Exhibition: Conflict, Time, Photography – Tate Modern, London. Scarred Skins and Scarred Lands: Violence and the Photographic Lapse

This exhibition holds the viewer by way of its curation. The works, all concerning various conflicts – from the American civil war, to Vietnam and the Gulf – are threaded together along a strict linear timeline. Most interestingly though, the form of time is non-historical. It showcases works created between 1850 and the present, but it does not arrange them in order from 1850 to the present. Instead, ‘time’ refers to what may be called photographic lapse: the time which has passed between the moment of the conflict in question – whenever that may be – and the moment when the shutter release was pressed and the film exposed; the moment of documentation. From ‘seconds later’ – a gallery of shots taken of the mushroom cloud towering above Hiroshima – to months and years, the feeling is of a gradual transition along a continuum from one talent of photography to another; from photograph as action captivated or ‘snapped’, to photograph as a more static article of evidence.

If we are to talk of photography in a journalistic or political sense, then it is often the idea of the witness that is employed to justify the ethical worth of the practice. The photographer, increasingly embedded in conflict – acting, and, with often tragic consequences, being targeted as a combatant of sorts; their camera their weapon – sees his or her role as the communicator of violence to domestic publics, such that they cannot ignore it and are forced into political mobilisation. This ideal has, of course, been proven again and again to be sadly imperfect, and conditions such as ‘compassion fatigue’ – a phrase originating in the medical care profession – are frequently used to explain our failure to act. This, however, is an overly simplistic critique – David Campbell even refers to it as a ‘myth’. It cites the passing of time as sole factor in our degrading emotional attachment to global causes, when in fact time must always be weaved into a myriad network of geographies and technologies.

This exhibition consciously takes the photographic time-lapse as its anchor, and leaves both historical time and geography to be thrown about by it, skipping from one photo to the next between deserts and cities; the American mid-west and the Middle East; 19th and 21st century warfare. The strange mosaic brings together certain unexpected patterns and reactions. For example, it becomes clearly apparent that, in this heavily mediatised world – in which war in particular can only be viewed by western publics through the prism of the press – it is not historical time but photographic lapse which tends to shape our emotional process. Thus, most members of my family felt more affected by the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, taken in 1945, or Don Mcullin’s portrait of an American soldier’s shellshocked gaze immediately following the battle of Hue in Vietnam in 1968, than by Sophie Ristelhueber’s images of the potholed Afghan and Iraqi landscapes by U.S. bombs during the 1990s.

Toshio Fukada. The Mushroom Cloud – Less than Twenty Minutes after the Explosion (4). 1945.

Don McCullin. Shell Shocked US Marine, The Battle of Hue, 1968.

Sophie Ristelhueber. Fait #9. 1992.

This suggests that, as we look at the photograph, we enter its time, and therefore it matters whether the victims portrayed have, in this moment – not our moment, but the moment of exposure – escaped or been evacuated. The image of the American soldier in Vietnam is powerful because he remains, as far as we can tell, a victim held in the horror of battle. For Hiroshima, we enter into those atomic clouds, and position ourselves as victims obscured but present. Conversely, the craters left by bombs in fields leave it ambiguous as to if there is any perpetrator here, and therefore if there is any victim. It is rare that a landscape with which we are familiar – one of our fields or cities – would remain long enough in such a damaged state to be photographed. It is either built anew, memorialised (think of ‘Ground Zero’), or else (if it remains untouched) we begin to think of it as natural, beautiful even, and both perpetrator and victim seem to vanish. The blotches appear with a mystic quality: like something from another world, crop circles perhaps. What they do not appear to be is, precisely, violent.

While Ristelhueber’s landscapes are, alone, troubling, this is exactly their point. She draws attention first to the way in which we habitually view these sorts of markings, and then she disturbs the non-violence with the insertion of works that depict markings much more familiar to us – the undeniable violence of human scarring. Throughout the exhibition in fact, Ristelhueber’s work interacts with that of others. In particular, Shomei Tomatsu’s images of the scarring incurred by the Nagasaki bomb suddenly awaken one to the fact that, when human skin is concerned, violence almost always leaves its mark – an indelible mark in spite of time, and a mark that exerts great power on those who view it.

Sophie Ristelhueber. Fait #17. 1992

Shomei Tomatsu. Skin of the Nation. 1962.

The point of Ristelhueber’s work, only clearly visible when we look at her whole portfolio, is thus for me to point to the way in which these two phenomena – marks of violence on the landscape and marks of violence on the body – are not currently, but must in time be, regarded as similar. To see them both as ‘scars’ (as Ristelhueber refers to them) is vitally important particularly given contemporary warfare’s tendency to obliterate bodies. While we must attempt to reinstate the identity of those killed, for example by drone strikes (as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is currently doing), there is an additional task: we must try to view landscapes – particularly rural ones – as sites which scar. This means especially resisting the temptation to naturalise the craters, the burnt-out buildings and the rubble as conditions or diseases belonging to the land (and its population) itself. Rather, it is necessary to ask, when we see these images of land, the same questions as if we came face to face with that victim of Nagasaki. Namely, what happened to you? Who or what did this to you? And why?

Sophie Ristelhueber. Fait #29. 1992.

Sophie Ristelhueber. Every One #14. 1994.

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