mon 20/05/2024

Conflict, Time, Photography, Tate Modern | reviews, news & interviews

Conflict, Time, Photography, Tate Modern

Conflict, Time, Photography, Tate Modern

A powerful exhibition that takes the long view on the aftermath of war

Don McCullin's 'Shell-Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hué', 1968© Don McCullin

This huge exhibition is an awesome and terrifying compilation of photographs of the sites of conflict, and the remnants of wars and conflicts of all kinds – local, civil, short, long, global, technological, industrial and hand-to-hand. Taken from the mid 19th century to the present, the images – hundreds, perhaps even well over a thousand –  are oblique and often incomprehensible or unidentifiable without the expansive wall captions.

This is a show requiring us to read as well as look. 

Some of the blandest or quietest imagery turns out to be of landscapes that have witnessed what we now would consider desecration, or at least from the 21st century, liberal point of view; unethical if not worse. An example is the quiet ending of this vast collection: in the last gallery there are five large photographs of rather humble and undistinguished landscapes – a meadow, a canal, a wood under snow – in a sequence called Shot at Dawn. They were taken by the young photographer Chloe Dawn Matthews as near to possible to the actual date, 99 years later, when the first Belgian, French and British deserters – many teenagers – were shot at dawn by their own side. (Pictured below: Chloe Dawn Matthews, Vebranden-Molen, West Vlaanderen, 2013)

Chloe Dawn Matthews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013 There are a few iconic photographs that most of us will have seen: blown up to an enormous size is Don McCullin’s portrait of a traumatised American soldier, Shell-Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hué, 1968 (main picture), taken just a few minutes after combat. His face is filthy, his hands are filthy; the effect is of a human zombie, and it is terrifying.

Further on, there are the iconic photographs taken seven months after the saturation bombing of Dresden, by the German photographer Richard Peter, published in East Germany as a book, Dresden: A Camera Accuses, in 1949. Undoubtedly these sequences have strikingly influenced the history of the destruction of Dresden (in the horrible hierarchy of the ghastliness of war, Hamburg for example suffered even more destruction and loss of life). Sentimental perhaps but achingly memorable is Peter’s image of a spared stone angel, on the roof of Dresden city hall, presiding over a panorama of a ruined city, rubble as far as the eye could see, punctuated by sharp verticals of windowless walls surrounding flattened emptiness of the buildings that once were.

Toshio Fukada, The Mushroom Cloud - Less than 20 minutes after the explosion, 1945; Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of PhotographyBut we begin with extraordinary beauty. Toshio Fukada’s magnificent diptych of billowing clouds – and then we see that these, in black and white, memorialise that unbelievable sight of the mushroom clouds of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, less than 20 minutes after the initial explosion (pictured right)

Innovations in terms of its organisation make the anthology a genuine game-changer.  Photography may be a frozen moment (even though early photography needed long exposure times) but here distance in time is evoked as an organising principle. We start with The Moment and end many galleries later with 100 Years, indicating the distance between the taking of the photograph and the significance of the physical scene in terms of its history. The fact that this is an art exhibition raises the usual rather uncomfortable questions about the beauty of horror: of course the National Gallery, for instance, boasts endless scenes of people being tortured on their way to deification, but we know these are imaginary scenes, and anyway usually cannot even remember the story.  But these photographs are real, even though Tate has rather cleverly not shown carnage. 

The nearest we get to bodies are the skeletons revealed in a mass grave of executed Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, Patio civil, cementero San Rafael, Malaga, photographed by Luc Delahaye in 2009, 70 years after the event. And there is Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki, photographed in 1963 by Shomei Tomatsu (pictured below). But you need the label to understand what you are looking at. And it is unclear where Tomatsu found this object, although the ruins he photographed are an indictment of the decades that have elapsed since that cataclysmic event, with nothing like as much recovery as might have been expected.  Needless to say, photographs of the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange would tell us much the same story if they were on view. 

Shomei Tomatsu Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963; © Shomei Tomatsu - interface. Courtesy Taka Ishi i Gallery, Tokyo  The Tate obviously and consciously makes no attempt to present an inclusive history of the sites and sights of conflicts and their legacies. The lack of comprehensiveness – and how could it be internationally comprehensive? - is curiously stimulating, making us remember all we can of other wars and revolutions which are not on view, and to appreciate even more the complexities and tragedies of those that are.

Furthermore, the variety of scale, colour, and sheer range of material, from books to blown-up photography, means that the exhibition constantly teases the eye, and avoids the deadening repetition that often bedevils the showing of photography in art galleries. Conflict is interpreted very broadly; yes there are the scenes evoking actual battles and broad devastation but there are also conscious evocations far from the actual event that is memorialised. We veer from documentation to conscious artifice; it is, too, a mix of practitioners – from reporters to "artists".

There are heartening moments amid the bleakness. A surprisingly serene essay on domesticity by Stephen Shore, Ukraine 2012-2013, 67 years later, on survivors – naturally elderly – of the Holocaust who were displaced and now live in their adopted country.  The beguiling accumulation of everything from telephones to teapots in homely surroundings masks appalling histories. 

This must rank as one of the most remarkable exhibitions of photography yet attempted, raising far more questions than it answers, endlessly provoking and totally memorable. Are the people behind the camera dispassionate, objective, subjective, involved, reporters, interpreters, documentarians, propagandists, historians, or all these things?  And what do the images tell as well as show? Take a day or two to absorb – and then a stiff drink of whatever suits.

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