Interview with Scottish anti Iraq war artist Gerald Laing


In this video from the USA, called 8 WWII Veterans speak on Iraq War, ‘Eight World War II artists/veterans recount their service experience and their use of art for journalism, as a tactical tool and to preserve their own sanity. Iraq comments are from the ‘extras’ section on the Art in the Face of War DVD.’

From British weekly Socialist Worker:

Gerald Laing: Art that commemorates the brutality and horror of war

Gerald Laing’s War Art is finally being exhibited in London. He spoke to Anindya Bhattacharyya about the show.

This year has seen the often apolitical art scene in Britain burst into life with critiques of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan – most notably Mark Wallinger‘s Turner prize nominated State Britain installation.

The latest exhibition to address this theme is Gerald Laing’s War Art, a collection of extraordinary paintings that attack the war, the horrors associated with it and the venality of the politicians who unleashed the slaughter.

Despite Laing’s stature as a successful artist with a career spanning decades, War Art is showing at StolenSpace, a relatively small commercial gallery in east London.

“The hardest place to show these paintings has been London,” says Laing. “It’s been very hard to find a space here. I’m not quite sure why there’s been so much resistance.

“The establishment galleries say, ‘How interesting – we’ll pass it on to our curators.’ These are the ones who claim loudly that they’re dealing with ‘cutting edge’ art. But they’re not really – the amount of dissent that’s allowed is very strictly controlled.

“With the commercial galleries, a phrase I heard from one of the major ones was, ‘We can’t bite the hand that feeds us.’ Another from one of the smaller commercial galleries in the West End of London: ‘We don’t want to be controversial’.”

Pop Art

War Art sees Laing return after several decades to the Pop Art style of painting he helped to pioneer in the 1960s. This decision was prompted in part by the similarities between Iraq today and the Vietnam war back then.

“When I started out I was completely enthralled with the US,” he says. “Having come from post-war Britain – Newcastle, which was an extremely depressed city when I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s – the American Dream looked great, it looked like the future.

“But then we had the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the sudden realisation of what life in America was really like – so I dropped it all and went into sculpture throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

“It was only four years ago, when I started being totally exercised by this war, that I came back to Pop Art. I started trying to produce a sculpture about the war, but then I thought, what’s happening now is so associated with how I started out, let’s go back to that Pop Art approach – but treat the images in a different way.”

The paintings that comprise War Art are extraordinarily dense, full of multi-layered references to images and events. The torture photographs from Abu Ghraib are mixed with religious iconography, references to advertising and classic 1960s Pop Art works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Running through the work is a fascination with the power of images. “The images I painted in the 1960s were not taken from objective reality,” he says.

“They were iconic, idealised images such as those found in newspapers. My best known painting from back then is of Brigitte Bardot – it’s taken from a newspaper photo. I never actually met Brigitte Bardot.”

This iconic aspect of images opens up the possibility of using them to comment on and remember wars and other political events, he adds.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Art doesn’t make any difference.’ I replied that it doesn’t make any difference immediately – but it commemorates. It nails things down so that there’s no escape from it, and of course that becomes a moral stance.

“You wouldn’t know anything about Guernica if it weren’t for Picasso, or the Peninsular War if it weren’t for Goya, or anything particular about the Weimar Republic – what was happening to the veterans, say – if it weren’t for paintings by Otto Dix and George Grosz.”

Damning

The use of imagery from Abu Ghraib is particularly striking – and damning. “We were supposed to be going in there to help the population – and then we created situations like that,” says Laing.

“It was totally counterproductive and appalling. I didn’t believe the war would work anyway, but to go and do something like that – I couldn’t believe it.”

Laing depicts the horrors of Iraq interspersed with brand names, drawing out the connections between war and commerce. He notes how the culture of privatisation has swept through Britain in the past decade, taking in railways, schools – and even the army itself.

“I know what the philosophy is, that private industry looks after the pennies better, or something like that. That’s what they say – but it’s absolute codswallop. The way General Michael Jackson destroyed the county regiment system, it was almost as though he was preparing the army for privatisation.

Mercenaries

“You know what that means? It means we have mercenaries fighting our battles. And you know what mercenaries do? They go to the person who pays them the most, and if they’re losing they run away.”

