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May we suggest

Reviews / March 6, 2008

“Signals in the Dark”: Reviewing Art in the Shadows of War

Johan Grimonprez DIAL H-I-S-T-O-R-Y 1997 Video still Netherlands Media Art Institute Montevideo/TBA Amsterdam

In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders used religion as a pretext for going to war with the Saracens. Pillaging was part of the prize. Now it’s used in the “war on terror” as a pretext to defeat Muslim fundamentalism and spread capitalism.

Curator Séamus Kealy walks me through the exhibition he has developed on these themes, “Signals in the Dark: Art in the Shadows of War,” and it’s clear he is passionate and knowledgeable about the subject. Vancouver artist Ron Terada presents a sign indicating that one has left the American sector. It rubs shoulders with a marble sculpture of a nubile woman sitting on a rock with a bag over her head by Abdel-Karim Khalil, who is decrying the United States presence in his country, referencing its treatment of detainees. Kealy spotted this sculpture in a news item and went to great lengths to find the artist and convince him to loan the work.

The central thesis of the show is that war has become systemic and perpetual, and that the military-industrial complex has infiltrated society, co-opting even universities to ensure domination by the First World and proliferation of its culture and products. Bureau d’études, a Paris-based conceptual group, have created two complex diagrams, The Bohemian Club and Archaeology, that illustrate the connections between politicians, industrialists and universities.

Kristan Horton’s spiral drawings derive their form and imagery from John Keegan’s First World War audiobook. The images evoke a bygone age of biplanes and bodies, reminiscent of Georg Grosz’s etchings of the same conflict. It’s a relief to look at something that moves slowly, since most of the exhibition is video.

Video has to be arresting when seen en masse and I was most drawn to the shorter pieces. Anri Sala’s beautiful Naturalmystic (Tomahawk #2) is a studio recording of someone producing the sound of a Tomahawk missile arriving and exploding. It seems childlike until one learns that the person lived through the bombing in Belgrade.

Several videos demonstrate manipulation by the media. Kendell Geers’s Title Withheld (Rock), offers video footage in which a person is brutally murdered and set alight by a mob of ordinary citizens. One woman in high heels stomps the victim in a dancing frenzy. The voice-over is a translation of René Magritte discussing the incongruities of representation and reality, citing qualities of a rock, which is one of the weapons the mob uses. To put it in context, during the Soweto uprising in South Africa, a self-styled militia of teenagers called Comrades dominated the streets and decided who the informants were. Average people had to participate in the murders for fear of being targeted next. Throughout the frenzied event in the video, the cameraperson remains perfectly focused on the victim, no doubt even providing a reason for the crowd’s extreme behavior.

Omer Fast’s A Tank Translated has four occupants of a tank separately discuss their experiences going into Gaza, within the tank and what they saw outside. Fast then manipulates the Hebrew translation text to show how language can change perceptions.

Maja Bajevic’s Double Bubble presents changing views of a woman in a building. At once she is in the stairwell, looking up, then peering around a doorway. She announces contradictions arising within Muslim religious belief, like “I don’t drink alcohol but I take ecstasy” and “When I go to pray I leave my gun outside.” These statements are immediately repeated in a voice-over that generates an impression of plurality.

Köken Ergun’s Bayrak (Flag) is a video diptych that presents an official view alongside a more prosaic view of the same event. Children in cadet uniforms declare loyalty to the state and its ideals in a stadium on a Children’s Day parade. One section focuses on a child reciting a poem while the other seeks out unofficial moments on the other children’s faces. The video is a chilling reminder of totalitarianism. Turkey’s armed forces are the second largest in NATO and, ominously, have just invaded Iraq.

It’s questionable how effective art can be in changing public perception but it’s important to continually challenge the military mindset. Even torture is now outsourced and the United States has made itself exempt from international law. Yet Kealy believes that some hope lies in “deviance and defiance” to pause the war machine, the insidious tentacles of which are also lodged in culture.

This is an extraordinary exhibition, bolstered by its catalogue and a program of war documentaries. Kealy has done well to expose some of the issues people need to consider.