Laura Brandon on how conflict looms large in both artistic practices and the public imagination.
The powerful machinery of mass propaganda is the unfortunate legacy of the twentieth century’s world wars. This has made possible unimaginable degrees of confrontation between incompatible and passion-laden ideologies that resemble the crusades of the long-distant past. Often religious, these confrontations are also based on tribal and ethnic differences, as evinced in the Yugoslav Wars. While the USA’s war on terror was directed at the religious extremists who threatened the security of the western allies, the late twentieth – and early twenty-first century civil wars in Rwanda, Lebanon and Afghanistan, the examples cited here among the many, many possible examples, are, in their own right, wars of terror and, in the case of the latter country, linked to the larger crusade, the US-led war on terror. Experience of these wars of terror on the part of observers and participants has resulted in a range of art that has been both officially commissioned and personally motivated.
Through his organisation the Atlas Group, American-based Lebanese artist Walid Raad ‘documents’ daily life during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991). He chooses to work from the perspective of those who live in war-torn environments as opposed to work from the perspective of those who live in war-torn environments as opposed to those who observe conflict from afar. However, neither the Atlas Group nor the people whose lives he documents are real. Instead, Raad uses fiction to impart an intimate experience of the war through a series of real and false connections of documents. Raad’s creation Yussef Nassar’s collection of 100 pictures of the aftermath of car bombs, for example, shows military and civilian bystanders hovering over mangled car engines in futile attempts to glean information about the bombers. In the midst of the ongoing urban carnage, and in minute detail, Raad’s fictional historian Dr Fadl Fakouri records regular trips with fellow historians to a racetrack and the results of the races. In this project, Raad shows how an artist can be in a war situation and in everyday life simultaneously, separately, obsessively, and impotently.
Mona Hatoum, a London-based artist of Palestinian origins, works in a related area but with a focus on the war-induced exile brought about by the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Her art seeks out wider political meanings beyond her personal experiences. The Light at the End (1989) consists of an iron metal frame and five electric elements. Visually it looks like a dark tunnel with red, orange, and yellow lights at the end. This coloured light appears warm and appealing, in contrast to the hostile darkness of the tunnel. However, the seductive colour is a trap. Only when the spectator moves closer does the coloured light reveal its true character as dangerous electric wiring. The warmness of red is transformed into violent redness of blood. The installation reflects both Hatoum’s personal experience of the conflict and the more universal experience of living in exile. Her parents had been forced to live in exile by the conflict and, in 1975, when war broke out in Lebanon, she found herself exiled in the United Kingdom, unable to return to her home country. In its colours, The Light at the End speaks to the reality of the violence that has transformed her former home and to its warmth as a place that still appeals.
The Rwandan genocide can be described as the organised murder of nearly one million Rwandans in 1994. Militias of the Hutu ethnic majority, with the connivance of the Hutu-dominated government, attempted to carry out an ethnic cleansing against the minority Tutsis, and against Hutu moderates who opposed the genocide. The genocide was notable for the role of political elites in mobilising and arming supporters. American Alfredo Jaar is not Rwandan but he produced a work that speaks loudly of his empathy for the murdered and dispossessed of the genocide. The word ‘genocide’ appears regularly in the chronicles of the twentieth century. The Nazi death camps, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Rwanda massacres conjure up chilling images. Jaar’s provocative works – The Rwanda Project (1994-1998) – give evidence of such recent evils and show how art can depict the virtually unimaginable, the elimination of large groups of human beings. The project was a combination of installations. Site-specific interventions, and premeditated actions. From Africa, Jaar sent thousands of postcards announcing that named Rwandans were still alive. He put up posters at bus stops in a Swedish town that starkly repeated the word ‘Rwanda’. He made a number of installations in museums and galleries in Europe and North America, such as outsized light-tables bearing vast piles of thirty-five millimetre slides each bearing the same image of a pair of African eyes, to evoke the innumerable deaths. His installations do not show dead bodies. Instead they infer the dead, much as a fleeting image, a relic, or even a smell can trigger a memory.
The US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 marked the beginning of the war on terror, soon after the 11 September attacks that resulted in the destruction of the World trade Center in New York. The goal was to oust the Taliban government and find al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who had masterminded the attacks. Operation Enduring Freedom was supported by the Afghan Alliance and a number of western powers, including Great Britain, Canada and Australia. In 2002, the Imperial War Museum commissioned Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell to craete a conceptual piece in Afghanistan. During a two-week visit, and using a still and a digital video camera, they recorded a number of sites of military and popular interest. These included the partly destroyed, massive statues of Buddha at Bamiyan and the former dwelling place of Bin Laden at Durantah, where he lived briefly in the late 1990s. The resulting virtual installation – The House of Osama bin laden – allowed visitors to explore his home and gardens, by then a base for a local Pashtun militia. The vacant structure acted as a metaphor for Bin Laden’s continued existence but non-presence, while the virtual exhibit symbolised his virtual reality in the form of videotaped messages. In 2004, this commission was on the short list for Britain’s Turner Prize.
The fact that this work was considered for a prestigious prize is not irrelevant. As this brief survey has shown, conflict looms large in artistic practices and in the public imagination. War art is now a legitimate and well-regarded subject no longer primarily associated with the bolstering of official positions but part of the global debate on war and peace. Artists who sought meaningful roles in society before the Second World War have found in the past twenty years that war art has as important role to play in the public’s understanding of conflict. The mass movement of peoples in the aftermath of wars has contributed artists who have experienced war from the inside, but as civilians not soldiers, and who can reflect on these experiences from the relative security of their new homes. In complete contrast, the mass media now make it possible for artists to comment on world events without having been there. ■