Age of Terror: Art since 9/11 is not only the UK’s first major exhibition to consider artists’ responses to war and conflict since 9/11, it is the museum’s largest contemporary visual art show to date and, frankly, it is by far the most challenging, exciting and globally diverse contemporary art show in town right now.
There is much to admire here: the layout and arrangement of the artworks is fantastic, the variety of subject matter examined – whether it be the 9/11 attacks themselves, Abu Ghraib, the relentless bombing campaigns in Afghanistan and the Middle East, or the encroachment on civil society and freedom of expression in the West – and, the range of artistic styles (painting, sculpture, collage, film, installation…).
But what most pleased me was the effortless blend between big names, such as Richter, Weiwei, Grayson, the Chapman brothers, and Mona Hatoum, and less familiar ones from across the globe. To take on such subject matter is great; to ensure that representation is full-on diverse is terrific.
We start with context – Tony Oursler’s Nine Eleven film runs on loop in the first gallery; his first-hand account, his footage shot on the streets of NYC of the attack itself, and the response on the streets and its aftermath – which then segues into a corridor whose walls are smothered in front pages from the global press the next day: ‘A declaration of war;’ ‘Die Welt in Angst;’ ‘Is this the end of the world?’, courtesy of artist Hans-Peter Feldmann.
Once those memories of that day come flooding back, what IWM then does is walk you through an extraordinary variety in response from artists from all around the world over the subsequent fifteen years.
Gerhard Richter was on a plane bound for New York that day, which was diverted, and his digital print of the World Trade Centre shattered and overwhelmed with billowing smoke has impact, as does Ivan Navarro’s light box and mirror installation, The Twin Towers, a visual trick where the viewer peers down into two boxes on the ground to witness an infinite drop.
Grayson’s vase was a piece he worked on in the days following the attack and it includes text and images which reference the attacks on the Twin Towers, and Indré Šerpytyté’s painting seems an odd one of black and white vertical lines, until it clicks that this is an image you’ve seen many times before – a close-up focus of the sides of the World Trade Centre towers; a reference to the c. 200 people who jumped to their deaths from the burning buildings.
But then as the repercussions of the attack started to take hold, so artists responded to these. We’ve Weiwei’s surveillance camera carved from marble, and Jitish Kallat’s line of figures all being frisk searched and patted down at airport security, both highlighting the inroads the State is making into our private lives on the basis of safety.
But, for me, the big hits in this show come from those tackling head-on the impact for the perpetual warzones that have unfolded overseas.
Rachel Howard’s State Control hits you like a truck; the terrible and instantly familiar image of a man being tortured in Abu Ghraib – stood on a stool, hooded, his arms out wide. Martha Rosler’s bitingly satirical (Election) Lynndi, 2004, take the famous photo of US Soldier Lynndie England, the scapegoat for all of this, and places it – Pop Art style – in a catalogue picture of the perfect modern kitchen, both highlighting the massive disconnect of the degrading treatment of humans overseas to Americans back home, and juxtaposing luxury consumerism with the realities of war. And the notorious orange jumpsuits that became the uniform of prisoners in Guantanamo put up for all to see by John Keane.
Francis Alÿs’s film Sometimes Doing is Undoing and Sometimes Undoing is Doing is excellent, juxtaposing filmed footage of a British soldier in Helmand assembling his assault rifle with a Taliban fighter doing just the same. Two worlds in parallel converging in the most terrible of ways.
The highlight of the show, for me, though was the discovery of the Afghanistan artist, Lida Abdul. The film of hers on display is mesmeric. Dressed in black, she wanders around the rubble of a building outside Kabul. Bucket of paint in one hand and a large brush in the other, she steadily paints what is left of the war ruin in white paint. Huge strokes, putting all her weight and energy into each movement. A man emerges from the debris, and she paints him white too – literally whitewashing him. The title of the film? White House. Superb. Biting. Straight to the point.
This is a stupendously good, powerful and necessary show. Expect to see it recommended in my ‘shows to see’ articles each moth until it closes next May.
Imperial War Museum, London, to May 28, 2018
Admission: £15 (concessions available)