War and the Body Exhibition

WAM hosted the War and the Body exhibition (2010) explored the intertwining of war and body in the drawing, painting, photography and installation artwork of a selection of artists. The exhibition considered how the body in war is transformed, classified, displayed, utilised, represented and produced through the visual art form.  What do these visual forms show us about war and its transformative power and to what extent does the artist embody war through the creative process?

The aim of the exhibition was to attempt to bring the body back into our thinking about war. War leaves its trace upon the body more than anywhere else and is thus fundamentally embodied: through the mobilisation, militarization and disciplining of bodies; through the coercion of combatant or civilian bodies; and through the traumatising, mutilation and destruction of bodies. And yet, the dominant language of war is distanced from the body. The body disappears from how we think about war; in our media, in our rituals and in our everyday language. The art works in the War and Body Exhibition were therefore chosen to bring attention to three fundamental and interrelated issues that would foreground the body in war. The first was the role of the body in the performance of power as explored in Gerald Laing’s images of the torture at Abu Ghraib, the abuse of the body and mind in Steve Pratt’s military paintings, and the gendered and sexualised bodies in Jill Gibbon’s sketches of the arms trade. The second was the bodily aftermaths of war including physical and psychological trauma. This was explored in Oliver Palmer and Giorgio Garripa’s tent in Shelter, and in Alison Locke and Chris Anderson’s installation, which both examined post-war distress and its impact upon the body; and in Dan Avraham’s and Michal Tkachenko’s work that attempted to authenticate the war experience and dignify their various subjects in portraits.  The third was the way in which a focus on the destruction of the individual body allows us to examine the nature of war itself.  This was evident in Sama Alshaibi’s and Nicholas Grider’s photographs which played with literality and metaphor whilst making the body central to the ways in which they examined war; and in Rick Lawson’s and Jad Oakes’ work which explored the relationship between the individual and the social, collective combatant body. All of these artists were chosen to challenge how we might think and feel about war, and to highlight how bodies are affected by, and fundamental to, war.


Gerald Laing : War Paintings

Gerald Laing was recognised as one of the foremost pop art painters of his time producing some of the most significant works of the British Pop movement. During the early 60s he pioneered the painting of enormous canvases based on newspaper photographs of models, astronauts and film stars. When the Abu Ghraib prison torture photographs began to appear in the press in 2003, Gerald, a former British army officer, saw that his 60s starlets and all-American heroes had somehow become the perpetrators of horrific war crimes. This prompted him to return to a version of his early style depicting these one-time heroes of the American Dream in a grimmer contemporary light: “It grieves me to see that the daughters and grand daughters of some of my Starlets have joined the US Army and served at Abu Ghraib, that the descendants of my Navy Pilot bomb defenceless cities from 35,000 feet, that the myth of the American Dream is being imposed by force as a new imperialism, and that the great adventure in space is reduced to numerous, mostly warlike, surveillance satellites. I have painted them again, in their new roles.” In these rarely seen War Paintings he created a spectacular, sceptical and raw reflection on the embodiment of individual and structural power in the Iraq War.


Rick Lawson: The War Experience Project

The War Experience Project consists of uniforms, painted on by military veterans, to ‘recognise the soldier experience and respect the combatant veteran by allowing them to express their own individual narratives’. Rick attempts to straddle the fine line between distancing and humanising the soldier experience. His use of the uniform – a recognisable symbol of war – for the expression of personalised stories serves to deconstruct the mechanised, militarized body and show us the individual body as the wearer of uniform. This implies a resistance to the homogenised, military body, and instead explores the disconnect between the combatant and the civilian. In this work, the cover becomes the uncovered as the jacket itself is used to reveal the more intimate experience of veterans. Collectively, these jackets are both oppressive and phenomenological, hanging like ghostly reminders of the breathing bodies that once inhabited them.


Jill Gibbon: War (M)Art

Jill is an artist, activist and art historian. Her project War (M)Art reverses the official tradition of war art, where artists are sent to draw in war zones, by drawing an aspect of war at home – the arms trade. Jill gains access to arms fairs by describing herself as a war artist, but once inside uses caricature to challenge the commodification of bodies and weapons in arms marketing. Official war artists are often described as eye witnesses, implying objective detachment. In contrast, this project is based on the oppositional witness of the peace movement. Jill’s work is extraordinary in her ability to use her own body to inhabit, disrupt, destabilise and reinterpret arms trading. In so doing, she draws our attention to the hypocrisy of the weapons industry and its utilization of the body.


Steve Pratt: Military Conflict Paintings

Steve describes his seventeen year military career as a period of “service to a false ideology”. Warned by his medical officers that he may attempt suicide within a year of leaving the military, Steve writes: “For more years than I care to remember that statement hung over me like a death sentence and when the Hungerford shooting occurred in 1987 I thought I was heading for the same outcome simply on the basis of my background. My training to use a weapon in a variety of questionable anti-terrorist situations combined with a lack of understanding about the normality of everyday life situations made for a very angry individual. For a long time I thought I was some kind of a ‘dangerous individual’ waiting to implode”. This is reflected in his Military Conflict Paintings. Deeply affected by the experience of combat, Steve embodies the processes of soldiering, post soldiering and artistic expression in his work offering us a dark, tumultuous insight into the transformative power of war. His paintings play with notions of past and present, reality, terror and insanity in a manner that is emotive and aesthetically powerful. They are difficult to view, yet they are testament to Steve’s attempts to portray, assert and consolidate his experiences through the art form.


