Entries from May 2010 ↓

the landscape of war

There are too many ground zeros in Afghanistan… This is how the dead are buried near Kandahar.

See how Michael Yon photographs the war in Afghanistan. Despite the constraints of being embedded, his work conveys a very real sense of the human experience of the conflict. Being embedded means photography is never at the front line, and therefore it is almost impossible to reproduce the actual experience of war. The still, quiet, clean precision of the camera can only allude to the full sensorium of the war environment. In such circumstances, limited by what he can’t show the viewer, Michael has to find other subjects in order to build a complex set of visual narratives which combine to provide the stimulus for the viewer to imagine what can’t be conveyed by imagery alone. See how he finds imagery to evoke such absences.  And see how he captures the sometimes bizarre effects of the technology of contemporary warfare.

This is from his tiger-vision photographs of a medical evacuation of an Afghan casualty. Only the containers are familiar. Nothing else makes sense. The helicopter’s rotor blades light up as they churn through the dust.

Michael Yon was recently chosen by Times Online as one of the “40 bloggers who count.” Go to his site when you have a quiet moment and you’ll see why. (Images copyright Michael Yon here reproduced with permission and thanks.) Read more? Go to D.B.Grady’s biographical story about Yon in The Atlantic.

camouflage and/or ambiguity

The Australian National University owns the painting Camouflage #7 (2003) by Gordon Bennett. The Australian War Memorial owns the next in the series. Recently the ANU’s version has been hung in the foyer of the Sir Roland Wilson Building, the home of the Research School of the Humanities and the Arts. To hang a work which has as its primary subject a depiction of the late Iraqi dictator has raised a certain degree of controversy amongst the residents of the building. Irrespective of interpretations of subsequent events, Iconophilia was not alone in wondering the purpose in hanging a portrait of a onetime head of state, who many regarded as a brutal war criminal, and the perpetrator of many civilian deaths, or as the Kurds would say, genocide. …

With news of a potential debate brewing in relation to the hanging of the Gordon Bennett, the University provided an exegesis, which had been written for the first exhibition of this work, and the others in the series for their first exhibition in 2003 at Sherman Galleries. Never before had we seen a wall text like it. This turned out to be the text written by Ian McLean (reprinted with permission below) which contextualised the work in relation to the artist’s previous oeuvre, and the historical moment at which it was first exhibited – at a time in which time Saddam Hussein was still in hiding.

But how do we now understand this work, hanging on our wall? Subsequent historical events, his discovery, his trial, his execution, the failure of the invading forces to discover any evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the ongoing occupation, Abu Ghraib, and the ensuing civil war, now creates a very different interpretative context to that of 2003.

So it is interesting, your Iconophile thought, that a painting should require such an extensive exegesis to justify its presence in a context such as the RSHA. Perhaps, I wondered, these paintings had lost their provocative ambiguity through the passage of time and changing political circumstances? It seems some works of art keep getting better and better, and others just lose it. How a painting might seem to have a special kind of potentiality at one moment, which becomes lost in its subsequent historical context, is a perennial problem for works of art. Nevertheless, this is precisely one of those instances when the work of art succeeds or fails by itself, on its own terms, and whether it survives the changing circumstances of its referents.

How would the University community react, I wondered, if I loaned my Turkmen portrait of Stalin to complement this ensemble? I suspect it would require some justification.

Of course, the carpet is a different kind of artefact, without the kind of intention or agency we expect of a painting. It was produced to commemorate Stalin and his regime, while the Soviet Union was still intact. It is best understood as a cynical form of tourist art. It embodies no complex inversions of meaning. But sometimes such contrasts are productive…

In this instance, there is an intriguing textile connection. I was curious as to Bennett’s pictorial strategy of painting a portrait with the face overlaid with a very specific kind of pattern, like a veil, and whether this signals the artist’s intentions, and his position in relation to his subject? Perhaps this lattice pattern (technically, derived from Turkish ogival woven designs, but also related to carpet designs, or wallpaper) could be interpreted as a means to further orientalise the image of Saddam?

Might we have expected some further kind of critical displacement in a portrait of Saddam from the way his political reputation was understood? Bennett’s intent is elusive, at best. So how are we to read his use of camouflage devices, as signalled by the title of the work itself? According to a number of sources (see  Zara Stanhope, and the AWM’s own account), the ogival pattern was “derived from the inside papers of the Koran.” In the same manner as the Prophet’s face is conventionally hidden from view, Saddam’s face is here partially obscured, perhaps as if he is sheltered by one of those camouflage netting sheets used to protect weaponry from surveillance, but this time with a strangely archaic cultural and religious twist.

