The Art of War

Jonathan Knott, 31.10.2017
Contemporary art can help us understand modern conflict
Ai Weiwei’s sculpture Surveillance Camera with Plinth is made of marble, a material used for military monuments and statues since ancient times. But by using the stone to represent state monitoring apparatus, the work highlights the way conflict has changed. Once comprised of clearly defined events and personalities, it has become anonymous, bureaucratic and all-pervasive.

The artwork is one of 50 included in the current Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) London. It’s the largest contemporary art display the museum has ever put on, and the first in the UK to consider artists’ responses to conflict since 9/11.

It starts by focusing on the twin towers attack itself. Hans-Peter Feldmann’s 9/12 Frontpage, which displays the front pages of 151 newspapers around the world the day after the attack, underlines how the event itself seems to have been designed for maximum visual impact, as well as being an act of violence.

Other artworks made me realise how certain sights – hooded prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison and a bright orange Guantanamo Bay jumpsuit – have seeped into general consciousness to become grimly representative of the post-9/11 era.

Another well-known image is the photograph of White House staff watching live footage of the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. By placing this next to a blank white screen, Chilean-born artist Alfredo Jarr’s work May 1, 2011 highlights how Bin Laden’s body itself was not shown – reminding us how our impressions of conflict are controlled and sanitised by governments.

One section of the exhibition explores society’s attitudes towards weapons, including a tendency to see them as objects of beauty. Mona Hatoum’s Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet) displays grenades made using jewel-coloured glass to resemble decorative baubles, and a photograph by Taryn Simon shows a close up of a Smith & Wesson revolver frame glowing orange as it is forged. These are shown alongside a number of works exploring the surreal nature of drone warfare.

Following this focus on the detached perceptions of war we develop in the west, the final part of the exhibition makes clear the immediate violence conflict causes in the Middle East. 

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The installation Floodland by Kurdish Iraqi artist Walid Siti, commissioned by IWM for this exhibition, suggests a curled and fraying map, with decoration that references the geometric patterns found in traditional Islamic art.

A similar sense of destruction is conveyed in Homesick by Hrair Sarkissian, which consists of two videos. One shows a scale model of the apartment block where the artist’s parents live in Syria gradually collapsing into rubble while on the adjacent screen, Sarkissian repeatedly swings a sledgehammer.

Art provides a way of interpreting and understanding topics that is distinct from what historical objects offer. And it’s been part of IWM’s remit since it was founded in 1917 to record experiences and events of the first world war. This exhibition demonstrates that art remains an effective way of getting to grips with contemporary conflict.

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