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.
Alongside these powerful evocations of war and peace, a series of works have been inspired by the aftermath or the commemoration of war. These include new pieces influenced by traditional war memorials, as well as drawing on the emblematic power of civic statuary to explore how memory is shaped. In contrast, other artists have responded to media representations of conflict or war-related activities distant from the arena of conflict to create politically charged sculpture, a moving film installation and anti-war and peace medals.
In addition to these poignant works, a number of historic First World War works are contextualised by responses from especially commissioned contemporary artists.
Curator Paul Gough comments: ‘Artists have long been drawn with a dread fascination to the face of war. They have produced some of the most searing images, but have also created work that provokes comment, incites strong feelings, and promises reconciliation.’
The artists whose work is shown include:
Vince Bevan As the Bosnian War unfolded in 1992, Vince Bevan watched with shock the news reports showing the conflict - and ethnic cleansing - between Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Rather than being part of the official press pack, he travelled independently to the city of Mostar in 1993, catching buses or hitchhiking, obtaining the relevant press passes en route.
Escalating conditions in Mostar made it increasingly difficult for foreign journalists to work. Bevan wanted to photograph the ‘sniper tower’, an eight storey former bank, where a sniper was permanently positioned to watch over the east of the city. On his way, he was confronted by Bosnian-Croat HVO (Hrvatsko vijeće obrane) soldiers who held him in the building’s basement for three hours before allowing him brief access to the sniper. Soon after Bevan left Mostar, the militia closed the city to all journalists, United Nations peacekeepers and aid workers for six weeks.
Preferring to record such grim scenes in black and white, Bevan believes we see what is happening in a picture more acutely when the eye is not distracted by colour. He considers that ‘a mono image is more an interpretation of the scene, rather than an exact rendering, while still being true to the reality of the moment.’
Katie Davies How psychological borders impact upon people fascinates Katie Davies. Her attention was captured by a television news report showing a repatriation ceremony of a British serviceman who had been killed in Afghanistan. The service took place in the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett and she wondered how these ceremonies had transformed the small market town and its inhabitants.
The Separation Line was filmed over an eighteen-month period, between February 2010 and August 2011, during which Davies recorded seventeen different repatriation ceremonies. The film lasts the actual duration of the ten-minute ceremony and captures what was not documented in the media representations of these past events: the soldiers, the towns people, the bystanders, mobile phones ringing and dogs fidgeting.
Rather daringly, there is no filming of the passing of the body. Davies decided to leave a blank screen, allowing the audience to find their own image of what is happening. The Separation Line is intended to provide a contemplative space: the two-minute silence at the end draws the audience back to a familiar convention of commemoration.
Jill Gibbon Concerns caused by the Arms Trade triggered the creation of Jill Gibbon’s sketchbooks and poster-style prints. Since the anti-nuclear weaponry protests of the 1980s, Gibbon has been involved in anti-war movements. She began sketching outside Arms Fairs as a way of protesting against the UK and US military invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Very soon she became intrigued as to what was actually happening inside the events.
However, gaining access was not easy. Drawing inside Arms Fairs requires an element of masquerade. Initially, Gibbon described herself as an ‘official war artist’ but her cover was soon blown when a security guard noticed what she was drawing and asked why - if she was an official war artist - she was not drawing in Iraq. This led to the employment of a number of other guises to obtain entry.
Gibbon’s sketches deliberately play with traditions of reportage and explore the way in which artists can respond to contemporary wars from a distance. She draws quickly, using small, expanding sketchbooks and a gel-point pen, in order to look as if she is merely taking inconspicuous notes and therefore avoids attracting attention. Her drawings are not representative of individuals or specific events. Mannequins used to display protective clothing and weaponry are often featured, providing an eerie presence. The lack of personal identification also reflects Gibbon’s recognition of the need for anonymity for those who work in the Arms Trade.
Stephen Hurst A chance crossing of the Somme battlefield began Stephen Hurst’s engagement with the First World War. The Battle of the Somme, a major British and French offensive lasting from July to November 1916, resulted in heavy British, German and French casualties. Through the 1970’s Hurst made regular visits to the Somme, exploring the landscape and drawing the evidence of the War. He was inspired by a private collection that included a section of earth disinterred from the German front line, which contained detritus from the battle. The Somme Series grew out of his drawings and notes.
Hurst uses the lost wax casting technique; working directly in wax to create a model which is coated with a material designed to withstand a high temperature and then fired. Molten bronze is poured into the void left by the wax, producing the sculpture. Hurst incorporates found objects - leaves for example - which can be burnt out during the process.
The sculptures represent a poetic interpretation of the terrain. Although weapons and other objects associated with war are included in the sculptures, Hurst is more interested in everyday items ‘…the debris of trench life. These include objects familiar to any soldier in any army: food tins, bottles, spoons…’
Xavier Pick Despite being opposed to the war in Iraq, Xavier Pick felt he ‘had to witness the situation first hand to have an opinion.’ Pick was invited by the Ministry of Defence to work as an official war artist in Basra, Iraq. Between 2008 and 2009, he conducted three trips to the region, spending several weeks at a time witnessing and documenting the work of British, American and Iraqi troops.
Whilst in situ, Pick took photographs, recorded video footage and began drawing his observations in sketchbooks. When he returned to base in the evening, Pick continued to develop his sketches. He regards the practice of drawing in sketchbooks as the most important part of his creative process; allowing him to experiment with different techniques, colour combinations and mediums. A selection of images from Pick’s A Basra Journal have been reproduced here.
The sketchbook drawings form the beginning of a process in which Pick works out the composition of large storytelling pieces. Pick scans the sketchbook image into a computer, employs digital imaging software and incorporates photographic elements. The image is then printed and a variety of medium - including oil pastels, Tippex pens and varnishes - are used to create a multi-layered piece.
Tim Shaw RA On 30 April 2004, Tim Shaw was handed a newspaper. The front cover featured an image of a hooded prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The photograph was one of a series exposing abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US troops: their maltreatment provoked worldwide shock and condemnation. The image evoked a powerful response; inducing feelings of fear and anxiety similar to those Shaw had experienced living in Belfast during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The photograph, along with a sense of public outrage at the UK government’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, prompted Shaw to conceive Casting a Dark Democracy.
Industrial materials of steel, barbed wire, black polythene and three-phase electrical cabling make up the standing figure. The empty space inside the sculpture, which Shaw exposed during its creation by ripping apart the polythene, became especially significant. When he looked up into the dark area of the head, he felt it held some sense of the discarded chaos of a bombed building. The figure appears solid but as it is approached at close proximity, it becomes clear it is hollow, signifying ‘the phantom casket of fear’.
In Shaw’s words, the work is ‘barbaric and medieval in appearance. Its presence is menacing.’ Historical resonances are included: the figure’s stance is similar to an ancient Greek bronze deity that Shaw had seen on display in a museum. It also references the dress of penitents in the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya’s work. The piece ‘looks as though it could have been dug up from the earth from long ago, there is a sense it is ancient and yet will always exist with us in any age.’ Ten years after the publication of the photograph which gave rise to the sculpture, Shaw observes ‘interestingly, the image that is so iconic of the Iraq war transcends it.’
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. He is lecturing on Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer on 11 November 2014 at the Wills Memorial Building. We will feature additional artworks in a future article on this website.
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.