Category Archives: war art

Dinh Q Lê, The Farmers and the Helicopters (2006)

War is a game for boys of all ages. So if that’s your violent gender you might especially enjoy this montage of vintage film in which helicopter gunships rain deafening misery on the Vietnamese.

Dinh Q Lê’s film begins gently with innocuous footage of dragonflies and some peasant wisdom about determining the weather from their flight patterns. So far, so bucolic.

But then come the invasion force, in footage we have seen all too often, along with the reports from the ground, from the Vietnamese from whom we have heard all too rarely.

As said by one of the farmers in the film, young at the time, you could watch these helicopters for hours. To some degree he found their ominous presence a pleasant spectacle. Strange indeed.

Or is it? JG Ballard can be relied upon to explain a paradox like this. His landmark book The Atrocity Exhibition, which first appeared toward the end of the Vietnam war, is full of helicopters

“The Vietnam war,” he writes, “has offered a focus for a wide range of polymorphic sexual impulses”. In other words, the first televised war arrived in our living rooms bearing an erotic charge.

It was, he adds, “also a means by which the United States has re-established a positive psychosexual relationship with the rest of the world.” That has a ring of mad truth, doesn’t it?

Certainly anything that defies gravity carries, if a male partner is involved, some sexual promise. And asymmetric warfare can in this way be seen as a sado-masochistic hook up between whole nations.

Sadly, at its climax, this film offers a terrible thrill as, midway through, we undergo a fusillade of bombs, rockets and bullets on all three channels. It’s a troubling, visceral pleasure.

You would think that Vietnam had seen enough of these mechanical dragonflies to last a lifetime. But in a coda to this film, we discover that the rural helicopter fan is now an amateur engineer.

His grown up passion is for building the very vehicles which waged war on his people is something an analyst could probably explain. They pale, of course, compared with industrial US models.

And we never see them fly. They may as well be sculpture. The may as well be pieces of kinetic art about making or keeping peace, no matter how anti-climatic that grown-up impulse might be.

This film can be found in The Sensory War 1914-2014 at Manchester Art Galery until 22 Februrary 2015. The Ballard quote can be found in Chapter 11: Love and Napalm: Export USA.

Stanley Spencer, Filling Tea Urns, 1927


It may have been said, but a full century before the meme took off, Stanley Spencer painted works which embodied the suggestion we should ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

Here you see orderlies in a military hospital who, instead of getting depressed or suicidal about the horrors of war, are busy making tea.

But there is a worrying message in scenes like these, painted for the Sandham Memorial Chapel. Things do carry on regardless, and war comes to seem the norm.

Of course, war is the norm. We know that now. And since we keep our postmodern conflicts at arm’s length these days, we can drink tea all day long and not worry.

But Spencer celebrates the everyday pleasures of the battlefield and field hospital: having a shave, making jam sandwiches, getting resurrected. He called it “heaven in a hell of war”.

And if that makes him sound like a futurist, so be it. Were those car parts rather than tea urns, those excitable Italians might have also enjoyed this scene.

To his credit, Spencer prefers people to airplanes and guns. But he paints with mannered realism: great on observation, great on draftsmanship, and through it all a bit weird.

His monumental orderlies still look like rag dolls, stuffed into their clothes. There is no sense of sinew and bone, no wonder that war failed to horrify this curious artist.

The pictured scene is one of 14 predellas, 14 arches and an altarpiece from the chapel in Sandham which was purpose built for Spencer’s elaborate schema.

Restorers are currently getting the building ready to reopen for the centenary of WWI. It will no doubt become a focal point for self-conscious and sombre remembrance.

To look back at a four year tea party, rather than a prolonged massacre, may make it easier for us to deal with in 2014. But is it fair to those who served and fell? I think not.

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War can be seen at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 15 June 2014.

Steve McQueen, Queen and Country (2003-08)


In terms of medium, Steve McQueen is in unusual territory with his celebrated philatelical artwork Queen and Country. Just don’t expect to see any of this piece come through your letterbox.

179 sheets of stamps now occupy a large filing cabinet at Imperial War Museum North. Visitors can pull out trays and encounter, one by one, British soldiers who departed this world in Iraq.

The scale of the work is both intimate (stamp-sized) and endlessly reverberating (each stamp has been printed up as a sheet of around a hundred).

The other head in each perforated frame is of course Elizabeth II, in regal profile. And by this juxtaposition you realise that McQueen has, for some, brought the war too close to home.

A glance at recent themes used by the Royal Mail is edifying. In 2013 so far we have had Football Heroes, Classic Locomotives and Andy Murray Wimbledon Champion.

We have also had a run of Great Britons, but none were actually killed on their way to assume this status. And surely, who the Royal Mail commemorate is a matter for public debate.

