In the year which marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, Shock and Awe at the Royal West of England Academy considers past, contemporary and continuing conflicts. It highlights work by contemporary artists recently exposed to the front-line in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, as well as providing a platform for artists fascinated by acts of remembrance, or who use their art as a form of protest against war and conflict.
David Cotterrell An unusual invitation by the Wellcome Trust initiated David Cotterrell’s series of photographs. Cotterrell was asked whether he would consider conducting research in an undisclosed war zone for an exhibition on conflict and medicine. At first, he had reservations: could he be an impartial observer, or would he be complicit in what he was looking at? Recognising an opportunity to test his assumptions, Cotterrell submitted a proposal and won the commission. In 2007 he flew to Camp Bastion military base, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Cotterrell spent weeks observing the work of the Joint Forces Medical Group, who attended to the casualties of the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
In Cotterrell’s words, the Sightlines and Gateway Series ‘quietly contextualise each other’. The Sightlines Series presents in practical terms the drama of an operation, during which decisions about a soldier’s survival - or physical transformation - must be made. In contrast, the Gateway Series portrays both the physical and psychological journey of an injured soldier, transporting them from an environment of extreme intensity to the abstract of an unknown future as a civilian with a disability.
The medium of photography exudes an authority. Cotterrell is aware that photographs are presumed to be ‘a direct representation of truth.’ In the field hospital in Camp Bastion, he found this concept problematic: the experience was so removed from normal life that the image felt insufficient.
Since 1917, and even more so in recent decades, there has been a strict embargo on showing images of badly wounded and dead British soldiers. In direct contrast, Cotterrell was granted uncensored access to the treatment of casualties in Afghanistan. When his photographs were shown in public in 2009 they generated considerable debate about the visibility of the physical effect of warfare on the individual. It was the first time the topic had been openly discussed.
Paul Gough As part of Shock and Awe a selection of contemporary artists were especially commissioned to create new works of art as a visual response to historic artworks. The artists, many of them artist-members of the Royal West of England Academy, were invited to create pieces which were inspired by or directly responded to historical First World War works. Several artists chose to submit artworks which could be contrasted with pieces created during the era of the First World War.
A small ceramic souvenir and the curious history of the Bristol Cenotaph were two of several sources of inspiration for Paul Gough’s large drawing of ‘a fictitious monument.’ Bristol’s Cenotaph, a memorial dedicated to those who died in the First World War, took fourteen years to plan, arousing passionate debate about its location in the city centre.
Canadian entrepreneur Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, became head of the Ministry of Information in 1917. He developed a bold and innovative scheme to commission British and Canadians to ‘paint the war’. It was one of the greatest acts of official patronage of the last century and Aitken is referenced in the title of Gough’s work.
Catafalque (shown here) and Cenotaph are actually contrasting memorials. Whereas a ‘cenotaph’ is an empty tomb that honours those buried elsewhere, a catafalque is a temporary raised platform on which a body lies in state before or after a funeral.
Emma Stibbon The legacy of political upheaval evident in the urban landscape was the focus of a project by artist Emma Stibbon. Stibbon’s drawings concentrate on Germany’s capital Berlin, a city which has experienced extreme change during twentieth-century conflicts. Military monuments which have become estranged from their location are documented. Alternatively, remaining fragments of the wartime past comprise the subject matter.
To research the location of her artworks, Stibbon walks extensively, creating observational drawings, taking photographs and collecting found objects. The works are not intended to be historical representations of the sites but ‘rather to draw attention to the cycles of destruction and renewal’.
Stibbon's work is shown alongside William Rothenstein’s etching 'The Ruins of Ypres', which captures the systematic devastation of one of the jewels of medieval Flanders, the Cloth Hall building, during the First World War. Stibbon’s work addresses a similar theme of destruction: the displacements of history in one of the most fiercely contested cities in Europe.
Elizabeth Turrell Curator Elizabeth Turrell has brought invited artists, designers, jewellers and makers together. The contributors are international, with representation from the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, and Israel. These artists work in a variety of media, including vitreous enamel, metal and textile. Turrell has been collaborating with the majority of the exhibitors for over a decade.
The works take the form of badges or medals, wall panels and small installations which are effective methods of silent communication. The pieces examine powerful themes of war and conflict: some are political anti-war statements, others are peace medals. The artists address a range of conflicts: the human cost of contemporary conflict is the subject matter of a number of the pieces, while others commemorate more personal family wartime history.
Images provided by RWA: (c) all rights reserved.
Shock and Awe was curated by Professor Paul Gough RWA as part of Back From the Front: Art Memory and the Aftermath of War. This programme was supported by Bristol 2014, University of the West of England, Arts Council England and the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. Paul Gough is one of the artists commissioned as part of the Bristol 2014 Arts Projects.
Dr Hazel Brown is Project Research Assistant, UWE First World War Centenary projects. Hazel’s PhD thesis compared how, and the extent to which, the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust are portrayed in two genres of post-war representation - the museum installation and the memorial - in the US and the UK. She formerly worked at the Imperial War Museum London as a Research Assistant in the Department of Holocaust and Genocide History, then as a Researcher on the Once Upon A Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children exhibition and subsequently on a freelance basis on the Secret War exhibition.