Alison Locke & Chris Anderson: Human Remains

What Remains examines the impact of cluster bombs on the lives of civilians around the world. Alison and Chris travelled to affected regions including Lebanon, Laos, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Western Sahara, Kosovo, Nagorno Karabakh and Ethiopia to document the harm caused to civilians by these indiscriminate weapons: “We really wanted to put a human face on the suffering caused by cluster munitions. It is striking how similar the experiences of these people from eight different regions are”. Using photographs and film, What Remains attempts to give voice to the civilian experience of cluster bombs whilst exploring the impact of war technologies upon the body, both physically and psychologically. Aesthetically bold in color and contrast, this work is sympathetic and rich in narrative texture, offering the viewer a very human engagement with post war scenarios and those affected.


Dan Avraham: Self Portrait 

Dan is ex Israeli soldier who participated in the second Lebanon war. During this time he lost nine friends and was himself injured. His attempts to encourage others to understand the impact of war upon the human psyche led him to photograph his surviving platoon friends in Self Portrait, believing it to be the best way to represent his own experience. The resulting images capture the difficulties of embodying the hidden trauma of war in a visual form. There is something distinctly unsettling about these bodies but it is difficult for the viewer to pinpoint exactly what. We are challenged to consider the apparent normality of the poses. Using the bodies of his compatriots to express himself, Dan simultaneously articulates detachment from his own lived experience whilst emphasising the extreme involvement of others in it. These bodies become frozen moments of Caravaggio-esque simplicity, behind which is a touching story of personal pain.


Oliver Palmer & Giorgio Garippa: Shelter

Shelter was created in response to an interview with Bosnian refugees. The concept of shelter is denoted by the tent which – whilst offering the reassurance of cover and comfort – is constructed with clothes felt to be ‘unsaleable’ by charity shops and therefore reminiscent of the bodies that no longer fill them. For Oliver and Giorgio, the sewing together of the tent emulated the bringing together of disparate, anonymous lives displaced by war. The trauma of the displaced is embodied in the corporeal enactments of the videoed interviewee – moving of hands, wiping of tears – as these simple yet laden movements mirror the emotions of the refugee experience. Through this piece Oliver and Giorgio not only draw our attention to postwar distress, but also its transition to future generations. The work asks the viewer to situate themselves within the contexts and confines of war, both within the patchwork tent and by assuming the role of the interviewer. The work demands interactivity, but also has a childlike aesthetic that houses the mature and difficult subject matter.


Sama Alshaibi: Between Two Rivers

Sama was born in Basra, Iraq. In Between Two Rivers she inscribes violence on her own body in an attempt to draw attention to the destruction and reconstruction of Iraq and its people. Tattoos, scarification (for healing purposes), and traditional Iraqi identity markers are subverted to speak about the once proud cradle of civilization. Her purple stained fingers embodying the first democratic vote in 2005 include a gushing wound on her index finger. Her images are striking, offering an emotive, visceral yet narrative laden approach. Sama’s work bears witness to the transformative power of war through the metaphorical destruction of her own body. The photos function performatively to mirror the disfigurement of the Iraqi social body:

“I am not interested in being sensationalist or exploiting the suffering of my people. That is why I primarily use my own body in depicting suffering. I believe it to be more just. By using my own body in the work, I attach my own understandings of the issues being performed”.


Nicholas Grider: Fake Iraq

Nicholas Grider is an artist and writer who lives and works in Los Angeles and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Fake Iraq is an exploration of simulated warfare on US Army bases where civilian amputees are hired to act as military casualties in training scenarios, and where Nicholas himself role-played an embedded photojournalist. The huge bases – equivalent in size to metropolitan London – come complete with villages, mosques, and Iraqi and Afghan actors playing insurgents and civillians in a complex ‘game’ of war. Nicholas’ images depict the amputee actors waiting between simulations. His work is evocative, visceral and shocking but what grants it its lasting appeal is his refutation of a simple theatrical approach to the subject matter. Instead, through these unadorned, documentary style photographs, Nicholas plays with our expectations. He asks the viewer to recognise the intertwining of the real bodily consequences of war and the ‘theatre’ of war in which war assumes a commercialized, fictitious and simulated form.


Michal Tkachenko: The Human Right  

The Human Right results from Michal’s seven months spent documenting the effects of the fourteen year civil war in Liberia both as an artist and photojournalist. Through her portraits, Michal wanted to authenticate the experiences of Liberians whilst dignifying her subjects. The resulting paintings present a human, empathetic, and tactile approach to the theme of war and the body. Michal avoids the clichés of war art. She tells us nothing of the subjects’ experiences, nor does she attempt to represent the trauma and suffering that they have experienced in the painting of their faces. Instead, she tries to empower her subjects through her own artistic processes. These portraits require investment in their viewing to appreciate their full gracefulness and promise.


Jad Oakes: The Fallen

Jad Oakes’ The Fallen was conceived in response to the rising death toll of fallen UK soliders in Afghanistan: “The faces flashed up on the screen during news reports and then were gone, adding to the previous day’s toll. All these soldiers were being compressed into a single unit of measure. This led me to question what becomes more important, the individual or the unit of measure they become? ”. UK Afghanistan is one of a number of pieces composed by Jad. In it he creates a single portrait of fallen men and women by reducing individual portraits of soldiers to one image. He challenges the notion of classification in war and death, creating an ‘our’ fallen whilst paying heed to the individuality of each face in the composition. Consequently, he shows us the social body and the individual body in one image. The result is a face of spectral and uncanny form that challenges the corporeal notion of the body in war.

See also

New Statesman, 7th June 2010 “The reality of war? Politics written on the body

Arts and Politics Blogspot, 14th June 2010 Henry Moore, Steve McQueen, “War and the Body” and “War Horse”

The War and Body Exhibition: showing, sharing, shaping” in Special Issue ‘War and the Body: Cultural and Military Practices’. Journal of War and Culture Studies, Vol 5 (1) pp 105-115.

Review of Exhibition in Media, War and Conflict by Jane Tynan