If so, could this not be read as an auratic device, as an allusion to martyrdom? Is Saddam Hussein here represented as a victim, in the face of an overwhelming invasive force? Alas, the AWM doesn’t contribute very much to this debate when it suggests its very similar work “alludes to the disturbing, unknown and hidden reasons, hence the ‘camouflage’, behind the war in Iraq” – itself an unusually independent position for the AWM to take – plus an unattributed quote: ‘so the whole Iraq war seems a camouflage for secrets that may never be revealed’. Is this the limit of the artist’s own account?

Laura Murray Cree is quoted by Bennett’s dealers (and others down the line) when she also references such “issues of secrecy” as if that is a motive or justification for his pictorial ambivalence… Drawing a longer bow, McLean suggests that this is “an art of reportage”, motivated by Bennett’s desire not to forget the foundational “terror and trauma” that “still constitutes the Australian nation.” Is either position sufficient, in the current circumstances, for a reading of the painting’s continuing contradictions? Iconophilia thinks not…

So we have an ongoing artistic war of allusions, veiled in secrecy, with little to suggest the artist’s own motivation, or his views on Saddam Hussein, his subject, then or now. Granted, the artist has only given us the three painterly elements to work with: the recognisable drawing of the subject, plus the two patterns, one of which references Islam. With, maybe, just a little post-Pop irony. This doesn’t provide many options for a nuanced reading of the artist’s intention – and thus the effects of the interactions between these elements seem relatively arbitrary, as these differing and ultimately unsatisfactory interpretations suggest.

Such retrospective evaluations as these also behoves us to attempt to understand the moment of a work’s creation. In 2003 McLean wrote the text below, which remains as the most comprehensive interpretation, written to accompany the  work’s first exposure:

“Bennett’s recent reflections on the Iraq war in the Camouflage series continue a prolonged interest in American affairs. It began in the late-1990s with his Notes to Basquiat series that culminated in an exhibition relating to the September 11 terrorist attack on New York. However the terror of colonialism and the trauma of being Australian that had previously preoccupied Bennett have not been forgotten. Rather they have been displaced onto contemporary global events, as if Bennett is developing an art of reportage.

This apparent shift in Bennett’s work is partly due to a long expressed frustration at being pigeon holed as an Indigenous artist. Not only did this elicit a burden of representation that he was unwilling and unable to bear, but it limited and indeed reduced the meaning and range of his art. Bennett’s earlier art consistently addressed the logic of settler desire and Australian national identity, thus situating itself within the traditional concerns of Australian art and history. However Bennett was also acutely aware that the idea of an Australian art or identity has long been an ideological smokescreen for the global aspirations of European Empire. Australia’s wars have always been ones of empire fought away from home; while the local war of settler conquest remains invisible, or when brought to our attention, denied. Thus his work also insisted on the global or even universal structures of this settler desire and its national discourses by showing the ways in which the paradigms of twentieth century Western art were ever-present in the constructions of Australian identity and its Aboriginal other. Continue reading →

you need to look at this

…even though most people in the outside world would rather turn a blind eye. Michael Callaghan‘s exhibition Image and Text 1967 – 2010 confronts the viewer with imagery that makes it hard to ignore the effects of America’s two current “interventions” in the Middle East in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the new works that he has produced since his tenure as the H. C. Coombs Creative Arts Fellow at the ANU School of Art Callaghan has produced new prints and sculptures which force a kind of engagement with his texts and images that is not meant to be comfortable. Concentrating on the war in Iraq, he mixes text references in both English and Arabic with the imagery of war. He lines up graphic representations of militaria (sometimes derived from war carpets) with flags, and the headline texts that have now become meaningless clichés: Operation Iraqi Freedom, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Regime Change… But he also wants us to think about the people on the ground, people who go shopping, who go to school, who go to work, who meet friends. They, more likely, will be reading the Arabic texts…

Earlier phases of Michael’s work are also on show. As a founder member of Redback Graphix, Michael’s current art is still stylistically based on his strength as a designer for the screenprint medium. Solid images, strong colour contrast, integrated text and image. But now, exploiting the School’s new media and digital print technology, his work has been exploring all kinds of subtle visual imaging techniques, so that ancient Islamic texts and illustrations can now be merged with strident, unsettling imagery of war and its effects, and colours and forms can be infinitely layered.

Most striking in this regard is the relationship between the image of a chair (imagining the kind of chair on which you might be tortured) and its representations in both two and three dimensions. Reproductions of maps and documentation from Guantanamo Bay locate its specific referents.

