Caught in the Crossfire now open!
Caught in the Crossfire: artistic responses to conflict, peace and reconciliation is now open at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum and will be on show until July 7th. So far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and we were really pleased with the reactions of the artists whose work we’ve featured in the exhibition. We also produced a publication to accompany the show and I have included my essay here, which gives an oversight into the exhibition and the themes it covers.
Caught in the Crossfire explores how artists have responded to the brutality of war and to the desire for peace and reconciliation. The exhibition offers a broad survey of the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum’s collection as developed through the HLF Collecting Cultures scheme, and situates historical and contemporary work together in order to examine key themes. The obvious starting point for the exhibition was Coventry and the tragic events that occurred there during the Second World War; indeed, the reason for the Herbert to develop its collection in this way was the city’s direct experience of the damage and destruction that war could wreak but also the city’s response to the bombing, which showed us that hope and forgiveness could emerge from a desperate situation and that reconciliation is possible. In the opening section, Blitzed City, alongside John Piper’s iconic work, Interior of Coventry Cathedral, November 15th, 1940, is Coventry, a newly-commissioned piece by Matthew Picton, a companion to his earlier work Dresden 1945, also on display.
Both works have been made from the burnt remnants of musical scores, Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung symbolising the destruction of city and culture, and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, which was specially written for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral.
In contrast to events that took place in Coventry, the experiences of soldiers, civilians and artists at the Front Line was a theme that emerged strongly in the early stages of development. A range of works using different media allows us to explore the impact of conflict on those directly involved. Shellburst by William Roberts and Soldier by Eric Kennington are particularly strong examples of the Herbert’s historical collection. Roberts and Kennington were both soldiers turned artists: Roberts was a gunner in the Royal Artillery; Kennington enlisted in the 13th (Kensington) Battalion, London Regiment. Both men fought on the Western Front during the First World War and became official war artists towards the end of the conflict. More recently, John Keane was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to cover the 1990 Gulf War and his Scenes on the Road to Hell (V) depicts the new reality of conflict in the late 20th century, as images of battle and the casualties of war appeared with increasing frequency on television in our living rooms. The official war artists scheme that began during the First World War continues today. By enabling artists to enter war zones we can gain a different perspective on events, the artist offering a distinct form of direct response to war that complements, and challenges, the presence of rolling news channels. Alongside fine art representations of the front line is Rosie Kay’s 5 SOLDIERS, originally a full-length dance theatre production which has been filmed in a shortened version for the web. The piece explores the physical impact of war on the bodies of soldiers and involved Kay training with the 4th Battalion the Rifles. There is also a reinterpretation of familiar images in the work of Bob Barron and Banksy, both of whom use Nick Ut’s iconic photograph taken during the Vietnam War to comment on the gruesome impact of conflict upon innocent victims and, in Banksy’s case, to criticise the cultural and political dominance of the US.
The artistic fascination with machines and body armour is the subject of a later section, The Machines of War, where again the historical appears alongside the contemporary. Cornelia Parker’s smoothed-down sculpture, Embryo Firearms, is displayed alongside Muirhead Bone’s Armoured Tank, a lithograph of the machine first used in the battle of the Somme, and witnessed by Bone in his role as official war artist. Along with the presence of big machinery and lethal weapons, the wearing of uniform can potentially turn people into machines of war, and many of the contemporary works actively engage with conflicts of the past, bringing current conflicts into wider context. The most explicit example of this is a textile piece borrowed for the exhibition, War Boutique’s The Great Game, a multi-layered, complex work that explores the evolution of British military uniform from the Army’s first forays into Afghanistan in the 19th century to its most recent.
The impact of a military presence in Afghanistan is also explored in a prayer rug which appropriates images of war machinery alongside more abstract designs. Afghan rugs traditionally featured abstract and geometric designs but this changed in the late 1970s when motifs relating to the Soviet invasion of the country began to appear. Rugs and small mats are now produced specifically for the export market and heavily incorporate images of war. The unease felt by artists around weaponry is expressed in subversive ways: guns with female names made from lipstick-coloured fabric, rustic material used to make talismanic garments, and dust bin lids utilised as a method of defence all comment on the troubling and changing nature of weapons and armour used in conflict.