Resistance movements such as the Viet Cong and those in Iraq today have quite different motivations to the mercenaries, he notes, which makes them hard to beat.

“There’s a chronic nature to this kind of violence, to the thugs running the world. They’re doing it again and again – Iraq, Vietnam and also the First World War where I lost my grandfather, an uncle and two great uncles – none of whose bodies were ever recovered.

“It’s quite amazing how weak spirited, how pusillanimous people in positions of power are, how absolutely prepared they are to tailor their views to their own advantage. It’s shameful.”

Despite his anger and despair at the relentless return of war, Laing is optimistic about the ability of people to discover the truth and resist the drive to militarism.

“When I was young we had very little information about war and what we had was pure propaganda – Boy’s Own stories. Then there was a long period of apathy, with people saying they’re not going to vote because it doesn’t make any difference.

“But now you’ve got young artists and other people too who are saying something about the war and who will resist it. You couldn’t get 20,000 people to join the Royal Fusiliers and send them off to the Somme now – they wouldn’t go. That’s one of the greatest and most cheering things for a man of my age!”

Gerald Laing’s War Art is showing at StolenSpace, Dray Walk, Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1, until 13 October. For further details go to www.stolenspace.com or call 020 7247 2684. For more about the artist go to www.geraldlaing.com.

See also here.

Posters for and against wars, here.

The Globalisation of Art: the Lyon Biennial: here.

Robert Rauschenberg: here. And here.

[Pop artist] Richard Hamilton’s Protest Pictures keep the shame of repression in our minds: here.

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4 thoughts on “Interview with Scottish anti Iraq war artist Gerald Laing

  1. Laing revives pop art as weapon against war in Iraq

    Thursday, September 27, 2007

    By Ciar Byrne

    In the early Sixties, Gerald Laing was a star of the pop art movement, famed for his paintings of starlets and astronauts.

    Now, after a break of more than 30 years, he has returned to the pop art medium to express his horror at the Iraq war in an exhibition in London.

    Laing was renowned for his paintings of the actresses Brigitte Bardot and Anna Karina and closely associated with the Sixties pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

    By 1969, however, the Newcastle upon Tyne-born artist who had made New York his home had become disillusioned with the American dream following the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War. The former soldier returned to the UK, where he settled in Scotland and spent the next three decades devoting his energies to sculpture.

    It was the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003 that inspired Laing to return to pop art. The bold colours of pop art are present, but the images have a new, sinister edge; the heroes and film stars have been replaced by chilling images from the “war on terror”.

    Truth or consequences shows a smiling Tony Blair next to an image of the London bus bombing on 7 July 2005. Viewed from a different angle, Blair morphs into George Bush and the bus becomes a city in flames.

    Repetition, which has been bought by the National Army Museum, juxtaposes Warhol’s famous Campbell’s soup tin with a repeated pattern of soldiers, suggesting that war has become another product of capitalism, while troops are seen as “virtual soldiers” rather than real people.

    Images of the torture at Abu Ghraib have also influenced Laing, as in Capriccio, which shows two hooded figures, above the familiar pop art icon of a box of Brillo.

    American Gothic, inspired by Grant Wood’s 1930 painting of the same name, shows American soldiers in combat fatigues giving the thumbs-up over a newspaper image of a mass of bodies in the Iraqi prison. Laing said: “It’s a development of the original pop art approach with a different moral attitude. I realised these were the same people doing different things. My starlets had joined the US Army and were working at Abu Ghraib. My pilots were bombing a city at no risk to themselves. It’s extraordinary to be at my age and return to this preoccupation.”

    Born in 1936, Laing attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst from 1953-55 and served as an officer in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers in Northern Ireland before attending St Martin’s School of Art.

    Serving in the Army, like his father and grandfather before him, allowed Laing to sympathise with soldiers, while condemning the governments who sent them to war. “Most artists abhor the whole idea of soldiers. I don’t, because when I was young they were viewed romantically. There are some virtues there that are traditional, timeless.”

    Laing, whose bronze sculptures include Ten Dragons at Bank Tube station in London and four rugby players at Twickenham, is working on a series of paintings of Amy Winehouse, Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham.

    War Art at Stolen Space, The Old Truman Brewery, London E1, from 28 September to 13 October

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/entertainment/theatre-arts/article3005214.ece

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