The Landscape of War – San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art – Panel Discussion

By Julia Bradshaw

November 11th, 2007. Remembrance Day. And artists do not allow us to forget. At the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art on the 11th November, writer Rebecca Solnit gathered a panel of artists, journalists and scholars to discuss their work around the government-termed ‘war on terror’ and its current excursions into military dominated foreign policy. As a listener, it was stimulating to hear from people who are actively trying to make a difference in our consciousness whether it is by wielding a pen, a camera or working with the very old art of woodcut.

Artists participating in the show at SJICA are actively commenting on current conflicts overseas and also the position of the United States as a dominant and economic power. In this show, guest curated by Anne Veh, it was enlightening to see how visual artists masterfully create political commentary in a visually engaging manner. Indeed, what is the place of art with regards to war activism? Does it have any impact? Panelist and artist Trevor Paglen said that “art doesn’t do anything [but] it creates a culture of visual dissent.” Paglen takes photographs of remote military and CIA locations using photographic means usually reserved for Astro-Photographers. His photographs of clandestine military installations are blurry and indistinct as his camera equipment attempts to capture light and break through the atmospheric haze from distances of 22 miles or more. Through photography, Paglen is uncovering the layers of secrecy surrounding government operations. His projects are an insistence on truth and the images at SJICA are a meager indication of the depth of research and investigative geography with which he documents hidden military landscapes.

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Trevor Paglen’s Unmarked 737

The ambitious woodblock prints by artist Sandow Birk with HuiPress in Hawaii are a testament to the time and intensity with which an artist invests himself with a subject – in this case the politics surrounding the Iraqi war. Speaking on the panel, Birk described taking his inspiration from Jaques Callot’s etchings titled The Miseries and Misfortunes of War. In his own way, Birk updates the series by adapting readily available photographic source material to “repeat and reflect what we are told about the war in Iraq.” In deciding to create a series of fifteen woodblock prints, each measuring 48” x 96”, would an artist with such overt intensity of critical engagement not have hoped for a conclusion to the Iraqi war before he completed his ambitious series of prints? Needless to say, these prints are not out of date, but they clearly took some time in their creation. Three prints from Birk’s series are on display at the SJICA show.

During the panel discussion Iraqi journalist and current UC Berkeley graduate student, Salam Hassan, commented on the images by Open Shutters Iraq – a series of photographic and text images created by Iraqi women in 2006. He said that what struck him most was the absence of people in the photographs of the Iraqi townships. Prior to the current war, Iraq was a place where people would congregate in the open in the thousands and that visibly populated Iraq is missing from the images presented by the women. The Open Shutters Iraq project reveals photographs of broken-down landscapes, ruins and rubble and the detritus of war in conjunction with family photographs. These photographs Рdisplayed on panels with journal entries, biographies and descriptions Рare a stark reminder of the impact of the war on families, children and the old. The combination of the personal, the family and the ruins of war expose the humanity and the enduring pain of the women and their families. Hassan’s presence on the forum kept the discussion in the concrete rather than the abstract.

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Sandow Birk’s Destruction, from the series: Depravities of War

As each panelist spoke the large-scale charcoal self-portrait of James Drake in his military uniform from his basic training loomed over the panel. Patched together from several pieces of drawing paper, using visible masking tape and other means to bind the image together, the identifiable face dominates the back wall of the gallery. Not knowing the story behind the drawing it was easy to read into the eyes of the serviceman his skeptical thoughts about the panel – were they articulating his feelings as well?

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James Drake’s Echo Rattlers

What can we do? As visual artists or appreciators of art, it is sometimes hard to understand how we can make a difference. Kindly, Hassan suggested that by merely spending a Sunday afternoon listening to different perspectives on the current situation we were making a difference. I am not so sure, but at least the artists in this exhibition are creating a visual response to this most difficult subject. In this way, I responded to Fanny Retsek’s approach whereby she creates visual forms merely from hatch-marks representing the dead, or the days, or a barrel of oil as a means to tabulate the statistical damages of conflicts throughout the world. Creating a small mark on a piece of paper may seem a minimal acknowledgement to the troubles overseas, but when they are demonstratively a daily practice of reflection then the accumulation of hatch-marks represent something much larger.

If you want to do something: Take someone younger than you to see this show. It is important.

The Landscape of War November 10, 2007 – January 19, 2008
Open Shutters Iraq November 10, 2007 – January 5, 2008
San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, 560 South First Street, San Jose

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