Exhibition review: The Sensory War | 1914-2014 | Manchester Art Gallery | Manchester | until February 22 2015

Posted: February 21, 2015 in Musings, Uncategorized
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WARNING! SOME OF THE IMAGERY DISPLAYED IS EXTREME.

(though while I was at the gallery it was half term and parents were taking very young children around it. I mean very young.)

I visited Manchester Art Gallery yesterday for a major exhibition on war and conflict. To bring home “conflict” to the viewer the curators brief was to draws on our senses.

afghan balloon seller

afghan balloon seller

 

As galleries around the world scrambled for loan art work in relation to war, Manchester Art Gallery had a home advantage. Many of the Nevinsons, Nashs, Kenningtons and Sheppersons, which anchor this show to the Great War, were already in their permanent collection.

Curators Ana Carden-Coyne, David Morris and Tim Wilcox have still reached out far and wide, with a dense selection of work spanning the 100 years since 1914 saw the beginning of mechanical warfare.

The curators did a good job with their selections. The aim was a sensory take on warfare, making efforts at making the inhumanity of war a personal experience.

It wasn’t all “horrors of war” it showed camaraderie of the munitions girls in the factories, and men sharing food and fags in the trenches, the excitement, speed and vertigo of aerial combat in a dog fight and different pieces would effect different people in different ways.

What I get out of it is the senselessness of it all, an immense feeling of loss and the futility of all this loss. The exhibition brings home the inhumanity of war in a synaesthetic way.

searchlights

searchlights

flak

flak

I read that the artist Nevinson signed on as an ambulance driver and the experience was enough to cure him of most of his Futurist gung-ho. But the art movement’s harsh geometry was perfect for a painter in search of a style to convey a shell explosion.

Nevison, shell exploding

Nevinson, shell exploding

His result is an apex of lines of force. A sonic effect as visual trickery.
War artists were among the first to fly and experience the visual world in the way no previous generation could. For them, war offered thrills as well as spills.

To convey the daring and danger, Nevinson included his white-knuckled right hand, gripping the side of the plane as it banks at 4,000 ft.

The resulting feeling of vertigo is key to a show which builds a case for war being, first and foremost, an assault on the senses.

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I found myself wincing at a wound-dressing station painted by Henry Tonks and feelings welling up at the same subject painted by Henry Lamb.

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The Sensory War hints that war is a drum always beating in some part of the world.

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This man’s face, mutilated in a bomb blast when he was a child soldier, healed untreated by any reconstructive surgeon.image

The munitions factories of World War I were first to bring these rhythms back to the home front. Today we have rolling news.

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The beat is also there in David Bomberg’s study for Sappers at Work: a Canadian Tunnelling Company and, again, in work by Heinrich Hoerle.

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His Three Invalids shows three soldiers from the first mechanised war, rendered even more machine-like by their prosthetic limbs.

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The latter was painted in 1930 and The Sensory War is strong on the lives of the wounded and the disabled who return from conflict. No media gloss can make disability look like a picnic. Art at least can render a small compassionate service.

Nina Berman is a documentary photographer who in 2006 was asked by a very glossy magazine to shoot a wedding portrait of a Marine and his young bride.

But results were not what the publication had in mind, since the uniformed serviceman was disfigured beyond all recognition. The smell of fear comes off this photo even before you learn that this marriage did not end well.

There is more horror nearby, however, with the drawings known collectively as Hibakusha, by the victims of Hiroshima. It is their first showing in the UK.

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When an untrained artist struggles to depict a horror which most of us would struggle to imagine, it makes for very awkward viewing indeed. There is something venerable and sacred about these little seen works. They will get you closer than you ever want to be to the realities of nuclear war.

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The are four films in the exhibition.

We hear from more witnesses in Dinh Q Lê’s three-channel video piece about the war in Vietnam involves interviewing elderly vietnamese – the children of agricultural workers who were forced to face up to airborne attack by USAF helicopters – who survived the American occupation of Vietnam and who talk about the helicopters as weapons of terror, visually the filmmaker compares them to a vietnamese folk song about dragon flies which was interesting to me as I’ve designed a screen print a year ago with American drones and mosquitos. The archive footage, of napalm bombing and strafing machine gun fire in the immersive environment of a screening room, is possibly the most visceral aspect of this visceral show.

In one dark space was a loop of film from the 1920s showing a victim of shell shock in an asylum whose mind was trapped in the act of falling down shot and trying to get up off the floor, it reminded me of Benedict Cumberbach’s opening scenes in the theatre production of Frankenstein. Really unsettling. The man was stuck in his own horrific mental loop.

The film work in this show is strong, with two more darkened spaces given over to work by Omer Fast and Katie Davies.

The first is by Omer Fast who I met a couple of weeks ago in Cardiff, it’s a surreal documentary about a drone attack on US soil – what if the US was occupied and what if drone attacks were used to terrorise the people of the US? Interviews were included with former US drone pilots who bombed Afghanistan from a computer screen in a Las Vegas bunker.

Katie Davies’ film set in Wootton Basset waiting for the arrival of a military hearse, sensitively shot images of human faces in the crowd, no “BBC voice over” telling you what to think, very still and saddening. When I watched those images on TV I could see how they are edited and manipulated to install what Nietzsche calls “collective morality”, but this film concentrated on people’s faces as they waited to show their respects.

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Omer Fast – 5,000 Feet Is The Best, 2011.

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Omer Fast – 5,000 Feet Is The Best, 2011.

You wonder if at one time the paintings of embedded war artists Nevinson, Tonks and Nash would themselves have packed the audiovisual punch of these recent pieces of video art. It is interesting that all three films deal with conflict at one remove. Embedded video art would surely be too much, too sensory?

But this show was a must-see, it insists that you do-not-avert-your-gaze.

Bosnian women gang raped

Bosnian women gang raped

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German Nazi nurses wash down the dying Jews in Belsen to prevent typhus

 

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Bio-warfare suit, mixed media painted over leaflets that explain how the user may defecate whilst wearing the suit. There is a look of terror behind the gas mask.

 

Bio-warfare suit, mixed media painted over leaflets that explain how the user may defecate whilst wearing the suit

Bio-warfare suit, mixed media painted over leaflets that explain how the user may defecate whilst wearing the suit

 

 

 

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