“The Image of War” runs until 14 January 2018 at Stockholm’s Bonniers Konsthall.
The exhibition brings together work by more than 30 artists who confront past or present conflicts. The artists deal with violence and its image, posing crucial questions about what violent images create, what consequences they have and how they circulate.
Regarding the Pain of Others
In her landmark treatise on the violence of images, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag considers the moral and ethical implications of looking at images of war. Sontag writes that the circulation of images of suffering throughout media leads to a frustration “of not being able to do anything about what the images show” or that “the images to be devised won’t be sufficiently upsetting: not concrete, not detailed enough.” Nevertheless, Sontag argues, the process of war and the process of image-taking occur in tandem, and it is necessarily an ethical act to reflect on the violence of image-making in the context of political and military violence.
At Bonniers Konsthall, this reflection takes the form of an exhibition entitled “The Image of War”, highlighting the ways in which images make violence visible. The exhibition displays work from a diverse group of over 30 artists who consider the political implications of images of violence, including their role in documenting atrocity, but also in spreading fear and propaganda. Given the dual power – to aid and to harm – of these images, the ethical imperative is to carefully consider the image’s context and the situated politics in which they are framed.
Theodor Ringborg, the curator of the exhibition, writes that to ignore the politics embedded in these images would be “worse than realizing that these images are the exploitation of the spectacle of misery”. The viewer must challenge herself to see the violence within the images that is not shown. The works in the exhibition were selected specifically to address violence and the image of violence, rather than documentary.
At Bonniers Konsthall are documents from Lebanese-born, Berlin-based theatre director, visual artist, actor and playwright Rabih Mroué‘s 2012 lecture-performance, The Pixelated Revolution, Part I of the series “The Fall of A Hair: Blow Ups” (2012), which was originally staged at dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel.
The performance places Mroué in the role of a news broadcaster, interpreting, presenting and classifying images of the ongoing Syrian Revolution taken from amateur footage captured on mobile phones and other handheld media. As presenter, Mroué arranges the images in grid format, repeating and displaying them in patterns that establish a veneer of organisation which conflicts with the violence depicted in the images themselves. As interpreter and critic, Mroué zooms in close to the images, inspecting details such as the lens of a sniper and the person who holds it.
He contextualises these videos and images within the history of cinema, drawing comparisons to Danish film collective Dogme 95 in the colours and aesthetics of the handheld videos made by Syrian revolutionaries. In this pixelated revolution, Mroué suggests that the image is fundamental as it both reveals and obscures. Documentation of the revolution has its own aesthetic valences that contribute to its political significance, and in presenting his enlarged, pixelated images, Mroué underscores the imperative to consider image production, presentation and interpretation from a closer perspective.
Shifting documentary narratives
In David Claerbout’s 2001 silent single-channel video projection, Vietnam 1967, near Duc Pho (reconstruction after Hiromishi Mine), images distort reality by replicating it. The video was filmed three decades after an American plane was shot down in a friendly fire while trying to land. The original image was shot by the Japanese photographer Hiromishi Mine, and Claerbout’s work mediates the photograph from still to moving image, from black and white to colour.
In his “reconstruction” of the work, Claerbout meticulously photographed the landscape after the end of monsoon season, imbuing the work with a theatrical lighting that highlights both its artifice and its natural qualities. In the three-minute loop of the video, the background appears to stay the same; it is only through subtle gradations in the lighting that the clouds that appear behind the plane seem to move, suggesting a sense of elapsed time.
By playing with time, Claerbout suggests that the difference between media – still photography versus film – shifts our understanding of documentary narrative. The work operates on several registers, highlighting the affective responses particular to documentary images versus those images thought to be staged, and still images versus moving images. Situated in the context of the Vietnam War, the work also forces the viewer to consider the role of narrative in garnering support for gruesome, costly acts of violence, and how the manipulation of images assists political goals.
Keeping culture alive after destruction
The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist is an ongoing project by the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz that addresses stolen artifacts from Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq following American invasion in 2003. Consisting of sculptures, museum labels, drawings and sound, the project was begun in 2007 and continues in multivariate forms.
Rakowitz and a team of assistants cull information from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute to research looted archaeological artefacts and the history of Iraq’s Aj-ibur-shapu, the Babylonian processional way that cut through the Gate of Ishtar. Using drawings and reconstructions of these sites from 20th century German archaeologists, Rakowitz reconstructs the missing artefacts using packaging from Middle Eastern processed food and Arabic language newspapers, connecting the historical valences of a lost culture to the popular imagery and consumption ephemera of contemporary society.
These newly constructed sculptures thus allude to a violence of war that is supported by the mundane reality of everyday life: while they might have once been housed in a historic museum, they are also part of a shared cultural heritage, one that is tied together as much by history as it is by brands of popular foods. Accompanying these works are museum labels for looted and forgotten works that anticipate the return of the objects to which they refer. Displayed in vitrines and cases, these labels contain the typical descriptions and provenance information found on museum labels, but are also accompanied by quotes, such as one by Angela Schuster:
It is our shared history that is at stake, and in the wake of war, one that is vanishing chapter by chapter.
Rakowitz’s work asks viewers to consider not only the material dimensions of what is lost at war, such as these artifacts, but also the ways in which war attempts to eradicate cultural identity by eliminating cultural history. In these instances, images become a means for recalling and retaining onto history, not simply as evidence, but as a way to keep culture alive.
“The Image of War” is on view from 20 September 2017 to 14 January 2018 at Bonniers Konsthall, Torsgatan 19, Stockholm, Sweden.
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