‘Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War’ – IWM North’s War Art Exhibition

Albert Adams, charcoal sketch, abuse of Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib

“Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War” is on at IWM North, Manchester, from 12th October 2013 to 23rd February 2014.

Opposition to aggression and war is not a fringe standpoint. With over 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead and continuing sectarian conflict, most Iraqis in a 2011 poll considered themselves worse off as a result of the US/British-lead March 2003 invasion. Somewhere in the vicinity of a million people had marched in London in opposition to the attack. Ten years on from the invasion, a YouGov survey found 53% of Britons to believe that the war was wrong. 22% believe that Tony Blair should be tried as a war criminal for his role.

Public discontent with state violence is widespread, not just amongst the victim populations but even within the aggressor states’ populations. It is welcome, therefore, that the Imperial War Museum North should start to reflect public opinion in its new art exhibition, “Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War”, opening space for critique of contemporary British militarism and beyond.

I have previously strongly criticised the Imperial War Museum for shunning the voices of victims and dissenters of British military activity. A true record of warfare does not exist without such voices. A record of the consequences of the Iraq War, for example, is clearly incomplete without the opinions of the majority of Iraqis, of anti-war journalists and activists and dissenting British service veterans and their families. Yet, IWM, notably, IWM London, offers little space, if any, for such voices.

IWM North’s art exhibition “Catalyst”, continuing on from its display of Iraq War photographs by Sean Smith, is a step towards addressing this. It contains 70 works by over 40 artists working with photography, film, oils, prints, books and more to consider subjects such as the First Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, the 2008-09 bombing of Gaza by Israel, the British torture of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the Kosovo war and violence in Northern Ireland.

“Poets, playwrights, artists should be in these places because what they bring back is not the same as a military photographer…” says Paul Seawright, who was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to go to Afghanistan in 2002, in an extensive interview included in the exhibit.

Independence of the artist is an important theme of “Catalyst”. Photographer, Paul Seawright, discusses in his interview why he chose not to be embedded with the military during his commission in Afghanistan, choosing to travel with an NGO and have a level of independence to go and ask as he wished during his one-month stay.

Nonetheless, it is notable that some of the works of the IWM commissioned artists included in the exhibit, including by Seawright, are amongst the least critical. Seawright’s photographs depict barren minefields. The images distantly hint at, rather than address, the human suffering, legality and brutality of the Afghanistan War. Seawright explained, “…because sometimes as an artist you are a bit frustrated that you can’t open up a narrative enough, particularly with something so political and so difficult when you really want to say something overt and of course art practice doesn’t allow for that.” Seawright found his voice, instead, in a series of radio programmes.

Steve McQueen was commissioned by IWM to go to Iraq and film soon after the invasion in 2003. He abandoned that project, however, dissatisfied with his lack of independence. “I knew I’d be embedded with the troops, but I didn’t imagine that meant I’d virtually have to stay in bed. It was ridiculous. We went to see some schools the army was rebuilding. I could talk to the guys but that was it,” he said in an interview with the Guardian.

Finally, McQueen came up with the quite different work currently on display in Catalyst at IWM North. Called “For Queen and Country,” it is a series of sheets of postage stamps stored in an oak cabinet. Each sheet of stamps depicts a British armed serviceman or woman killed in Iraq. McQueen reports that when he first approached the Ministry of Defence about the idea, he was treated politely but asked why he could not do a landscape. The MOD then, according to McQueen, attempted to stop him approaching the families of killed soldiers. However, he hired a researcher who was able to contact 115 families, of which 98 agreed to be involved. McQueen, with the support of the majority of the families, approached the Royal Mail about using the images on official commemorative stamps. Despite popular support for the idea, Royal Mail has refused.

The MOD is actively investigating ways to downplay the deaths of British servicemen and women in an attempt to manage “casualty averse” public opinion. This was flagrantly revealed by an MOD document obtained by the Guardian earlier this year. The discussion paper suggested ways in which deaths in the armed forces could be played down to reduce public discontent. Suggestions included reducing the profile of repatriation ceremonies of dead soldiers, greater use of special services, such as the SAS, whose deaths have less of an impact on public opinion and greater use of mercenaries or contractors. The document recommends the military’s need for “a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of press and public opinion”.

The most admirable aspect of IWM North’s “Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War” is its readiness to give space to independent artists critiquing British militarism and beyond – and opening a discussion about the relationship between independence and truthfulness. In doing so, the Museum is also asserting a level of independence in relation to its funders, which include the Government and major arms traders, such as BAE Systems and Boeing UK. I hope that this continues and other branches of IWM take note.

An e-catalogue of the exhibition is available here. (PDF)

Below is IWM’s interview with kennardphillips, creators of the “Photo Op” ‘selfie’ image of Tony Blair.

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