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Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern

Images of war and conflict invade us more than ever before. The constant presence of them in photographs and videos, on television, in press, on the internet, is both an eye-opener to the horrors of wars far away from us yet strangely desensitizing when we become “accustomed” to them. 2014 has been rife with these images while museums have been concerned with a similar topic: the centenary of the beginning of World War I, which has launched a certain number of commemorative exhibitions documenting these first raw depictions of war in photography and painting.

In this context, I was not certain how to approach Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern before my visit: would this be a commemorative exhibition or an exploration of the way in which war photography has evolved in time? Would this be a display centred around photoreporters or artist’s interpretation of conflict? Time Conflict Photography was effectively made to coincide with the centenary, yet has chosen to focus on a wider scope of conflict spanning many time periods. Yet in a uniquely creative twist, these records of conflicts are not shown in their chronological order but in the order of time that followed the photographing of each conflict: moments later, days, weeks, months, several years later. As the curator of the exhibition Simon Baker elaborates, “We wanted to think about the way photographers have photographed moments of conflict after they have happened, thinking about their long-term effects.” Thus, even though a photograph of the atomic ‘mushroom’ over Hiroshima is shown in “moments later” by Toshio Fukata, further photographs of the ravaged city and its inhabitants will only appear several rooms later in “months later” or “years later”. It mirrors however Luc Delahaye’s much more recent photograph US Bombing on Taliban Positions in 2001, its peaceful depiction of a field with the dissipating cloud in the distance only making it more horrifying and ominous in its understatement.

Landscapes and buildings are the main protagonists of this series of photographs, whether this is moments or months and years later. The only survivors that will be able to last through time and serve as commemorative parts of the landscape in itself? Or the fact that the immediate human experience is too difficult to capture in film both physically and emotionally? Regardless, this only makes the appearence of portraits all the more poignant, like Shell-shocked Marine, Vietnam, Hue, taken in 1968 by Dan McCullin, a reporter, only moments after this soldier returned from the battlefield, showing the raw tramatic toll of war in a way that would be almost impossible now, due to the increasing alienation and sanitization of relations between war correspondants and the army.

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Don McCullin Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968, printed 2013 © Don McCullin

Strangely therefore, in this exhibition, death and suffering is alluded to but very rarely shown – the only elements that we are allowed to see are those that have survived the initial blow to be recorded. Yet this is purposefully the point of the exhibition: memory, its persistence and the fact that despite the disappearance of bodies, either immediately or in time, they are still inscribed within landscapes and objects. Sophie Ristelhuber’s immense desertic series of landscapes, Fait riddled with memories and objects of the Gulf War, lull us into aesthetic and almost abstract compositions to show us how nature has “absorbed” conflict but never forgotten it, in a way alike to our own process of memory and remembrance. In the ‘days, weeks, months later’ section, Simon Norfolk embarks on a similar process: using the romanticized idea of the “ruin”, he uses it to document the destruction of sites in Kabul in 2003, such as in this photograph below, taken in the Karte Char district of Kabul, in the aftermath of the conflict between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then Rabbani and Hazaras.

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Simon Norfolk Bullet-scarred apartment building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul. This area saw fighting between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then between Rabbani and the Hazaras 2003 © Simon Norfolk

In a different perspective, the photographs are often nondescript without further context on their history and meaning. Thus, Diana Matar’s series of seemingly uneventful and unharmed buildings means nothing without her captions integrated to the mosaic of works on display – in which she describes how these were revealed as torture dungeons following Ghaddafi, in 2012. In the same perspective, Chloé Dewe-Mathews’s series Shot at Dawn, in “years later”, shows peaceful landscapes in the north of France that retain no more memories of their past use – as spaces where deserters were shot. All that remains of them and their memory are these landscapes and their titles composed of their names.

SHOT AT DAWN
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 17:00 / 15.12.1914 © Chloe Dewe Mathews

Other photographs take us back to an experience of bodies and objects that undermines the full horror of a war that can take its toll through the dead, but also through its survivors – such as those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki subject to radiation. How to represent what cannot be represented without an overwhelming feeling of horror? Kenji Ishiguro, with Hiroshima Now, shows the full frontal reality and brutality of war on surviving bodies, while Shomei Tomatsu participates in the record of objects and their ongoing, horrific reality in Hiroshima-Nagasaki document published in 1961. Hiromi Tsuchida’s photography of surviving objects coupled with quotes from the relatives and friends of the lost owners is probably the set of photographs that is hardest to watch, in its brutal and unforgiving honesty.

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Shomei Tomatsu Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Until now the scenography has been very sober, understated, white walls and sufficient space between the works as though to reinforce this passage of time. Sometimes an entire wall is dedicated only to one work, and allows us ample time to walk next to it, contemplate, before going on to the next set of photographs. This creates a slow, meditative pace that is quite soothing: despite the large amount of people, there was never a sense of feeling crammed into a space or crowding around to see a work. It felt appropriately timeless while showing us works recording a very precise time and place.

