The architecture of war is more accurately the ruins it leaves behind, but there are structures to this destruction. An exhibition at the partially reopened Imperial War Museum in London is looking at both the rubble and the building of war.
Architecture of War opened at the end of last month and is the first of the museum’s new contemporary art programming, part of its redesign leading up to its total reopening next year for the centennial of the beginning of World War I. The art on display stretches throughout the century since WWI, from Muirhead Bone’s haunting sketch of the fragments of “Foucaucourt Church, May 17,” to Keith Vaughan’s “Echo of the Bombardment” from 1942 where curious distorted shapes lunge from a building’s hollow shell like the subversion of life, to Paul Seawright’s photographs of the vacant Taliban barracks in Afghanistan.
It’s perhaps impossible to discuss this exhibition without looking at the architecture of the imposingly named Imperial War Museum itself. While its exhibitions on British military history are sleek and technologically intricate, it is housed in the former Bethlem Royal Hospital hospital for the mentally ill, better known as the notorious Bedlam. Now instead of patients processing under its stern columns to the deplorable mental health treatments that ranked well below humane, there is the ominous double barrel of 52-foot-long naval guns. While this old hospital is not technically an architecture of warfare, the museum can’t be unlinked from its past, just as any building that has seen the trauma of history’s violence cannot evade the scars even when rebuilt or bricked over.
Yet the Imperial War Museum with its five branches including the London South Bank location, not all housed in haunted former asylums, has its mission as “the study and understanding of the history of modern war and ‘wartime experience’.” And part of this is its massive art collection with around 20,000 pieces in all, an astounding amount for any institution, let alone a war museum. What makes much of this art interesting is not just in its reaction, documentation, and interpretation of war, but that the artists who created it were often employed by the governments that were waging the battles. And while in the collection there are those glorious images of noble fighting, there is just as much of a sense of the brutality and mutilation of people and places that can barely be comprehended, let along captured.
Another aspect of the museum’s new contemporary art programming is featuring single artists who respond to war, with the first being Omer Fast and his film 5,000 Feet is the Best on a drone operator and the disorientation of place, as well as the truth and fiction.
However, while Fast’s film centers on people, Architecture of War is not. It’s on the mangled structures, or those than staggered up in preparation for the clash of war to come. It may be unintentional, but the choice of subject really emphasizes the dehumanizing nature of war, where since World War I with its assault of tanks and barbed wire and air attacks and mass-produced weapons and trenches, it seems like the battle is often between machines and landscape with the people crushed beneath.
Architecture of War is at the Imperial War Museum (Lambeth Rd, London) through May 5, 2014.
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