Yet beyond debate is the national pride whipped up on Remembrance Day or, rather, Week. Unlike these stamps, the dread occasion appears to validate and glorify our various illegal wars.

Given all the poppy wearing and flag waving, there is surely a double standard in the decision to exclude named and pictured servicemen and women from circulation in the public realm.

Stamp issue may seem a marginal sphere of activity. But if nothing else, the images on our covers shape or at least reinforce our sense of national identity.

If you don’t think this matters, consider the recent campaign to put Jane Austen on a £10 note and the subsequent vitriol of the backlash against instigator Caroline Criado-Perez.

And take a moment to consider passport design. At the moment British subjects, when called upon to brandish their little red books, are treated to oak leaves, owls and freshwater fish.

Another exhibit up North, the Jeremy Deller production at Manchester City Gallery, did leave me wondering why urban or industrial Britain finds so little representation on our passports.

There are no doubt good reasons for all these decisions and who are we to doubt their wisdom . . . But stamps and passports are vital parts of our social fabric, in other words: a battlefield.

Queen and Country can be seen in Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War at Imperial War Museum North until February 23 2014.

Mariele Neudecker, Psychopomp (Hercules Missile Graphite Rubbings 1&2) (2010/11)

Under normal circumstances the end of a world war might be cause for reflection. And indeed, each November we have institutionalised mourning at an almost mandatory level.

But the cold war is different. Lives were only lost in countries the US and the USSR should never have been in. Remote peoples were armed and set against one another.

Now we reap what we sowed. Were it a just war, museums like the Nike Historic Missile Site in California might be as affecting as a trip to landing beach in Normandy.

The Hercules Missile system was intended as a line of defence against Soviet bombers. It became obsolete as both powers came to rely on ICBMs.

Now it is so obsolete they allow artists to climb all over the deactivated stock, for the making of graphite rubbings or whatever else it is that artists do.

Neudecker has engaged with every inch of this 41ft behemoth. The full incarnation of this work would not even fit in the downtown Brighton gallery.

Straddling the missiles like a peacetime Dr Strangelove, she renders cold hard steel in a manic, performative, durational scribble.

Keen eyed defence strategists will realise there are two Hercules on display. One light, one dark. Neudecker leaves us to guess which was the real thing, which a military decoy.

Does the lighter missile represent a tentative fear, an explosive potential which mustn’t be disturbed? Or does the darker missile indicate a deeper, more passionate engagement with the real thing?

Either way, this is close as you’d want to get. Neudecker’s piece is evidence relating to last night’s nightmare. The East-West standoff, the three minute warnings, the paranoia . . . It happened all along.

This piece can be seen in The Air Itself is One Vast Library at Lighthouse Arts, Brighton. See galllery website for more details.

James Bridle, Under the Shadow of the Drone (2013)

It is one of the most frightening scenarios you can imagine: up to six armed drone aircraft circling your neighbourhood, preparing to strike and strike they do.

Numbers are what surprised me most from reading James Bridle’s blog about unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. If six Reapers above your village doesn’t amount to terrorism, nothing does.

So in a laudable attempt to bring the long war home, the artist has arranged for an UAV outline to be painted on Brighton seafront, yards away from the pier and other amusements.

It is electric green, a shade which might be to the 21st century what lapis lazuli was to the 15th. Just as they treasured their azure Madonna blue, we may fetishise our virtual, chroma key green.

An accompanying film makes clear the drone was put in place by road painters from Hi-Way Services. And indeed you might mistake the wing outlines for some obscure parking regulation.

But note the masterful way the paint slips down the kerbs between the promenade and the road. It has all the fluid movement and stealth you might well fear from an unfriendly UAV.

Perhaps this is also fitting, but people don’t seem to be taking much notice. Joggers jog past. Coach parties drive past. Bridle’s work is about our ignorance as much as anything else.

You would have to collar every passerby in turn and say, look, just yesterday two men were killed on a motorbike in the Yemen. Did you even know we were at war there already!?

This fact is true at time of writing, gleaned from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and posted along with the satellite view on the aforementioned blog, dubbed with cruel irony Dronestagram.

Drones may be invisible, but we allow them to be. None of these strikes make the evening news. In the past eight years almost 3,500 people have been killed thus in Pakistan alone.

The campaign is remote in every sense. Our hands are kept so clean that, weather permitting, we can even sunbathe nearby. Thank god the victims can’t see us, even if we can see them.

Under the Shadow of the Drone was commissioned by Lighthouse, Brighton, and can be viewed on Madeira Drive, until May 26.

Mary Kelly and Ray Barrie, Habitus, 2010

Mary Kelly Projects 1973-2010, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester Photo (c) KP Photo 2011

According to a 2003 book, there were 3.6 million Anderson Shelters in use during WWII. They must have been a common sight, as common as catching a glimpse of your parents having sex.

