Tag Archives: war art

Bedwyr Williams, Strafed (2012)


Strafing is the military practice of attacking ground targets from low-flying aircraft using aircraft-mounted automatic weapons ranging from machine guns to auto cannons or rotary cannons.”

Armed with this knowledge, if not this hardware, we can safely say that Williams’ picnic suite appears to be the worse for an encounter with an airborne machine gun. In an English garden.

This piece can now be seen in the garage of a semi detached house on the fringes of Luton. Were it not for the swiss cheese look, this table and chairs would invite you to sit down for a lemonade.

But your aspirations have been punctured 1001 times with a drill bit (I would guess 8mm). A pair of cheerful sunseekers here would have been riddled with lead and each sprung a hundred leaks.

Such violence is out of proportion to a harmless pretension: the Great British pursuit of fresh air, conspicuous ownership of a small lawn, and proximity to the prize begonias. Or is the strike justified?

How many wars have been fought on behalf of people in suburban gardens, who enjoy peace and quiet, even as young combatants fall and families much like theirs become collateral damage?

Something about these stackable white chairs enrages artists. In 1990, it was Damien Hirst who called down a plague upon our twee seasonal dining arrangements, and I wrote about it here.

Of course, the 90s were innocent times. No one could foresee the creeping outbreak of a long war in which our guns, our planes, and even our sanctions would bring so much death to the Gulf.

That said, this mise-en-scène reads like friendly fire, a trigger happy over-reaction by a Spitfire ace. The destruction wrought in Strafed is out of time, out of place, out of hand.

You might ask: how could the neighbours have been so unlucky? And you might reflect: I could be next. After all, we are living through the ultimate SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fucked Up).

Strafed could be seen in Sunridge Avenue Projects, Luton, as one of 11 works on show in the parental home of artist Dominic from Luton. It runs until June 4, by appointment.

The Chapman Brothers, Sturm und Drang (2015)

sturm und drang

To hear this described, you might imagine something on a more imposing scale: a blasted tree hung with bodies of soldiering age, the reconstruction of a Goya etching.

But the truth is, Sturm und Drang looks a bit like a toy. This wicked bronze plays out in the shadow of the viewer, as if these dead were sent into battle in our name.

And that’s not a million miles from the way in which wars operate. How many are to be killed on our behalf in our comfortable lifetimes? If we consider ourselves moral, the joke is on us.

Or if we consider ourselves rational, these grinning corpses might say otherwise. From the 1760s to the 1780s, Sturm und Drang was a German movement which celebrated passion and nature.

But the artists don’t seem like Romantic (or even proto-Romantic) types. This piece is ironic about Goya, ironic about German literature, and ironic about anyone who takes the above seriously.

Cadavers are not the stuff of enlightenment statuary. This piece presents you with skeletal forms which you could play like a xylophone and entrails they are yet to relinquish to dogs.

Since the entirety is in monochromatic bronze, the forms emerge slowly. The faces come to you as goblin masks; maggots are having a time of it. The Chapmans have been to the joke shop.

That’s one place I would love to be a (plastic) fly on the wall. It says something that two of our most fêted artists source their materials from a realm of cheap costumes and tricks.

A pity that’s where we’ve ended up, and nowhere could be further from the culture wars of the 18th century. That’s the Chapmans for you: nihilists who must only get out of bed to laugh standing up.

Sturm und Drang is now on permanent view at Ekeberg Sculpture Park, Oslo.

John Skoog: Redoubt (2014)


As if they know what awaits them in adult life, children are drawn to castles, fortresses and hideaways. This was also perhaps the case for John Skoog.

The Swedish artist tells me he grew up 40 minutes from the mother of all imaginary dens: a bunker, made in response to WWII, which took one man some 30 years to build.

“I kept going back there and photographing it and trying to come up with, what kind of work? Since I was drawn to make a work about it, work with it,” says Skoog.

Now the giant concrete panic room stars in a 14 minute film at Towner in Eastbourne, also once the site of fortifications against a feared invasion by Napoleon.

As the camera tracks around the scarred facade, you can meditate on the post-war fears which drove farmhand Karl Göran to construct such a thing.

“It looks like some kind of weird, post-minimal macho american sculpture,” observes the artist. Indeed, it has a rugged and inhospitable texture. It menaces.

Göran was poor and reinforced the concrete with whatever came to hand. “He didn’t have any money so he took whatever he could get and put it into the drying cement.”

So now the film reveals a bike frame, various buckets and cans, even the springs from a bedstead. This is outsider architecture of the highest order.

Voiceovers to the brooding film relate anecdotes about Göran. Skoog discovered that his muse used a bicycle to bring all the material to the site. Facts like this “charge” the work.

These disembodied voiceovers drift in and out or the silence which emanates from the so-called house. So I ask why the artist opted not to anchor the piece with a narrator.

“For me, it is a very, very straight documentary,” he says with a laugh. “I think I am excited by films which perform what they are interested in or what they work with.”

Skoog complains about the voiceovers used to state the visibly obvious in documentaries made for TV: “I always think that’s kind of rude to the people watching”.

The location is animated with four long tracking shots, which feel like a single take. “In the last image you see where you started so it is really circling the house,” says the artist.

As a result it is a disorienting film. “With Göran’s house it is very hard to know what’s a wall and what’s a ceiling, what’s a floor. That’s maybe what gives this very physical presence.”

Remote and ominous as this Redoubt may be, Skoog finds something “really beautiful” about the fortress, which was never called into use to to shelter rural locals.

“It’s clear he had another effect,” says the artist. “He kind of questioned something of how one lives, how you live your life . . . how do your deal with fear?” How indeed.

This film can be seen at Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, until 6 April 2014. You can read a longer interview with this artist and a collaborator at Bad at Sports.