The Lines of Division drawn up as a consequence of conflict are epitomised by Bloodlines by Iftikhar Dadi and Nalini Malani (a work that also links to reconciliation as the artists, from Pakistan and India respectively, collaborated to produce the work), Exodus by Ross Jones, and Peter Howson’s harrowing Snow Road. The section is further strengthened by a selection of loans: Paul Seawright’s Walls, Belfast (Gates in Grid) and Anthony Davies’s Playing Soldiers and Buggy Bound address the impact of separation in Northern Ireland, both on the physical landscape but also on the behaviour of children growing up in a tense and violent environment; Simon Norfolk’s photograph of the Israeli Sniper Wall at Gilo, a suburb of Jerusalem, further explores the contested physical division of land. It is Howson’s painting, however, that is possibly one of the most moving and emotionally-tense works included in the exhibition. Howson, who had spent a short time as an infantry soldier before leaving to enrol at Glasgow School of Art, was the official war artist for the Bosnian War. Although he went there in 1993, he did not personally witness many incidents and much of the work he subsequently produced was based on witness accounts and statements. Snow Road, with its bleak landscape and ghostly figures, deals with the policy of ethnic cleansing that occurred during this conflict and the forcible removing of people from their homes (2.2 million people were displaced). It is difficult to look at this painting for long, and even more so when many of us can vividly remember these events taking place. There is a feeling of anguish when we confront this work, and possibly shame, that this happened in our lifetimes. Indeed, one of the many things war shows us is just how far we fall from our own standards.
As part of the Collecting Cultures project, the Herbert acquired work by the artist Peter Kennard and by kennardphillipps, a collaboration between Kennard and Cat Picton Phillipps. Protest features kennardphillipps’s Award Portfolio, a highly significant work created in response to Tony Blair’s decision to support the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. A fax from Radiohead musician Thom Yorke included in the portfolio offers an especially poignant reminder as we contemplate conflict through the 20th century: ‘it is as if we have learned nothing’. Alongside are some powerful examples of street art, its naturally subversive spirit offering a perfect place for the expression of resistance and agitation. Banksy’s CND Soldiers took on extra resonance after it became part of Brian Haw’s protest camp outside the Houses of Parliament (later recreated by the artist Mark Wallinger). In developing the exhibition, it was clear from the outset that this section was extremely important and the power of the artist to voice the anger of the people, to attract attention, to subvert and attack, and to hold politicians to account in visual ways that resonate in the mind for a long time afterwards offers a counterpoint to images of conflict, suggesting that art can, in the words of Peter Kennard, be part of a ‘social movement for change’. Protest also features a special section which focuses on the work of kennardphillipps made in response to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Towards the end of the exhibition is an exploration of images of hope and reconciliation. Aftermath finds light in the bleakest and darkest of situations, as Coventry had done in the 1940s. The section emphasises the possibility of peace, and will hopefully encourage visitors to find out more about conflicts around the world, and to perhaps put pressure on politicians to find alternatives to resorting to conflict. This was the most challenging section in some ways, which reveals much about the political situation we find ourselves in today. Artists tend to address this subject less frequently, and this is perhaps due to the restricted or limited iconography available, which often reverts to clichéd images of doves and hearts. Nonetheless, there were extremely positive images of hope to draw on – the mix of races and ethnicities in a Northern Irish classroom, the excitement of children in spite of a backdrop of bomb-damaged buildings, the release of Nelson Mandela and his subsequent rise to president, the appearance of everyday signs of life as it returns to some sort of normality.
Notions of memory seem particularly important here and we want viewers to think about both remembering and forgetting. While reconciliation often requires people to acknowledge and remember the past before moving on, what if we had a day of forgetting to replace days of remembrance, where we forgot our anger, division and difference? Which offers the best way forward to securing peace?
Caught in the Crossfire aims to make people confront and contemplate the often brutal imagery of conflict and the terrible destruction it can cause, but also to show that art can be used for protest, and that ultimately the aftermath can be peaceful, former enemies can begin to live alongside one another, and reconciliation is possible. The exhibition is not an attempt to discuss one specific conflict, neither does it try to discuss all conflicts, but it is an exploration of the ways artists respond to particular events around them, at particular points in history, and to explore some fundamental issues – the impact of war at home, abroad, upon soldier and civilian, the presence of voices of resistance and dissent, and the potential for reconciliation. As Cat Picton Phillipps remarks in an interview, ‘war can never lead to peace’; Caught in the Crossfire shows images of war that reveal how much work goes into obtaining peace and what we need to do to restore it once war has broken out.