Wednesday 14th January 2015
Mike Quille recommends a photography exhibition depicting the years of suffering following global conflicts from the 1850s to today
Conflict, Time, Photography at the Tate Modern, London SE1
What happens to memories of devastation and war over time? How do we deal with the pain, loss and scars such conflicts leave behind?
The exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography currently showing at Tate Modern addresses these questions through an original and highly effective approach. Instead of simply displaying chronologically photographs of the many dreadful wars, massacres and other destructive attacks on people and property that have happened over the last 150 years, it is ordered through the act of looking backwards at those events.
Near the beginning, there’s a blown-up print of Don McCullin’s famous image of a shell-shocked US soldier in Vietnam taken straight after battle. Then come images made a few days after battles, including used cannonballs scattered across empty roads in the Crimea from the 1850s and the Paris communards from 1871 — the latter probably the first but certainly not the last time when photographs were used to help victorious reactionary powers identify and execute defeated revolutionaries.
They’re followed by images made weeks and months later, such as the series of photographs of the bombed-out buildings and cathedral of Reims and other documents of the damage inflicted during the first world war. These are echoed and extended by the 1949 photographs depicting the results of the saturation bombing of Dresden.
Gradually, the exhibition becomes richer and more complex, making us aware both of the cumulative growth of destruction and damage across the world as history moved forward in the 20th century, alongside the persistence of grief and loss from looking back at those conflicts.
There are images by photographers and artists made long after the events they depict — the mass graves of Spanish republicans, discovered 50 years after the civil war, and of Holocaust survivors in the Ukraine taken in the last few years. Like so many of the photographs in the exhibition, the survivors’ smiling faces say more about what is not in the image than what is there.
And there are some eerie landscape photographs, taken in 2013, of the places in France where shellshocked British soldiers — including many teenagers — were executed for desertion and cowardice in 1915. These men, you realise, were just like Don McCullin’s traumatised US marine.
For some events, like the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, there are images spanning time. They range from the billowing, mushrooming clouds in photos taken 20 minutes after the bomb was dropped, to haunting photographs of blinded and deformed children taken in the 1950s or of a watch that stopped at the moment of impact, found and photographed in the ’70s.
In some parts of the world, conflicts seem to be relentlessly present. One series of photographs from Afghanistan shows the historical layer upon layer of ruin and death inflicted by various invaders at different times, like different strata of rock.
Thus the device of looking backwards works brilliantly, not only evoke the horror of the original event, but to show the years of trauma and suffering that follow such conflicts and the ongoing absences, wounds and scars in landscapes, minds and memories. In doing so, the exhibition overcomes one of the limitations of photography which, for all its potential power, is often time-bound, freezing history into particular images with no past or future.
It also works as a powerful reminder of the extraordinary destructiveness which the richer nations have unleashed on peoples and landscapes globally over the last 150 years.
In many of the images there is a subtle but constant and nagging sense of human loss and emotional pain, a ghostly ache from all the torments, scars and wounds left by conflicts and atrocities.
The sombre and meditative tone is only interrupted by a kind of sideshow in one of the galleries, which is overcrowded with irrelevant military curios and memorabilia, presented with little or no artistic purpose by the Archive of Modern Conflict.
Apart from that distraction, this provocative, moving and brilliantly presented exhibition lingers long in the mind as an honest and human remembrance of conflict, a perspective sadly lacking last year during the WWI commemorations.
Walking along the banks of the Thames afterwards, then crossing the river to Whitehall and Trafalgar Square through one of the most militaristic collections of public artworks in the world, I was struck by the statues, busts and plaques everywhere, all singing the same hymn of glory and praise to the “valour” and “heroism” of the bloodthirsty generals and admirals who led British suppressions of rebellion, ordered imperialistic adventures and organised global conflict.
It provides an unsettling and striking contrast between the art in the exhibition, produced freely by photographers and artists responding compassionately to the terrible suffering resulting from human conflict and the public art commissioned by the rich and powerful to glorify the carnage they have caused.
Runs until March 15, box office: tate.org.uk.