I hadn’t visited the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in Lambeth, London since before it underwent a £40 million transformation in 2014, maybe because of what the name evokes, or maybe because I kept thinking about the weird child-sized army uniforms once for sale in the gift shop. I went this week to see the Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11, which promised a breadth of responses to the War on Terror from artists across the world. As the largest contemporary art exhibition in its history and one with plenty of subversive potential, I was curious to see it handled by the (not really that) new IWM.
Upon entering, I saw the refurbished museum had tried - tried - to move beyond its habit of fetishizing the machinery of war. Spitfire, V2 rocket, and Harrier fighter jets are suspended from the central atrium ceiling, but visitors must now also consider the twisted metal carcass of a car destroyed during a 2007 bomb attack in Baghdad (work by Turner-Prize-winner Jeremy Deller).
Introducing the exhibition, artist James Bridle had painted the unnerving shadow of a weaponised drone on the atrium floor in white. A brilliant start, but it soon lost focus. Responses to the September 11 attacks were nonetheless powerful and beautiful. Through mirrors and fluorescent lights, Chilean artist Ivan Navarro’s The Twin Towers conjured two inverted skyscrapers plunging into the ground. Indre Šerpytytė’s ‘geometric architecture’ (150 mph) chillingly recreated what would have been seen by the 200-odd men and women who jumped from their windows that day. But I couldn’t help thinking that it was all a bit too beautiful. Does art that so brilliantly creates surface beauty have a distancing, even sanitizing effect on war?
In any case, most artists didn’t capture the hell of war, or the destruction and displacement that the War on Terror has wrought on some parts of the world. I saw Omer Fast’s long, quite self-absorbed film on the psychological effects of remote warfare on a former Predator Drone pilot, Jitish Kallat’s sculpture of people being frisked at airport security, and Ai Wei Wei’s marble surveillance camera. But there was little recognition of the human cost of War on Terror, as many as two million, probably because they were so physically removed from it. The few contemporary artists from countries at war: Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, among others, provided welcome exceptions but were confined to the last section of the exhibition. Mona Hatoum’s unsettling Natura Morta cabinet of hand grenades cast from coloured glass and Hanna Malallah’s map of Iraq, reconstructed from burnt fragments (My Country Map) stood out as moving, emotional responses. In Homesick, a traumatised and hopeless Hrair Sakissian films himself methodically smashing a small model of his Damascus home. Thoughtful work by these artists can tell us much more than, say, Grayson Perry, who hastily altered a ceramic vase about something else entirely (the Dungeness nuclear power station) to include planes and phrases like, ‘no more beards’ and ‘go on kill yourself for a virgin fuck’.
You have to credit the IWM for trying to move beyond its old war fetishes, and providing much food for thought. But a more honest portrayal of art in the age of terror would probably include, well, more terror. Jake and Dinos Chapman made an incisive attempt with their Nein! Eleven, consisting of two towers of tiny mutilated figurines wearing Nazi armbands. But while they chose to place the event in an historical context, this exhibition only highlights how questionable equivalence or congruity is here. On 4 January 1945, a V2 rocket like the one downstairs, killed 43 people nearby, but these beautiful, prettified and sometimes glib pieces make clear how far removed we in the West are from war in this ‘Age of Terror’. Surely better to relentlessly remind us of how real it is for many, until it’s over.
The views and content expressed herein represent the positions of the author only and not Beyond Violence.
Sophia Turner recently graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) with an MSc in Violence, Conflict & Development. She is particularly interested in the role of the arts in conflict and post-conflict situations, and runs activist filmmaking organization Eye Want Change.
Written by Sophia Turner and published on 22-December-2017