Growing up in 1970s Belfast, artist Paul Seawright saw his fair share of violence. But nothing prepared him for the trip he took to Afghanistan in 2002. Seawright, a photographer whose early work focused around The Troubles in Northern Ireland, was commissioned by London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) to go to the war torn nation and capture life post-Taliban. After taking a week long war training course, Seawright travelled around Afghanistan with the landmine organization Halo Trust and his images, from the series he called “Hidden”, are stark and powerful. “Horizon 2002” at first glance appears blurry and cracked like a lunar landscape. But looking beyond the foreground, there are ominous round black objects littered everywhere. They are, of course, mines scattered across the desolate landscape. “I wanted to look at the impact of conflict, how the nature of conflict has changed,” says Seawright, currently a professor of photography at the University of Ulster in Belfast. “It was a very strange war because there was no bin Laden, no Taliban—it was all invisible and hidden.” Seawright argues that his work was different from the photojournalism coming out of the region at that time. “A photograph on the cover of a newspaper ends up in the recycling bin whereas art has to bear repeated scrutiny, it has to have enough complexity and layers to invite the viewer to come back and look again.”
It is the vast power of pieces like Seawright’s that have been the driving force behind the IWM’s war art program, which is officially dubbed the Art Commissions Committee. (The Australian War Memorial—based in Canberra—runs a similar scheme but their commissions tend to focus specifically on the military life and service in combat zones). The IWM scheme, set up by Britain’s Lord Beaverbrook during World War I, has in the recent past sent artists to Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. The original concept grew out of the British government wanting to put out material in the public sphere that would bring support to the British cause. “The government were commissioning photographs but there was growing public demand for something more and art was seen as a way of satisfying information from the Western front,” says Roger Tolson, the IWM’s head of art. One of the most famous pieces to have come out of the scheme during the Great War was John Singer Sargeant’s “Gassed.” A row of men, their eyes blindfolded because they have been gassed, walk past wounded men too ill to get up. It is striking portraiture; this is no glorification of warfare like those done a century before depicting the battle of Waterloo or the Crimea. “The artists were actively questioning the war and the way it was being fought, which is quite intriguing,” says Tolson. “If you see [the IWM commissioning] as a propaganda exercise in Brand Britain, when you see images like ‘Gassed’ you think someone is not managing this very well because [these artists] are not singing from the same hymn sheet.” That same tune carried on throughout World War II, with pieces being commissioned not just on the frontlines of battle but life on the home front as well.
The commissions fell off for a few decades during peacetime and it took The Troubles to reinvigorate the program; a commanding officer in the British army asked the IWM to send an artist out to cover soldiers’ experiences in the early 1970s. Since that time, over 30 artists have been directly commissioned to visually articulate combat and post-conflict. Linda Kitson, who was embedded with British forces during the 1982 Falklands war, was supposed to only go as far as the Ascension Islands but ended up staying with the army all the way to the Falklands and the retaking of the capital Stanley. In “1/7th Ghurkha Rifles Loading a Land Rover onto a Helicopter”(1982) Kitson’s motion-swept sketch depicts four helicopters swooping off to battle. It is not high art and, as Tolson says, it won’t end up hanging in the National Gallery. “But it does have the immediacy and a life about it which is hugely important in terms of telling a story because nobody else was doing it at the time.” Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen was sent by the IWM to Iraq in 2003. Upon his return he created “For Queen and Country” a series of postage stamps, held in a large oak cabinet, with photographs of British soldiers who had died in combat while serving in Iraq. The piece is difficult, provocative and an unforgettable ode to loss.
Telling that difficult story is the goal of pieces commissioned by the IWM. Though on average an artist is sent into the field every two years, the committee meet three times a year to discuss themes and subjects that might be relevant to the museum and what artists they think can best convey those concepts. Once an idea or concept is decided upon, a short list is drawn up and artists are asked to present proposals. “The commission came totally out of the blue,” write artists Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell via email. “We had no idea about what work we would make before going because we [didn’t know] what we would find or how the experience would affect us.” After their two week trip to Afghanistan in October 2002 (they did not travel with the British forces but with NGOs) Langlands and Bell produced an installation entitled “House of Osama bin Laden”, which was exhibited at the IWM for six weeks in the spring of 2003. Using both a still and moving camera, the artists captured the site of the Buddhas of Bamiyan that were destroyed by the Taliban and a murder trial at the Supreme Court in Kabul. The two artists also were taken to the 1990s home of the al Qaeda leader and later created a computerized reconstruction of his eerily silent dwelling; their seminal work was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2004.
Scottish artist Graham Fagan, who was sent by the IWM to Kosovo shortly after the NATO bombing campaign ended in 1999, argues that photographs or newsreels have a passive familiarity and viewers can more easily disengage from news than they can from art. “Contemporary artists cannot compete with what the news media can communicate,” says Fagan. “Artists can only add to the information, to broaden the debate and that scale of communication is just as important as the rest.” Embedded with British NATO troops, Fagan visited burnt-out villages, churches and shops and travelled to the border between Albania and Kosovo, where thousands of Kosovar refugees were forced to flee just months beforehand. Fagan’s complicated installation entitled “Theatre” looked at deep-rooted symbols of a culture that –with the firing of a gun or the exploding of a bomb— can be destroyed in a moment. As it was originally constructed, viewers walked into a media ops tent where stuffed blackbirds hung from the walls (in April 1987 Milosevic stood in Kosovo Polje “Blackbirds Fields”—the site of the infamous 1389 defeat of the Serbs by the Turks—and gave a speech that has been credited with sparking off the destruction of Yugoslavia). Inside this makeshift cinema was a film of a couple sitting at a table. In front of them is a sceptre and there is an understanding of their power from the reactions of people who pass them by. Yet it turns out their sceptre is actually a leek—a symbolic reference to the passage “By this leek I will most horribly revenge” from William Shakespeare’s “Henry V”— and subliminal photographs of a destroyed Kosovo flash up during the repeated film sequence.
There is a fair argument to be made over the point of sending artists into the field with their sketchbooks, canvasses and photographic equipment; some deem it a nonsensical voyeuristic fetish that captures suffering and then dubs it as art. It is the same argument that journalists face when sent into war zones; that the wailing Iraqi widows or the displaced Darfurians make for compelling 30 seconds snippets on the evening news and then it’s time to run a detergent commercial. But at least with art there is a sense that the story is not over when the viewer walks away; it still exists in that space, there is no advertisement that will wipe that powerful image. Whereas journalists argue that they are merely a conduit between an event and a viewer, artists do not have to work within the constraints of objectivity and instant deadlines. That process of calculation, thought, and preparation mean that artists have time to digest what they have seen, to present art in a form that is more thoughtful and draws upon reflection and hindsight. “People find in art similar levels of solace, of comfort, of questioning, of interrogation and of beauty,” says Tolson. “Whatever value you place on art as a society means that whether the artist is interested in a series of pots on a shelf or images of everyday Britain—whatever their subject matter—the point is that any subject is valid for art to engage with.” There is talk of the IWM doing a contemporary commissions show some day but at the moment the pieces are either lent out to other exhibition, on display as part of other shows or in storage for a later date. The fact that they exist at all is a testament to the compelling and unique story that only art can divulge.