There is a tendency for visual arts programs at international arts festivals to perform as a beacon for the community’s moral aspirations. Producing exhibitions that are family friendly, community minded and laced with ethical undertones is one of the reasons why Theatres was a refreshing player in Perth’s International Arts Festival this year. Curated by Laetitia Wilson, Dale Buckley and Guy Louden, Theatres focused on how conflict is framed as a spectacle of disaster in contemporary media. The exhibition straddled a delicate political ambivalence by focusing on landscapes of disaster, rather than the ethical implications behind representing war, power, death and destruction. The effect of this ambiguity left viewers to question their own gaze upon mediations of disaster in contemporary culture.
Situated at the West Australian Museum, and also at the artist-run initiative Moana Project Space, Wilson, Buckley and Louden included eleven highly acclaimed international artists, each of whom reflected on the contemporary aestheticisation of conflict. Across the two exhibition spaces, Theatres mimicked the expansion of screen-based experiences in which conflict and disaster are presented in art, mainstream media and entertainment today, and included formats such as cinema, opera, gaming, documentary and video art.
The two sites also separated the works thematically: the longer, more cinematic works installed at the Museum focused on landscapes of conflict and themes of impact, occupation, translation and resistance. Theatres at the Museum commanded the attention of viewers by playing each piece sequentially rather than simultaneously through the space. The shorter and more intimate narratives installed in the smaller space at Moana emphasised a thematic shift towards smaller screen-based mediations of war. Rather than presenting meditations on landscapes of war, these works presented moments of individual interaction and mediation of conflict.
While the presentation of war has been a longstanding tradition in art, Theatres highlights that the ways in which the expression and critique of conflict in art are expanding. Consequently, our cultural imagination of disaster is taking new forms, and giving new insight around landscapes of war. The urge to capture the accumulation of intensity before an event of conflict is carefully presented in Hiwa K’s This Lemon Tastes of Apple (2011). The video illustrates a protest in Sulaimany initiated by the artist during the final days of civil unrest before the local government forcefully intervened. The artist walks down the town’s streets, along with supporters growing in numbers, while he plays the melody from the film “Once Upon a Time in the West” with his harmonica. The melody becomes a call for protesters to gather and walk in peaceful solidarity towards an inevitable violent impact with the military forces. This Lemon Tastes of Apple is paralysing because the artist is able to present a peaceful protest which was not premeditated, while also constructing an inevitably futile event.
The realities of war are also of course often without climax, and are endured through banal, idle stretches. Richard Mosse’s Theatre of War (2009) explicates the key currents of the exhibition – that the representation of war is often framed to capture events of impact, resistance and/or strategic maneuvers. Mosse’s focus on the geographical landscapes of war rather than moments of conflict, highlights war as a performance of control. Shot in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces overlooking the River Tigris, Theatre of War shows American soldiers killing time while manning the stark, dry, fallen palace. The slow takes of these scenes are reminiscent of classical war paintings. Rather than standing to attention, these soldiers sit idly overlooking the demolished outdoor swimming pool, palace rooms, and sharing anecdotes with one another, while viewers hear the soundtrack of a mullah’s prayer calling for the unity of Arabs being recited. The combination of the beautifully framed scenes of soldiers guarding a decaying mansion while the prayer is recited produces mourning for the banality of triumph in war.
Theatres also acutely explored the effects of representation, mediation and narration by bringing together works that focus on the themes of translation, misinformation and forgetting. While This Lemon Tastes of Apple captured a protest that was not heavily covered by Western media, preventing the civil unrest from being entirely unwritten, Cadence I (20013) by Baden Pailthorpe forces the viewer to consider how susceptible landscapes of conflict are to the erasure of cultural knowledge. Positioned in a fictive desert landscape, a simulated training program is modified to make a soldier perform a slow ceremonial dance. While the solider moves forward with each gesture, the past movements remain visible as static-after images trailing after the soldier. The visual effect in Cadence is an alternative spatio-temporal arrangement where there is a preservation of the past in the current frame, as the solider appears to dance over previous images of himself. This is a hypnotising piece where Pailthorpe uses the repetition of an image to create a sense of duration, which encourages viewers to consider the cultural ceremonies that are performed over time on landscapes, and the forgetting of these rituals over time.
To continue with works about mistranslation and the loss of information across cultures in landscapes of conflict, Theatres also included Detroit (2009) by Amir Yatziv. The video presents a series of town planners who are given a map of a military training area that was designed and built to prepare soldiers for urban combat. The town planners are not privy to this information and proceed to decode the blueprints of ‘Detroit’ as a historical settlement, including a prayer space, living quarters and a central town square. The town planners quickly identify the lack of recreational spaces, gardens and separation between private and public domains – considerations that the military perhaps overlooked when designing the military simulation. Although this is one of the more subtle works in Theatres, Detroit propels viewers to see urban spaces through a military lens: each building becomes an obstacle for entry, capture and evacuation, rather than a home, a school or a sacred space: sensitivity for cultural identity is eschewed in an event of combat.
To move through an exhibition that is concerned with the representation of conflict also urges the viewer to reconcile their attraction to such scenes. One work that propels audiences to reflect on their own morbid curiosities in Theatres was Killcam (2008) – a third work by Richard Mosse in the exhibition. Installed in Moana, Killcam presents footage of severely wounded and amputated war veterans rehabilitating at the Walter Reed Veterans hospital. The men are letting off steam through war-themed video games set in the Middle East. The veterans are clearly enjoying themselves, immersed in the game’s narrative, and try to communicate the difference between playing the game and real-life combat, but fall short of an explanation. Spliced throughout these scenes is leaked combat footage from Iraq showing a number of real life assassinations and missile attacks accompanied with the raw commentary by the soldiers in action at these scenes.
There are times when entertainment and news media service polarising clichés around war that nurture ideas around an Other and an underdog. Theatres neutralised this process by exaggerating the visual rhetoric of war, rather than focusing on the players within it. As a result Theatres carried a pervasive political ambivalence, despite showing works and subjects that are heavily politicised. This ambivalence should not be mistaken for political correctness, rather the ambiguity provides a space for viewers to be implicated into the exhibition, left to evaluate the aetheticisation of conflict, and turn the gaze towards our own morbid curiosities around spectacles of war.
Christina Chau is a lecturer at the University of Western Australia and also Curtin University and completed her PhD in 2014. Chau has written for a number of national publications including unMagazine, Realtime, and The Conversation.
19 February – 8 March, 2015
Moana Project Space, Perth
Western Australian Museum, Perth Cultural Centre
Featuring: Cyprien Gaillard, Laurent Grasso, Iman Issa, Hiwa K Eva and Franco Mattes, Richard Mosse, Ahmet Ogut, Baden Pailthorpe, John Smith, Amir Yatziv
Curated by Dale Buckley, Laetitia Wilson and Guy Louden
Presented as a part of the Perth International Arts Festival, 2015