LONDON — The documentary Restrepo (2010) opens with a dramatic shot of a helicopter whirring through the craggy brown peaks, green fields, and deep valleys of Afghanistan. The American soldiers in the gut of the aircraft, freshly deployed to do their bit for Operation Enduring Freedom, look out anxiously at the implacable landscape, waiting to catch sight of their new home. “I was like, holy shit,” one recalls later. “We’re not ready for this.” For the soldiers, the landscape is cruel, alien, and full of latent threat. For the Afghans, the land is home. These groups — occupiers and occupied — frequently provide the lens through which distant people attempt to comprehend the horrors of war.
In The Mountains of Majeed — a new exhibition of photography, painting, and poetry at Flowers Gallery in Shoreditch — British photographer Edmund Clark provides an alternative view: that of the 40,000 independent contractors assigned to Bagram Airfield, the largest US military base in Afghanistan. Throughout Operation Enduring Freedom (by most accounts a ludicrously expensive failure, from which the US is only now, glacially, extracting itself), the contractors barely left base. Their mental picture of Afghanistan is composed solely of stolen glimpses through razor wire and pictorial representations hanging on the walls of their enclosure. Clark’s genius is to allow the viewer to comprehend the brutality of war through its least violent (and positively tedious) setting.
At the entrance of Mountains, the visitor is greeted by goading words from Afghan poet Dardmand. Under the title “Afghanistan is the Home of Afghans,” Dardmand lists Afghan victories and victors, heroic events and figures enshrined in the country’s collective memory. “These mountains are ours and we belong to these mounts,” he writes. Eagles and lions and fierce warriors are the land’s rightful inhabitants. The feral content and epic mode contrast harshly with the focus of this exhibition: a claustrophobia-inducing room of monumental photographs taken inside Bagram.
Clark’s glossy images are all straight lines and regimented structures; bright linear landscapes neatly framed. This is a world of grey walls and yellow AC units; phone cords, concrete slabs, and American flags. In each photograph, mountains peer in — sharp-edged or fading off — at the margins of the frame. The Afghan landscape may be peripheral, but it’s disconcertingly echoed by manmade geography. Pale imitations of the distant peaks materialize in each image: contoured mounds of dirt and trash; saccharine murals; the dusty canvas of a tent barracks. In his notes, Clark describes Bagram as “an accidental oasis of high-grade technology and low-grade living,” a contained world boasting “prairies of rough gravel and concrete served by tarmac tributaries.”
Look closer and the monotonous synthetic landscapes contain odd details: in “3,” a photo of a brilliant green mural of (presumably) Afghan countryside metastasizes across a nondescript office wall. In one corner of the painting, a young girl leads a train of camels out of the frame. Her head twists to defiantly glance at the viewer full on, delivering a shock of recognition — she is the Afghan Girl, down to the green eyes, red scarf, and unflinching gaze. The mural is not a depiction of local rural life, but a fantasy of Afghanistan in the generalizing Orientalist mode; the girl is not a particular Afghan girl but all Afghan girls.
No real humans invade Clark’s perfect pictures; the lone live figure to appear is surrounded by dogs, his face obscured by the shadow cast by a peaked cap. Bagram is a vacuum: a paean to desolate order and disconnect. The pictures are unnerving in their stillness: brightly lit, perfectly composed, high definition. Frozen with clarity, the foreground leaps off the wall. The photos look almost staged. At the center of the gallery, a vertiginous column of razor wire rises from the floor, casting a trembling shadow-matrix across the wooden boards. Walk through the exhibition and the shuddering spikes will intercept your gaze, the metal vortex’s forceful gyre unifying the static images.
To one side, picture postcards are displayed as if for a casual tourist to pick up: splotchy vistas of the Afghan countryside arranged on shelves. While embedded in Bagram, Clark came across a handful of paintings signed only with the name Majeed: romantic snow-flecked peaks, turquoise lakes, thatched huts. Were the paintings cynically designed to appeal to foreign souvenir-hunters, or expressive of a genuine personal yearning — an evocation of a land now divided by war? Clark’s postcards rework Majeed’s vision, shrinking the monumental landscapes to commodifiable trinkets; a suggestion — accurate or otherwise, performative or impassioned — of an Afghanistan the contractors will never otherwise see.
In Mountains, both the wild vistas of Majeed and the straightjacketed order of Bagram are evocations, oddly, of a certain, idealized concept of home — Enduring Freedom refracted through different lenses. A poem by Khepulwaak in the accompanying exhibition booklet gestures to the gap between worlds. “At your Christmas, Bagram is alit and bright,” he writes. “On my Eid even the rays of the sun are dead.” And yet, despite the radiance of the Bagram photos, no visitor to Mountains would come away with the impression that the base is truly alive. Boredom and fear invade the lives of both occupier and occupied; mutual incomprehension reigns.
In all its neatness and containment, Mountains is oddly violent; the stillness of the images, destabilized by the quaint splashes of the postcards and the noble flourishes of the poems, lend a sense of destructive isolation to the alien, hollow in the mountains. At the center of Operation Enduring Freedom lies security and pain: a shivering, self-perpetuating pillar of razor wire. “Screams are heard from each valley, from each peak,” reads another poem. But in Bagram, dust settles in the quiet.
The Mountains of Majeed continues at Flowers Gallery (82 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP) through April 4.