Went to see the opening at Museum London on Friday night, without many expectations. I was surprised to find myself completely transported, taken out of myself by a new way of remembering and understanding the world. And I guess it’s that experience you’re looking for whenever you head out into the night.
Not that it was necessarily a pleasant transport. The Museum is a warzone these days. I went first to see the exhibit in the lower Forum Gallery, “Front by Front.” The first piece you notice is a pile of blue fabric balls piled in the center of the room. Along one wall is a row of shredded combat uniforms: sobering. Then on the back wall is a large format photograph of a row of women in combat uniform running across the tarmac of a landing strip in Kandahar. They look familiar, goofy, uncertain about whether they should smile or not. They are somehow very poignant.
The piece that will probably stay with me was a series of photographs of some kind of institutional looking place: metal doorframes, old rotary dial telephones, Teletype machines, plastic orange chairs from the sixties. The whole series was evocative but kind of mystifying until I read the explanation at the side. The photos depicted the “Diefenbunker” (http://www.diefenbunker.ca/), a nuclear fallout shelter built by the government during the height of the Cold War. And in fact it was the explanation that really attracted me. My obligatory Canadian history classes had given me the impression that Diefenbaker was kind of a putz, but it seems that the man tried to stand up to Kennedy by refusing (after some flip-flopping) to allow nuclear warheads on Canadian soil. After dealing with two non-confidence votes in Parliament, the resignation of his Defense Minister, and a dedicated smear campaign in the American media, the electorate ended up voting him out (it was our much-lionized man of peace Lester Pearson who ended up accepting the warheads). Standing up for principles at the cost of his political career, AND he was a Conservative. Damn, I thought, Dief had balls.
With balls in mind, I turned back to look at the exhibit in the middle of the room and it occurred to me that “blue balls” has some very particular connotations. I wandered over to read the explanation for that piece, which turned out to have nothing to do with lust. The balls were made with sheets from Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala. I felt kind of bad for my naughty assumptions, but seriously, that message is really mixed or missing from the piece itself. I’m sure the artist was well intentioned, but I don’t feel there was a real attempt to grapple with the subject. I may be more than usually critical though. I’ve spent a lot of time in Western China, and managed to pick up Mandarin and a smattering of Kham Tibetan. I have a lot of sympathy and affection for my Tibetan friends, but it’s a complicated issue that deserves a bit of research if you’re going to address it, artistically or otherwise.
I heard the sounds of microphone-enhanced speaking above, and followed the crowd upstairs. The curator said a few words, then introduced the star of the evening: artist and photojournalist Larry Towell. Towell has won every photography award you can think of, and is a humble, wry, and passionate speaker. His introduction to his exhibit, “Danger and Aftermath,” is a long list of thanks: thanks to Ronald Reagan for the Cold War; thanks to weapons manufacturers for putting a machine gun in every home in the Middle East; thanks to the CIA for trying to turn Latin America into a smoldering landscape of debris. Afghanistan, he tells us, has more land mines than any country in the world. It’s a country full of people with missing limbs.
And his exhibit upstairs includes photos of amputees and prosthetic limbs. It sounds hackneyed until you see it yourself. It’s an Afghanistan (and Palestine) that you don’t see in news reports. It challenges you to imagine what it must be like to live daily in a landscape of rubble and immanent violence. Photos of men arrested because they were family members of a man accused of planting a bomb, profile and frontal shots of their faces. The man at the bottom doesn’t even look into the camera, his eyes are cast downwards in a recognizable look of indifference and resignation. It’s all happened so many times.
The daily-ness of war is even more evident in the exhibit beside Towell’s photos, “Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan.” (link). When the curator was describing the exhibit, I imagined it was the brainchild of some NGO trying to empower women to tell their stories. No, these rugs are made by unknown weavers, given to husbands or brothers, passed on, traded, dealt, until they ended up in this remarkable exhibit. It gives them an air of authenticity: these are real attempts by these anonymous women to express what is happening around them. And war is literally woven into the fabric of their lives. The rugs show tanks, helicopters, the hideously named and designed “butterfly” landmines. Men and children with limbs being torn off, oddly but resonantly bringing to mind early computer games in their pixelated simplicity. There was one of an airplane flying into the World Trade Center, but a lot of these rugs were made before 9/11. It struck me very viscerally that Afghanistan has been a battleground since 1979. Anyone under the age of 33 has never known anything other than a state of war. The median age in Afghanistan is 18.2 years.
Has war become normal for them? It has become background to us (Oh right, Afghanistan. Are we still there?). It’s good to be reminded how abnormal it is. And art is able to express the affect, the emotion, the experience of this expansive and unraveling world in a way that gets missed by media sound bites. But I’m not sure what to do with this excess of affect now. What is someone like Larry Towell trying to convey, and who is he speaking to? Most people don’t spend their evenings at the Museum. I guess you can ask the same question of all art. And the old answer to everything, incomplete and harsh as it is, is that you do it because you have to.