ‘lost Utopia’ but in a land that has been in an almost continuing state of conflict. The land hasn’t of course, but the people have. Invasionary forces have been repelled for many centuries, but that isn’t the conflict that Down’s seems to be struggling with, or at least how I interpret it, unless the land and the people are as one, a political overtone which I’m not sure was intended. It seems to be about how the artist would wish the land to revert to a time where conflict hadn’t appeared or to a time when it had ended, to a place in time where man might rest at one with that land, adopting another stance to both neighbour and nature alike. This notion of a paradise, of Jannah is perhaps where the Edenic reference becomes more relevant. Asking for bigger things from a higher authority perhaps.

I felt that this day allowed me to consider how personal art can be, not that it necessarily should do, but the discussions, those sadly lacking conversations have helped me to think about what it is that I want to convey. I’m not overly troubled about whether I have read the intentions of these artists as they had intended them, I am more interested in how my reactions to the work have opened a discourse with my own intentions. And at this time it was sorely needed.


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