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Exhibition On the Subject of War Opens at Barbican Art Gallery
An-My L, Events Ashore C-17, Pegasus Ice Runway,Antarctica 2008. Image courtesy: Murray Guy, New York.

LONDON.- With the accessibility of mobile phone and internet technologies, photography has proliferated in Iraq and Afghanistan, beyond the realm of the official military and the media. Images are made and distributed by many people - individual soldiers, insurgents, refugees - caught up in the violence. If diverse people have found new and urgent uses for photography inside Iraq, what new art has emerged in response to this tragic and 'infinite' war? How do artists critique the spectacle of war without simply replicating that spectacle for the gratification of spectators in the gallery?

On the Subject of War presents significant works of international contemporary art by four artists, made in the context of current events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul Chan, Omer Fast, Geert van Kesteren and An-My L e ach reflect both on the subject of war, and the experience of the subjects of war: whether those subjects are victims, combatants, perpetrators or observers. At the same time, each examines how visual imagery mediates our experience and understanding of conflict, in order to ask pressing questions about the capacity of art to effect change in a time of war.

Dutch photographer Geert van Kesteren’s Why Mister, Why? (2003-4) is a series of more than 400 photographs taken whilst embedded with the US army in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Van Kesteren’s images of interrogations at Abu Ghraib, the excavation of mass graves, American soldiers on patrol, and the chaos of daily civilian life, capture the harsh realities of post-invasion Iraq.

As the country descended into crisis, it was no longer possible for Van Kesteren to continue working safely inside Iraq. Violence forced four million Iraqis to flee their homes, making this the largest civilian exodus in recent years. In 2006, Van Kesteren visited Syria, Jordan and Turkey to record the refugees’ plight. “My photography,’ he states, ‘did not in any way square up to the horror of the stories of the refugees. It missed what I see as the cornerstone of my photojournalism: the laying bare of the essence of a situation and making that visual through the perspective of the individual”. In his conversations with the refugees, Van Kesteren grew aware of the importance of mobile phone images as a means of communicating with family and friends left behind. Realising the collective power of this imagery, and its capacity to reveal what is hidden from the mainstream media, Van Kesteren gathered together hundreds of photos from personal contacts, networking sites and blogs. The amateur images featured in Baghdad Calling (2006), accompanied by personal testimonies, offer a penetrating view into both the horrors and the struggle for normality in Iraq every day.

An-My L works with a large-format, tripod-mounted camera. It is an old-fashioned, cumbersome device that reverts back to a 19th century tradition exemplified by Roger Fenton working in the Crimea. An-My L photographs the preparations for war, as though from a great distance and with crystal clarity - the antithesis of Robert Capa’s up-close energised action shots. Human presence is made small in the face of the awesome scale of nature, and human activity is rendered transient compared to the permanence of the landscape.

In 2006, An-My L was given unique access to the American military’s ‘virtual Iraq and Afghanistan’ training ground, a scorched Californian desert. Her resulting photographs and video, 29 Palms, study the execution of desert manoeuvres. Once again with the cooperation of the US military, An-My L’s recent series Events Ashore (2005-2008) was made in coastal waters stretching between Iraq, Kuwait, Japan, Australia and Antarctica. Her pictures suggest the futility of the West’s attempt to control the war, the planet, and its natural resources.

New York-based artist Paul Chan’s Tin Drum Trilogy, a reflection on Iraq, America and the war, complicates distinctions between journalism, art and activism. The three films that comprise Tin Drum Trilogy are all underpinned by what Chan describes as his ‘radical empathy’ with those embroiled in this ongoing conflict. Re: The Operation (2002), made in the immediate aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan, imagines how the Bush administration would behave if they themselves had been sent to fight in Afghanistan. Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and others’ letters are read aloud in a powerful narration which explores their philosophical, neurotic and sexual motivations in driving towards war.

In the winter of 2002, before the Americans’ spring invasion, Paul Chan went to Baghdad with the group ‘Voices of the Wilderness’, anti-war activists working in defiance of US sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime. In the resultant lyrical video essay Baghdad in No Particular Order, Chan captures scenes of the everyday: men dancing, women drawing, Sufis singing, and a monkey sleeping in a cage in a Baghdad hotel lobby. For the final film of the trilogy, Now Promise Now Threat (2004) Chan returns to his home town of Omaha, Nebraska, the heart of Republican America, immediately after the presidential election. He interviews locals whose political opinions are complex and contradictory.

Omer Fast ’s award-winning The Casting, a two-screen, double-sided video projection, is a complex reflection on how photography and film mediate the real. Fast has used as source material pictures of the war he has found on the internet, and an interview with an Iraq-serving US sergeant, whose story involves two different violent incidents, and two different injured parties. Although based firmly in the real, The Casting is crafted from layer upon layer of filmic manipulation and interwoven editing, creating doubt as to the status of what is being viewed. Interested in “the way that experience is basically turned into memory”, Fast examines “the way that memories becomes stories”. Suspended somewhere between motion and stillness, and between documentary and drama, Omer Fast’s The Casting simultaneously reflects and refutes the traditional distinctions made between documentation and fiction, in order to probe the relative value of both.

On the Subject of War is one of three interrelated exhibitions on war and photography that reflect on conflict and its representation. Both retrospectives of photojournalists working in the 1930s and 1940s, the other two exhibitions are Gerda Taro and This Is War! Robert Capa at Work .

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