…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.
I thought of it this week when I bought a copy of the March Foreign Policy magazine, which is a kind of American version of TIME for international policy wonks. To illustrate a major section on the future of war, its cover it had an iPhone in camouflage print, with a series of icons onscreen named ‘surge’, ‘shock and awe’, ‘dronewar’, ‘hearts and minds’, ‘blackops’, ‘sitroom’ and more. Beneath it ran the title, “Killer Apps”.
I could see how the designer was striving for the irony and humour of pop or conceptual art, but the result was flippant and shallow. The effect was not helped by some of the content, which was narrowly concerned with the effectiveness of US power and included a piece by the strategist Edward Luttwak, who argued that while the US military’s new counterinsurgency focus on the protection of populations, good governance, minimum use of force, etc. was all very nice, we need to rediscover the virtues of strategic bombing. While Michael’s work is part of a global movement of dissent that has had an appreciable impact on the US military – not the least because some influential officers had the same concerns we did – Luttwak’s intervention suggests that even if the US Army and Marine Corps have moved on from ‘Shock and Awe’ in admirable ways, there are still enough dangerous and influential thinkers about to make this kind of artwork a very important form of public critique and memory.
Like the “Killer Apps” cover, Michael’s work is clearly working the space between advertising aesthetics and conceptual art, but in a far more profound and critical way. There is a depth there that provokes thought and moral reflection, that can’t be reduced to a simple set of meanings.
Depth is evoked in the way that the work is constructed – using layers in Photoshop and Illustrator – and in the way the pieces layer widely separated historical experiences into a common reality, whether its medieval poems evoking contemporary Arab revolt and anger, the resurgence of medieval torture techniques in the Bush administrations practices of rendition and water boarding, and the ghostly reappearance of a medieval image of the all powerful sovereign who can make war and dispose of the lives of his subjects at whim. This was the darker edge to Bush’s ‘forward strategy of freedom’ in the Middle-East, which was never able to shake off the sense that it was a kind of medieval crusade in another form.
In other ways the work plays with surface and depth, combining the rich historical associations of Arabic script with game icons, weapons schematics and flags. Yet even here the icons are subtly subverted – the flags indicate distress – and while the cartoonish quality of the work evokes the cartoonish contrasts of too much international policy – where Bush and Saddam are latter day versions of the Roadrunner and the Wile E. Coyote – the work shows us the layers of history, suffering, and violence that would quickly disturb the policymakers’ grand plans and produce such tragedy.
The new work also think of the claims of Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson in the 1980s that contemporary culture would become all surface and simulacrum, and cultural productions would be little more than a depthless form of pastiche. In its play of surface and depth, Michael’s work reflects these claims but stands a gentle and serious form of rebuke to both the Bush neocons and the prophets of postmodernism.
The Bush Neocons did in part play this out the simulacral future, with their confidence that they could conduct ‘perception management’ and ‘create a new reality’; however, as Michael’s great “Shock and Awe” piece suggests, they would quickly find that in today’s post-modern conflicts, the real lives and real suffering of real people will always complicate and resist our grand and violent abstractions. Consider the first lines of text on one of remarkable new Iraq pieces: ‘Regime change. Meeting friends.’
We can all congratulate Michael on a great career achievement and some brilliant new works. I hope they meet with the attention and success they deserve.”
Anthony Burke is Associate Professor of International Politics in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He is the author of Fear of Security: Australia’s Invasion Anxiety (Cambridge UP, 2008) and Beyond Security, Ethics and Violence: War Against the Other (Routledge, 2007), and is currently writing a book entitled Postmodern Conflict: Global Security and Asymmetric War.