Down to Green Park tube station and then take a meandering wander around the streets leading up to Oxford Circus. It’s a familiar part of town with a dozen or more of the smaller to mid-range commercial galleries located in various little clumps or hublets and, even on a totally unplanned excursion, the casual visitor can be pretty confident of coming across a reasonable mixture of Modern Art outputs from the classical top drawer stuff that made the famous names famous down to the more experimental works of aspirant newcomers eagerly trying to find a role for themselves in this fickle world that bounces about against the shifting coordinates of wonderment, profundity, decoration and fashion. Anyway, having said all that, today turns out to be different and most of the galleries that I usually call into still appear to be enjoying their seasonal hibernation, remaining closed up and not intending to reopen with their new shows until sometime next week.
So it is that I descend back into the undergroundworld and re-emerge at Lambeth North for the short walk down to the Imperial War Museum where their temporary exhibition space on the third floor has been given over to a show entitled Age of Terror. I have to confess that I’ve never been a great fan of this particular Museum and on those half dozen occasions when I have visited, I’ve never really felt all that comfortable walking round the permanent displays of tanks and missiles, uniforms, posters and other ephemera that fill up the place. By no means a committed pacifist, I still can’t help but feel a little queasy and unsettled when contemplating all the awful paraphernalia of industrial violence, destruction and mass murder that has been accumulated here to attract its visitors. But if the discomforting experience of looking at ancient Spitfires and propaganda pictures of Churchill urging a nation on to victory is at least mitigated by the fact that the story they illustrate has become simplified with the passage of time into a straightforward and unambiguous fable of right overcoming might and virtue defeating evil, what is the story behind our more recent examples of military engagement? All these other entanglements, especially those in the Middle East and Afghanistan, are clearly open to more nuanced and multiple readings and misreadings, and as many forms of theoretical deconstruction as there are pundits, polemicists and pontificators wishing to triangulate their various positions.
What, one might therefore reasonably ask, has the artist to add to all this swirl of hypothesising, conjecture, assertion and analysis that already fills the entire media multiplicity of newspaper columns, books and TV screens? Well, I suppose that once upon a time poets were considered to be the unacknowledged legislators of the world so maybe in the current cultural climate, that seems to be so much more defined by pictorial rather than literal representations and displays, it is now up to the visual artists to lay claim to having a more intimate, intuitive connection and understanding of all things contemporary, up to and including war, its meaning and machinations. And whereas the figurative style of earlier eras was highly suitable for portraying the heroism of righteous battles won against disreputable enemies, what could be more apt than today’s Post-Modern Conceptualism for delving into the murky waters and cross-currents of the ongoing antagonisms and uncertainties characteristic of the first complicated toddler and teenage years of our current new millennium?
As the curators explain in the small exhibition booklet accompanying the show, the Age of Terror is designed to examine artists’ responses to conflict since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. It’s a broad unhappy brief and I suppose, not unexpectedly, the overall atmosphere created by the displays is one of near unrelenting gloom, a sort of continuous dull and depressive thud of grey pessimism that starts with Tony Oursler’s semi-documentary video showing rubble being cleared from the site of the Twin Towers. At least, that was the scene that I saw but, frankly, I moved on after a few minutes not really wanting to watch the full grim hour that the artist had decided to edit together. Similarly, I didn’t feel like lingering too long among Hans-Peter Feldmann’s hall of newspaper front pages from around the globe that told the world about this most astonishing and horrendous act of barbarity with photographs of buildings in flames and headlines screaming out: Doomsday America; Terror-Krieg; Act of War and El Terrorismo Islamico. By comparison, the cartoon aeroplanes that Grayson Perry added to the pot he was making on that most famous and fateful day, and the slogans he then tacked on – Holy Shit; Argh; Help; Fascist – seem painfully banal. And I’m not sure that the Chapman Brothers’ twin piles of dismembered plastic toy soldiers with their Nazi regalia is very much better. In some ways, these last two examples illustrate that artists have just the same difficulty that we mere civilians have when trying to make sense of the incomprehensible and perhaps the most successful work in this opening section is Ivan Navarro’s abstract sculpture made with little fluorescent lights and mirrors placed in adjacent boxes that copy the footprint of the World Trade Centre blocks. While the actual ground zero memorial in New York is obviously very much more poignant due to its setting and size, this small scale commemorative artwork does at least convey some sense of the near-mythic enormity of the tragic event.
Subsequent sections of the exhibition try to look at what happened next but, as befits any attempted analysis of the very recent past, there’s a general fuzziness and I don’t think that any of the dozens of artists whose works have been so carefully collected manage to make any great revelatory statements or produce any novel insight or, perhaps more importantly, make anything that could reasonably be called a truly major work of art. That’s not to say there is nothing of interest, far from it – Mona Hatoum fills an antique display case with some beautiful shiny glass ornaments that prove, on closer inspection, to be in the shape of hand grenades; Jitish Kallat presents a mini-parade of passengers being patted-down and security screened on their way through an airport; Ai Weiwei has carved a closed-circuit surveillance camera out of white marble and put it on a plinth; Lida Abdul’s video shows her whitewashing the crumbled walls of a former palace in Afghanistan; David Cotterrell offers up large size photographs of British soldiers being airlifted to a hospital base in Helmand – all are interesting but none stun. And so it goes on and on: war is hell; governments are tempted to use the threat of terrorism as an excuse to reduce civil liberties; weapons get more sophisticated and more brutal; innocent people suffer; life can be nasty brutish and short; plus ca change.
But perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical and dismissive of these artistic attempts to come to grips with our strange and terrible new world and I think it’s fair to say that the small group of school kids that were visiting the show at the same time as I was, were noticeably quieter and more thoughtful than is usually the case when children are given the free run of a museum or art gallery. As to what they actually thought of the displays, or whether they learned anything about the complexities of modern life, the deviousness of governments or the pofragility of citizenship, I’m not sure. Hopefully, they will all now grow up to become better, more considerate, less bellicose young adults as a result of their visit here. Although, the single exhibit that seems to interest them the most was a video by Coco Fusco that showed students undergoing the kind of psychological bullying and intimidation used by the US military when interrogating miscreants suspected of potential terroristic intent. I watched it for about twenty seconds before having to turn away as it was so unpleasant and distressing but the kids seem to find it utterly captivating. And I wonder whether maybe the new generation of social media supplicants has developed a stronger stomach for this kind of reality horror TV than a creaky old hippy such as myself and, if that is indeed the case, how on earth that will impact on the future state of art and life and war and death.