When you walk into the William Holman Gallery on the Lower East Side you almost immediately see a large striking photo of the moon by Trevor Paglen. But this is a show about war, so what’s up with the moon? Well, as Gallery Manager Katie White pointed out to me, starting from the time of the Cold War the moon became a military objective. After all, the space race was, basically, a surrogate war between superpowers. Now, periodically, we hear about the potential for establishing bases on the moon and there is the concomitant fear that these bases can be used for military purposes. So the moon has now become a potential threat to the future of the world due to geopolitical competition. We are no longer just looking at a natural satellite, we are now looking at a potential fort in the sky from which hellish carnage can be wrought.
So this is basically the ethos of this show: this is sort of a non-linear look at war. Indeed, a central question the show attempts to ask is why images of war or various themes involving war are not used more frequently in the visual arts. Of course, art history has never adequately reflected events (nor tried to) in human history so it should be no surprise that even though war is ubiquitous, it lacks substantial representation in the visual arts. Let’s do some quick word association – what images come to mind when you think of war in the visual arts? Guernica? OK…good…maybe the Surrender of Breda by Velasquez, ok, a totally bloodless, jovial meeting of jolly warriors…ok…oh, how about Otto Dix and thousands of corpses rotting in no man’s land with worms slithering through human skulls? Yeah, that works, that’s war, but you don’t want to hang that stuff in a corporate board room. So there’s not a lot out there and art buyers aren’t always that keen on war stuff anyway – for various reasons – but this isn’t traditional war stuff at the Holman show curated by Anthony Haden-Guest. This war stuff tends to avoid the trappings of more linear or literal war imagery.
So we have a piece like Gregory Green’s “Computer Virus,” which seems to contain floppy disks of a type of super potent virus from the early stage of the internet. If North Korea wants to get at South Korea, they don’t even have to launch missiles or shoot artillery shells – the future of warfare is in these silent bombs which will wipe out an infrastructure better than anything that literally explodes. How has Israel been fighting Iran’s development of nuclear weapons? Did you know that in the early 90s the creator of Pretty Good Privacy (Snowden’s favorite encryption software) was investigated as a possible arms trafficker since P.G.P meant the US government might have trouble eavesdropping on the internet activities of hostile foreigners?
We also have the Taliban Relief Painting by Piers Secunda, a casting of bullet holes in the wall of a hospital that was attacked by the Taliban, along with the Primary Surgical Manual piece by the same artist. According to the artist the hospital was staffed by volunteer Indian doctors when it was attacked by the Taliban and the doctors and their families were slaughtered. The artist later visited the hospital and found a surgical manual now riddled with bullet holes. So the obvious interpretation is that the Taliban is driven by its extremist religious interpretation to the extent that their actions literally not only destroy human life but the means of healing itself.
Yet, the value of these two pieces, to me, was that I was challenged to think about the extent to which we might be predisposed to merely demonize the Taliban and the ultimate value of that. I mean, yeah, these guys attacked a hospital. Also, these were the folks who provided support for those folks who attacked our city one bright shiny morning in September. But maybe Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is a hero after all. He literally abandoned his post to chat with these Taliban fellows to find out what makes them tick. That takes something. It channels, in a small way, Francis of Assisi traveling to the Middle East to engage the armies of Islam in dialogue or Frederick II Hohenstaufen negotiating the peaceful transfer of Jerusalem to the outrage of the Templars who wanted to fight and conquer instead. Are Segunda’s pieces an indictment of a putatively irredeemable enemy? An indictment of war? An indictment of the misinterpretation of religious texts? Should I buy into this art as a denunciation of an American enemy or distance myself from it a la Sergeant Bergdahl? (I can’t draw a straight line, but if I could and if I could have contributed a piece to this show, I’d have done a cheerful watercolor of Bowe Bergdahl and a smiling Taliban captor playing badminton or maybe picking fleas out of each other’s beards.)
Briefly, in this show we also see Alfredo Martinez’ Chinese Hospitality – a reference, perhaps, to the more hawkish moves that China seems to be making around the world (again, is Martinez challenging us to view the Chinese as a threat and enemy or is he challenging us to question the apparent demonization of the Chinese in the daily press?). Steve Mumford contributes beautifully drawn daily images of the lives of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a piece showing numerous doctors around the body of an American soldier recently pronounced dead. He also includes an ironic piece of naked American soldiers bathing together, with is chock full of homo-eroticism (not your typical war image, although a real aspect of war?). Farideh Sakhaeifar presents various pieces of equipment and items of little value to US soldiers but which were prized as money-makers in the Iraqi black market. There are vintage drawings and photos from World War II by Olin Dows which seem paralleled in some cases by Mumford’s work (probably unintentionally – implying a universality of experience among soldiers in combat). There are also interesting pieces of correspondence from the time of World War I, by Nin Brudermann, relating a dire and pressing individual matter which has been, essentially, lost in the overwhelming swamp of history. “I have hitherto avoided public communications. But I can keep silent no longer. My life is at stake.” “This is where the structure of authority started to crumble. The dissolution of 1918 began right there.” “…to take legal action, at battle end, against Field Marshal Conrad.” “I will have to abandon my self-imposed reserve to protect my skin and my honor.” To what extent was this guy involved in changing history and to what extent was he just saving his skin?
War Stories Curated by Anthony Haden-Guest
May 14 – June 21, 2014
65 Ludlow Street, NY NY 100102
Writing by Daniel Gauss
Photography provided by the gallery and the artist