Mary Kelly, b.1941, has spoken of the War as a political ‘primal scene‘ for people of her generation. And so into this sculptural shelter are carved the wartime memories of eight of her contemporaries.

These are best read in the mirrored floor of the structure. So you have to get the angle right to read  the lived experience of war, although they are no less real for that.

These memories have also punctured their stainless steel surrounds. Clearly these arrangements for protecting the next generation were only a partial success.

And because the whole piece is reflective, atrocities such as the Holocaust or Hiroshima may yet be written on our own faces, dress, comportment, whatever our age and distance from the war.

Witnessing this violence at whatever remove may lead to anger, confusion and a desire for revenge. If this was a Freudian case study, you could explain the events of May ’68 this way.

But you might also wonder about your own political primal scenes. These will depend on your age and location, but chances are you can remember the terrors of your own childhood shelter.

Habitus forms part of Mary Kelly: Projects, 1973-2010, which is on show at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, until June 12. See gallery website for more details and read my review of the show on Culture24 here.

Interview: Gerald Laing

Gerald Laing, See What Beauty He Hath Wrought

Sixties Pop Art had a “culpable banality” and Andy Warhol’s sculpture of Brillo boxes was a “real travesty”, according to one of the movement’s pioneers, Gerald Laing.

The Scottish artist features heavily in a new show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, in which Pop Art finds politics. Many of the works are from the past ten years.

“Of course we were seduced by the American glossiness,” says Laing. “We were emerging from an intolerable period in Britain. You know the sixties were not all fun. There were plenty of bombed buildings everywhere and plenty of worn out cars, you know. Everything was crumbling and hopeless and very few people wore miniskirts.”

It puzzles him why musicians, rather than artists, were the leading voices of protest. “The only pop artist I can remember at all who was involved with politics in Britain was Derek Boshier and in America was James Rosenquist. The rest skated past it.”

Laing’s own attempts to engage with current affairs floundered when he tried to sell a painting of the Kennedy assassination. “My dealer wouldn’t show it, so it was folded up and put in the garden shed. He said it was a downer and he didn’t want anything to do with it and it stayed there for 30 years.” Now the painting is recognised as the only representation of the shooting completed at the time.

Instead, it was paintings of all-American girls and Navy pilots which helped Laing make his name. But these images would later haunt him as, 50 years later, allied forces invaded Iraq and bombers flew raids from 35,000 ft. “It was not exactly a heroic act,” he says, “but it was being carried out by the people I used to paint.”

The souring of the American dream prompted Laing to return to painting after many years making sculpture and the resulting series, War Paintings, is now on show for the first time in a UK public space. Tony Blair, Abu Graibh and Warhol’s Brillo boxes all feature.

“When I painted Blair in front of the destruction of Baghdad and I’m contrasting it with what I imagine his living room in Notting Hill to be like. I’m thinking ‘you’re not going to get away with this’, because although we can’t change anything we can commemorate it and it won’t go away,” he says.

Laing offers a potted history of war painting, from illuminated manuscripts up until the horrifying realism of Otto Dix, complete with a highly entertaining digression.

“I dreamt I was picking the Bayeux Tapestry to bits with a pair of nail scissors about a week ago, and I actually pulled the arrow our of Harold’s eye,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know what it means. It doesn’t sound very politically correct anyway.”

Perhaps it was a comment on the visual appeal of warfare today. “The awful thing is that the war images, the pyrotechnics we now have, have an awful beauty. The little circles of phosphorus popping out like pearls and the lurid colours and the effects of the smoke afterwards.

“In fact I’m thinking of Constable and what little opportunity he had compared with now,” he jokes.

But Constable would these days have little trouble getting a show; Laing was not so fortunate with his War Paintings. “I couldn’t get anyone to show them. People ran a mile. I was surprised at how pusillanimous they were,” he says.

Whereas most people “chickened out”, Laing is keen to point out that the only “people in the establishment” who “wholeheartedly backed it” are from the Wolverhampton venue and the National Army Museum in Chelsea which, he feels, “is extraordinary.”

“You have to follow the party line or you’re out on your ear,” he says at another point. “You know I don’t think that’s the job of an artist to follow anybody’s party line. I think it’s quite a good thing to be out on your ear too if you’re an artist.”

Consequently, Laing has a lot of time for younger talents. “I think there are two things happening that are really cheering,” he says.

“Young artists are politically engaged and they do have much more information than we had.” The 74-year-old artist even has a “fairly close relationship” with a number of street artists.

But Laing is joined by a number of figures from his generation for the show at Wolverhampton. Derek Boshier, Richard Hamilton, Jann Haworth and Clive Barker all contribute protest work. If the times they are a-changing, again, it is better late than never.

Written for Culture24.