Caught in the Crossfire, Herbert Gallery, Coventry

‘Caught in the Crossfire’ is the new thought-provoking exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry on show from January 25 to July 7, 2013.

The exhibition challenges both artists in their need to grasp the brutality of war and audiences who deliberate war and peace by taking them on a story-tour  of war from war-torn Iraq, the partition of India, World Wars to a final and lasting reminder of how to gain peace; providing you walk around the exhibit the right way that is.

With the clichéd political sound of Linkin Park’s 2010 ‘A Thousand Suns’ drumming loud and deep into my eardrums, I took in the wide variety of art work produced by Banksy, Iftikhar Dadi, kennardphillipps, Rosie Kay Dance Company and Matthew Picton, just to name a few. But it seems hard to be impressed and in awe and wonder of ‘War Art’ when it seemingly doesn’t affect anything.

Yes ‘Caught in the Crossfire’ is bound to get audiences deliberating the effects of war and pondering how they can put an end to it by printing their ideas on a place card at the end of the display, but it’s hard to comprehend how the glittery canvas of Iftikhar Dadi’s ‘Bloodlines’ (1997) can evoke any emotional response other than disdain when the topic at hand is brutal war, death and horrific politics. The piece was created by Pakistani artist Iftikhar Dadi incollaboration with Indian artist Nalini Malani, to mark the 50th anniversary of the partition of India. Granted the simplicity of colours in Dadi’s work; gold, crimson and blue are striking, mapping the Radcliffe lines which defined the 1947 borders of Pakistan, and the separation of gathered canvas’ portray the story of the collection; but it would seem the hand stitched sequins on the canvas’ only glorify war and division.

Project Officer for the Herbert’s Peace and Reconciliation Gallery, Natalie Heidaripour, was positive about the Dadi piece, saying that India’s partition is an important part of British History; “Although specifically referring to the partition of India the work also has a much wider resonance, exploring the human impact of colonialism, civil conflict and division.”

As Linkin Park turned to the even more predictable 30 Seconds to Mars, the exhibit moved along to Banksy, who of course makes an appearance with his remarkable graffiti images, and then onto kennardphillipps, which is a collaboration that’s been at work since 2002, initially in response to the Iraq invasion in 2003, between Peter Kennard and Cat Picton Phillipps. What kennardphillipps has on offer is an array of political photo op’s; one being Tony Blair stood in front of smoke and fire with a camera phone, smiling and taking a picture of his handiwork. Thought-provoking enough but it’s just another photo merger of what everyone already thought; nothing new to see here.

But I guess art gives people the opportunity for free speech without having to directly converse with politicians and says what everyone is thinking when they are too frightened to speak up.

Through the maze of display walls is a small dark room with a video on loop. Rosie Kay’s Dance Company produced ‘5 Soldiers’ in 2010; “a timely, controversial, thought-provoking and moving exploration of war in modern times” said the company’s website. The video depicts 5 soldiers, 4 male and 1 female, and attempts to show how war affects the body; “it looks at how the human body is essential to, and used in, warfare.” What impressed me about this piece was the dedication to produce it; Rosie Kay joined the 4th Battalion ‘The Rifles’ on battle training and spent time working with injured soldiers at Headley Court Rehabilitation Centre.

What really caught my eye wasn’t Banksy, it wasn’t Simon Norfolk’s “Israeli Sniper Wall, Part of Israeli / Palestine: Mnemosyne Series; 2007, it was Matthew Picton’s ‘Coventry 1940’. Commissioned by the Henry Moore Foundation, it is made of semi-burnt strips of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, composed for the consecration of the new cathedral in 1962, which becomes a circular map of Coventry and symbolises the devastation left by the war. The burnt paper portrays the burning buildings, whilst the dark burn holes denote the bombings in the centre of the city.

‘Coventry 1940’ was commissioned to appear next Picton’s ‘Dresden 1945’, a German city which shared the same fate as Coventry, and as such became twinned with the City in 1959. ‘Dresden 1945’ is sculpted like that of ‘Coventry 1940’ but uses burnt scores of Richard Wagner’s ‘The Ring’. The sculptures can’t be defined by the usual artist gabble that ‘the intricate detail of the burnt score adds to the effect that life is so fragile and war ruins that fragile life.’ The simple fact is that the sculpture is so intricate with the unpretentious use of a score that relates to war history, that you can’t help but gawp at the detail that went into the sculptures. They completely and utterly deserved to be a part of the exhibit.

The audience travels around from the destruction and devastation war causes, and towards the end finds themselves among art that portrays hope; “Iraq is Flying” 2006-9, a piece by Jamal Penjweny that shows soldiers and civilians jumping (for joy) in front of war-torn places. A woman jumps in front of tanks, for instance. But now that you’ve had a lesson in war history and artistic politics, you are then asked to get interactive and ‘add your instructions for Peace’ on a place card and attach it to the wall for all to see. Someone wrote “War keeps people employed” whilst another said, and quite true, “without war this art wouldn’t exist.”

But we need to stop fancifying war as fluffy, cuddly toy guns (as one part of the exhibition had on display; cushioned gun models and harsh heavy metal models), and depicting it with flowers and dancing soldiers. We need to face facts that war is war; gruesome, deadly and horrific, deal with it and change it, just not with art. Art doesn’t change anything, it just ‘Disneyfies’ and glorifies it for a means to an end. Journalists would be writing fluff stories if it wasn’t for war, politics, hatred, conflict and injustice. War provides jobs. War provides historical lessons that need to be learnt but not forgotten.

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