Duration And Conflict Explored In New Tate Photography Exhibition

It’s an ambitious show that seeks to refresh assumptions about a photographic genre whilst also bringing together works from 150 years worth of practice,derived from different artists of  different origin. ‘Conflict, time and Photography’ at the Tate achieves one of these aims, and almost the other.

The premise of this very large group show is the ‘post’ in relation to war photography, or what David Campany has defined as ‘Late ‘Photography’. In short, these are responses to the conflicts after they have occurred and not during, either focusing on the effects of the wars or the landscapes in which they took place.  The works are ordered according to how long after the event they were created from moments, days and weeks to decades later. Photographs taken seven months after the firebombing of Dresden are shown alongside those taken seven months after the end of the First Gulf War. for example. The conflicts after which the photographs are taken vary but the duration after doesn’t, within each specific room.  The conflicts thus become a universal fact of being and the act responding to them, documenting their wreckage, an almost eternal process.  


Blazing: Sophie Ristelhueber’s Gulf War oil fields in Fait, 1992 / Picture: Sophie Ristelhueber

Curatorially, it’s a novel idea that explores the notion of time as repository for memory, be it in trying to forget, or making sure to remember, both of which need to occur in order to make peace with the past.  This notion is eloquently signposted in the first room in which a large quote form Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ is emblazoned on the wall. Vonnegut suffered terrible trauma during the WW2’s coming to an end. If that book was Vonneguts’ way of exorcising his demons, it sadly didn’t quite work, and he struggled with the memory of war trauma for most of his life. The effort to forget, but also to remember without the fear, is a noble one, both this exhibition seems to suggest But this quote also highlights one of the show’s weaknesses. Throughout the exhibition there is a reluctance to distinguish between documentation of a past event through its physical traces, and the more conceptual, meditative works that seeks to exorcise, like Vonnegut, on both a personal and collective level. For example, there is a big difference between Michael Schmidt’s ‘Berlin Nacht 45’, in which the artist photographs the vacant sites, fallow land, and spaces between the modernist and drab buildings being slowly erected as part of Berlin’s post war reconstruction (in a once densely populated area) and Don Mccullin’s documentation of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Both are valuable, important bodies of work, but whereas Schmidt’s work meditates and mourns, McCullins’ remains journalistic in intent, still capturing an event, even if the event if part of a conflict’s aftermath.  


Ursula Schulz-Dornburg,Kurchatov – Architecture of a Nucleur Test SiteKazakhstan. Opytnoe Pole. 2012. courtesy of the artist’s studio. © Ursula Schultz-Domburg


Indeed, this disconnect occurs at several points during the show. Although there is no ‘pure’ war photography on display, the likes of which captures the horrors of war in an effort to raise awareness, there is still a majority of documentary work that rubs up uncomfortably against the more conceptual projects. The tones shift and dissonance ensues. Broomberg and Chanarin’s ‘People In Trouble Being Pushed to the Ground’ in which the artists use the dot stickers placed on photographs (from within an archive created to document the troubles in Northern Ireland) to crop the pictures of conflict into circular fragments, is both oblique and incisive, whereas the several sets of seminal Japanese works documenting the aftermath of Hiroshima, in particular Shomei Tomatsu’s ‘Nagasaki 11:02’ from 1961, or Kikuji Kawada’s ‘The Map’ (1965), are both angry and earnest, directly engaging with horror. These emotions conflict with each other.


Kikuji Kawada, The Japanese National Flag, Tokyo 1965 From the series The Map© Kikuji Kawada. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery and Photo Gallery International.

Which is not to say all the conceptual work doesn’t work. As the duration between conflict and work lengthens, so does the move towards more lateral modes of engagement. Hrair Sarkissian’s moving photographs of libraries, in which proof of the Ottoman genocide of Armenians may be hidden, complement the equally powerful work from Chloe Dewe Mathews‘ ‘Shot at Dawn’ series. Documenting, in moving and  intimate landscapes, the sites where soldiers were shot for cowardice by their own men during WW1, Dewe Matthews’ has created a elegiac and solemn testament to the evils of men. Other successful sideways glances include Nick Waplington photographs of Nazi doodles on cave walls in Wales, as well as Indre Serpytyte’s ‘(1944 – 1991) Former NKVD – MVD – MGB – KGB Buildings’


Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013; Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy, Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil, Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani, Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed; (the title refers to four soldiers that were killed at the site photographed) 17:00 / 15.12.1914 © Chloe Dewe Mathew

As far as the more straight photography goes, there is almost too much to mention, but Jo Ractliffe’s two projects exploring post-conflict landscapes in different parts of the African continent are particularly well done, as is Jerry Lewcynki’s ‘Wolf’s Lair’ series and An-My Le’s ‘Vietnam’ work.

There  is so much work to see here, too much, of too many different approaches and hues, that the fundamental message of trying to forget to remember gets lost amidst all the strategies and devices. A tighter selection with a more focussed sense of tone would have resulted in lending the experience more gravity. However, if the aim was to explore the notion of memory, regardless of some lost connections along the way, and invite the public to reconsider the nature War Photography in general, as something that is as important after as iti during, then this exhibition can be considered a great success.

Words: Kerim Aytac Top Photo credit: Shomei Tomatsu: Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Conflict, Time, Photography is at Tate Modern, London SE1 until 15 March 2015

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