The Image of War at Bonniers Konsthall is an exhibition about seeing violence in images. It comes out of questions around their production, dissemination and agency. Considering the relationship between those who depict, those who are depicted, and those who later see what’s been depicted what interests us is the way people take part in these scenes. The point is that images which make violence visible work on an intricate ethical, moral and political wavelength that requires reflection.
Reflecting on this type of image does not dispute the necessity of creating them. It rather suggests that a crucial political project is finding ways to see violence.
Images such as these are often understood in one of two different ways. Either they are seen to be instances of a type of devastation-voyeurism where the only thing more obscene than the violence is the demand that it be materialized and evidenced through visualization that has as a consequence a paralyzing apathy to other peoples’ suffering. Or that, despite potentially determining a tolerance toward production and viewership, they allow for an awareness that may lead to action. Which is to say that violence without an image would be a greater tragedy as it unseen would be destined to remain unlamented. The problem, of course, is that both of these opposing ways to understand the image may be true.
These kinds of images seem capable of doing good and harm at the same time. How can we better understand this contradiction? How could these events be expressed without adding to a disabling discord? The questions draw our attention to the field within which images of violence circulate and the consequences of their visualization.
An image of devastation and human suffering can stand for a political or moral claim provided it is situated in a context and if those who see the image understand themselves as related to what they see. In seeing the image, an observer must perceive themselves to be in some way part of what is being played out, recognizing other people’s needs and pains and in the long run feel required to do something about the situation depicted. But the viewer must also see beyond a frame that reduces economic and political relations to only human relations, where the suffering of others comes off as somehow inevitable and the superordinate tragedy is that this is the way the world works.
It is within this frame that the needs of some become relegated to an uneasy dependency on the charity of others in a potentially endless cycle of temporary alleviation rather than permanent change. As critic and theoretician John Berger had it, a photographed moment of agony can mask a far greater confrontation: a lack of political freedom. In the political systems as they exist, there is no legal opportunity to effectively influence the conduct of how wars are waged, even though they are many times directly or indirectly waged in “our” name. Any action there is comes to instead operate between people through the channels of organizations separate from governments and states.
Many have argued that images of war remind us of the cruel, lived reality behind the abstractions of political theory. But what is it they make us see? Worse than realizing that these images are nothing but the exploitation of the spectacle of misery would be to realize that we do not see the politics in them. That is, we do not see the prevailing political system that makes the violence in the pictures possible. The intention of the kind of picture we’re concerned with here does little use in a society that perhaps sees the violence but does not in turn see what that in it self shows. The challenge is to learn to see that.
Indeed, violence is often denied an image and of course there is abuse such as structural inequality that can’t be depicted in this way. But the focus for this exhibition is the image in which we see, with horrible clarity, violence. War is politics continued by other means and a sufficiently defined field to begin reflecting on issues of violence and image-making, as Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag and Judith Butler among many others have. War could here be said to mean conflicts between states, overt or covert, camouflaged or performed as a spectacle, along with varying insurrections, and escalating counter-insurgency operations. An image may come from cameras or seeing machines.
Rather than turning to accounts of violence the exhibition omits the documentary and focuses on artworks that wrestle with questions of the image while relating to the violence of war. That is, works of art that at once deal with violence and its image. This is to make the image and its making felt. While journalists, activists, citizens and surveillance technologies can create images in which the violence of war is made visible, the artist can work through the image. Especially today, as war-painters of old have been replaced by contemporary artists who not only depict but also examine the function of the image itself and the politics formulated as a consequence.
Take Martha Rosler’s well-known series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home as an example from this exhibition. By splicing together pictures of Vietnamese citizens maimed in the war in Vietnam with images of the homes of affluent Americans culled from the pages of House Beautiful, Rosler urges viewers to reconsider the “here” and “there” of the world picture and the photomontages come to reveal the extent to which a collective experience of war is shaped by media images. What is crucial is that what we can call ‘mediality’ comes in to view. The difference from seeing any other image is now that we not only face something that shows but are made aware of what and how it shows as image.
To encounter and get a sense of mediality allows for an awareness of the means of making visible. Recall for instance what Debord did in cinema or, better yet, what Brecht did in theatre by way of the Verfremdungseffekt, a gestural technique made up of montage, fragmentation, contrast, contradiction, and interruptions. The technique created a shifted awareness of what was being seen. An audience wasn’t wholly engrossed in the fiction of a play but rather made aware of the mediality of theatre.
We see more and more images in higher and higher resolution yet remain the same kind of witnesses to them as at the advent of photography. If mediality is the process of making visible as such it is in the exhibition made known through a kind of enactment of the image. And what it then means to encounter an image of violence is not on the level of objectification or representation but on a level where we are engaged to understand a double mode of transmission; on the one hand the demonstrative, that which is capable of being shown; and on the other hand the unspeakable, the inaccessible.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Mari Bastashevski, Broomberg & Chanarin, David Claerbout, Phil Collins, Bracha L. Ettinger, Iman Issa, Alfredo Jaar, Gavin Jantjes, Gülsün Karamustafa, Gerhard Nordström, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Eva Löfdahl, Rabih Mroué, Trevor Paglen, Mykola Ridnyi, Michael Rakowitz, Martha Rosler, Natascha Sadr Haghighian*, Gilles Saussier, Susan Schuppli, Allan Sekula, Indrė Šerpytytė, John Smith, Sean Snyder, The Atlas Group, and Maximilien Van Aertryck & Axel Danielson.. *performance the 24:th of November.
A screening program includes films by: Marwa Arsanios, Harun Farocki, Jumana Manna & Sille Storihle, Trinh T Minh-ha and Oraib Toukan.
Talks will take place throughout the exhibition, as well as a conference November 24th–25th to which a book of poetry that responds to currents of war, edited by Raqs Media Collective and Theodor Ringborg, and published by Art&Theory, will be released.