Art

The Unsettling Urge to Find Beauty Amid War

At Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School, a show of four artists explores how our memories of a place can shift radically after war.

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Richard Mosse, “Space Wagon Mosul” (2009) (all images courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery)

KINDERHOOK, NY — A Change of Place at Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School is a show of four artists exploring how our memories of a place can shift radically after war. Works by Richard Mosse and Hayv Kahraman in particular go some way in helping us probe how far art can influence the ways in which we remember and experience the past as a place that carries the physical and emotional scars of war.

The thought that war can be portrayed as something quite alluring, as an art form, might appear unsettling at first. It could undermine how tragic war actually is, how awful it is that such violence can cause so much death and destruction. Don McCullin, a veteran war photographer who has captured human suffering for decades, argues that photography today has been hijacked by the art world. “Because I photograph people in peril … I find it very difficult to get my head around the art narrative of photography,” he told the Guardian in an interview last year. 

The truth is, although I agree with him, I am constantly torn between the urge to find something beautiful in a place that has been ravaged by war and how unsettling it is to feel that way, because of the unspeakable horrors of war. But it’s not so unusual to discern a glimmer of beauty in war photography, even in the dark and lonely works of Don McCullin. This impulse, to capture something other than doom and gloom seems quite common among younger photographers who are experiencing the remnants of war through their digital cameras and iPhones.

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Installation view of ‘A Change of Place’ at Jack Shainman Gallery: The School

I have had the fortune of being able to leave countries just before war broke out: Ethiopia in the 1980s, Kuwait in the 1990s, and, more recently, Somalia in 2014. This has obscured how I remember all of those places. It has given me a strong desire to coddle the past, ignoring a country’s present ugliness, as though it were still an unforgettably beautiful place. I guess that’s the only way of sanctifying somewhere you have had to leave behind, abruptly — a place you may never see again.

When I first saw A Change of Place, I was fixated on two large photographs by Richard Mosse. I thought of Somalia, where I had worked for six months on a military base at Mogadishu International Airport, and recognized the images of a derelict palace and car riddled with bullet holes. “Foyer at Uday’s Palace” (2009) shows American soldiers camping out by an empty pool, now a wreckage of one of Saddam Hussein’s 84 palaces throughout Iraq. In “Space Wagon Mosul” (2009) the mangled yellow car appears to be in a desert storm in the middle of nowhere. Scenes of pure destruction now stare out at us like monuments, looking quite majestic.

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Richard Mosse, “Foyer at Uday’s Palace” (2009)

Memory is a strange thing, especially when it’s been disrupted by war. Hayv Kahraman’s ethereal portraiture toes the line between fact and fiction, as it tells a distorted tale of her harrowing journey from Iraq to the US in the early 1990s. Beneath the elegance of her paintings, which are adorned with impeccably pale, voluptuous nudes, there’s also the horror of punctured and dismembered body parts, as in “Iraqi Kit” from 2016. In the Shield series, from the same year, the pierced foam torso of a pale female mounted on canvas serves an acoustic function: It absorbs the foreboding sound of sirens that echoes through tiny speakers from one corner of the room. You can sense that memories of war and flight come flooding back for Kahraman, and that they help her come to terms with how abruptly she fled Iraq as a child. As she told me, her work “becomes a way to negotiate that trauma, to question it and to survive it.”

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Installation view of ‘A Change of Place’ at Jack Shainman Gallery: The School

Then there are those who move into uncharted territory, their gaze more inclined to be blurred and distant when documenting war. Back in 2014, Peter Alexander Albrecht and Thorodd Ommundsen, both aid workers from Denmark and Norway respectively, portrayed Somalia as though it were a fleeting haze. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that neither of them had ever lived there before. Ommundsen’s shots of life among locals in and around the UN compound in Juba are curiously compelling: They delve into people’s lives and homes, as though there was no strife or gunfire in sight, which of course there was. When I asked Ommundsen why beauty was such an important feature in his work, he responded, “beauty is fundamentally linked to dignity.” In other words, he sees his approach to beauty as one that humanizes the places and people he comes across. However, he also said he was against photos that perpetuate “false realities and narratives which can be damaging.” I then wondered whether his subjects had truly remained calm and composed amidst ongoing gunfire in Juba last summer. My sense is that his works, which portray Juba as serene and noble, only give us the partial truth of what war does to people living in its midst.

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Thorodd Ommundsen, “Untitled” (2016) (image courtesy the artist)

Albrecht, on the other hand, openly distorts his gaze from an even longer distance. In his eyes, “beauty is in everything,” in all that can be seen and captured as an image. Unfettered by what others may think of his work, Albrecht has taken some very bold and lyrical shots of desolate airports in Mogadishu and Garowe, which have borne the brunt of deadly attacks by Al-Shabaab. These could almost be abstract paintings with a granular surface, which can be attributed to the effects of the iPhone he uses to capture such scenes of wreckage. Drenched in plenty of light and color, his imagery is often solitary, with lone benches and tanks in the distance. There’s a sense in which Albrecht’s works could appeal to each and every one of us: the sad, the lonely, and those who may feel lost. Although beauty means everything to him, he explores its role in conflict from a place of deliberate oblivion — so much so, that we wouldn’t even know that this could be Somalia.

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Peter Alexander Albrecht, “The Welcome Podium” (2014) (image courtesy the artist)

It’s almost impossible to articulate the pain of losing a place left behind, in disarray. In the end, all we’re left with are the memories and images of what remains, both of which can be deeply subjective. The way I see it, the “beauty” captured in some of the art shown here is not purely aesthetic. It also offers an opportunity, as in Kahraman’s work, for us to reflect on violence in ways that perhaps television and the news may not. In A Change of Place, there are images that really push me to want to uncover the past of places we may have lost, instead of making me look the other way.

A Change of Place continues at Jack Shainman Gallery: The School (25 Broad St, Kinderhook, New York) through October 29.

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