More emblematic are those images which take the outline of a bullet, a jet fighter, a cruise missile, or a burst of flame, laid over the streams of text and icons. Inside the primary form is a text in Arabic. Of course, most of its Australian viewers don’t know what it says. It’s just calligraphy. Exotic, and at the same time unsettling and disempowering. We have to ask what it says. And how does that feel?

Canberra readers and visitors can catch the show at the ANU School of Art Gallery, Ellery Crescent, Acton, until 29 May. Phone 6125 5841 to check the opening hours. Michael is represented by Damien Minton Gallery, Sydney 02 9699 7551.

Tony Burke (Associate Professor in the Politics Program at ADFA, UNSW) gave the following opening address: “It is an honour to be asked to open this exhibition. I recall as a young human rights activist in Sydney seeing some of Michael’s posters – especially the very striking one he did for Amnesty International’s 25th anniversary – and so its interesting to see the longer survey of his work, especially how its book-ended by the early anti-militarist concrete poems and the recent work on Iraq. As someone who has travelled a strange route, from being a human rights activist to teaching at a military academy – where I have a strange role as a kind of embedded critical theorist – seeing Michael’s new work on Iraq and the war on terror is fascinating. Continue reading →

wrong century

but on the right track! And there’s just ninety years left to get into the next round. But surely there’s nothing wrong with ambition…  If you missed his opening last night, be sure to catch Trevelyan Clay’s show at neon parc in Melbourne until June 5th.

few believed Tichý’s camera actually worked

“If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.”

So said Miroslav Tichý. It was the late Harald Szeemann’s “discovery” of this (now) 84 year old photographer’s work in 2005 that has placed him at the center of the art world’s focal plane. Szeemann curated a show at the 2004 Seville Biennale, which was awarded the “New Discovery Award” from the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, followed by shows in Zurich, Frankfurt, London, Paris and now the ICP. The high profile dealers, a Foundation, and Museum exhibitions followed close behind.

The nature of Tichý’s work, and the circumstances of his life, navigating the boundary between insider and outsider, seems perfectly aligned with Iconophilia’s six mythologies of twentieth century art:  Obsessive/compulsive behaviour. On the boundaries of taste and rationality. Sex and instability. Rejection of the academy. Melancholia and isolation. Cantankerous and evasive communications. Szeemann explained it thus:

“One of those incredible stories. A story about blurred, underexposed photos and homemade cameras. A story about the bodies of women, taken pictures of with the eyes of a confessed voyeur, who sneaks a look through the fence of the men’s bath to get a glimpse of the ladies and who puts up with the ubiquitous fence pattern inscribed on the obscure bodies of his victims by the measures of decency. Maybe one of the weirdest, most touching contributions to the gallery of “bathers“ that has sublimed all the longing for bodies in the occidental history of art. The incredible story also has its rift, the rupture that simply occurs without a cause there. Miroslav Tichý is not naive. He had studied at the academy of arts in Prague and was an avant-garde painter in the Fifties, not without risk in communist Czechoslovakia. He was in jail for eight years, but yet he had his entourage that admired him. Until it simply occurred: the rift, the rupture, the becoming of an outcast, of somebody who belongs nowhere. For a while, Tichý kept on painting; then he built his first camera, refining the prototype in whichever way the yield of scrap allowed for. Ever since, he has been hunting, taking pictures of that he used to paint: women. How should we call that, here, in the context of art? The breakthrough of an impulse? Obsession? The art of a misfit? How should we call pictures, the author of which remains unknown, hidden in subconsciousness? The incredible story plays deep down inside, and yet far out, in a dimension for which we have no category of explanation, of comprehension, not even of description.”

To see how Tichý’s work is seen as a challenge to his avant-gardist contemporaries, read Jana Prikryl’s perceptive review of the ICP exhibition, in The Nation, where the random effects of Tichý’s method is compared to that of the late Czech master of the avant-garde, Milan Knizak, who said of his own working habits: “From time to time I pressed the button…. I didn’t use the automatic, I didn’t focus the picture, etc…. Some parts came out clean, some not. As in life.” And yet Prikryl finds qualities in Tichý’s work that are missing in Knizak: “The handful of his [Knizak’s] photographs reproduced in the catalog Out of Eastern Europe: Private Photography look merely accidental and discomposed.”

Alas you only have two days to get to New York’s ICP to catch the retrospective of the 84 year old Miroslav Tichý’s work. If you miss it, you can read the Karen Rosenburg review in the NYT here, or Sanford Schwartz in the NYRB here, or follow this link to the Tichý Foundation to see more, and find references like Szeemann’s text above. Or this link to Michael Hoppen Gallery. Or his “apprentice” Brian Tjepkema’s website here… Or the film Worldstar… Enjoy the trail…