This setting abruptly changes as we enter a room labeled as the Archive of Modern Conflict, by the eponymous group that curated it. This somewhat elusive group houses an archive of photographs and artifacts related to wartime that publishes books based around this content, or curate exhibitions. Here, a central space was devoted to them, as “guest-curators”, interrupting the ongoing display. Contrasted with the main exhibition, this was a wartime cabinet of curiosities, with photographs collaged onto the wall like archival wallpaper, paraphernalia and trinkets in antiquated glass cabinets. This interruption was a surprise, and although it was interesting and fascinating in its own right, obviously jarring in the context of the exhibition’s usual sobriety and neatness. If I had been aware of this room beforehand, I would probably have visited it after the main exhibition, in order to view in a different mindset. Then again, it was a welcome change to the pristine nature of the main display.

Conflict Time Photography created an intense yet subtle exploration of memory, time and war without veering into pathos or preaching. It is not to be visited lighly, in a casual or hurried mindset. It is harrowing, poignant and often unbearable in a way that we have often learnt to forget in order to protect ourselves from the violence. This is as much an exhibition about conflict than the way we deal with conflict, grief and remembrance, in all its ambiguous and complex undertones.

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The EY Exhibition: Paul Klee – Making Visible at the Tate Modern

Klee encompasses all that we expect of the modern artist. Starting his career at the turn of the century, caught between one war and the foreshadowing of another, the exploration of form mingled with ideology and political tension, the research for the transcendance of colour beyond personal struggles. All too often however, despite Klee’s formal detachment from his time and perseverance to depict despite his inner demons rather than constantly mirror them in his work, this seems to be what we focus upon.

We remember the artist struggling with a degenerative disease destroying his body. We remember the member of the Blaue Reiter, the case study of the artist facing the rise of antisemitism and seeing his work dubbed as degenerate art by a party he was forcibly opposed to and that he escaped from at the earliest opportunity. But do we often have a sense of the artist as a methodic, modernist researcher of form and colour? Of the artist as art teacher at the Bauhaus period? The exhibition at the Tate does not want to leave anything out concerning this artististic and technical process and through this retrospective attempts to conciliate several aspects of Paul Klee; Klee as the witness of war with Klee the teacher, Klee the  tragic artist with Klee the meticulous promoter of his own work through carefully curated exhibitions and precise documentation and cataloguing. With a  desire to trace throughout Klee’s entire career, the exhibition let us follow into the footsteps that led him into aspects of cubism and abstraction, leading us through several periods of his life that have all to a certain degree influenced his works and his perception of the world. A timeline retraces his life at the beginning of the exhibition and, as per usual, a small explanatory text introduces each new section. The exhibition is chronological, and the works as such do not enter within distinct categories of genre or medium. Each room represented one or two years of his career, from the beginning to his unfortunate, early end.

Watercolours are juxtaposed next to oil transfers and larger paintings, both lavish and self-contained.

They're Biting 1920 by Paul Klee 1879-1940
They’re Biting, 1920, watercolour and oil (Image source: Tate.co.uk)

His abstract works happily cohabitate with his dreamlike, humorous and almost surrealist scenes of fish and fishermen and fantastical creatures that belong to his own personal, secret narratives, showing either inner peace through the fish flitting through planes of colour, or turmoil as distorted figures of witches create jarring and mesmerising  thick lines and jagged dancing whirls upon the canvas, in the last years of his life.

Fish-Magic,1925
Fish-Magic,1925 (Image source: paulklee.net)
Forest Witches, 1938, oil on paper
Forest Witches, 1938, oil on paper (Image source: Wikimedia).

They contrast with the vibrant colours of a serene still life with flowers, the last work he ever sent out to the exhibition he was unable to curate due to his illness, shortly before his death.

The evolution and technical process appears clearly as the exhibition evolves, and letting the work speak for themselves is complemented by clear explanations concerning the techniques that Klee elaborated – such as his oil transfers or his gradient stripes of colour creating a tonal shift that allows him to explore colour theory in his work as well as teach it. In fact, these were my favourite parts of the exhibitions…and I would have preferred to see more of the same.  I also discovered aspects of his work I was unaware of before (such as his experimentations with pointillism).

Seaside Resort in the South of France, 1927
Seaside Resort in the South of France, 1927 (Image source: Tate.co.uk)
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Adventures of a Young Lady, 1922 (Image source: Tate.co.uk)

Most of the explanatory text was concerned with delivering quotes about other people concerning Klee and his attitude towards his own art…yet seldom were by him about his own work, aside from those key quotes that always make it in large letters on the wall. All in all, the main focus seemed to be on Klee’s time as a teacher and the way that this influenced his work – this was at least the theme dedicated to the largest rooms.

Something that does tend to happen with exhibitions featuring small works, and works on paper, is the tendency to cram them together in a smaller space. When managed successfully this could pass off as “intimate”. When visitors have to shuffle past each work or crowd around to see it, intimacy as an accurate term is akin to describing the Central Line during rush hour as “cosy”. But this was certainly not the case. The rooms are large and spacious, leaving sufficient space for the small, luminous works to breathe…and for the visitors to breathe as well. No-one was struggling for space to see the works…although it could also be argued that the white space surrounding the works could sometimes menacingly  dwarf the works that they are meant to showcase.

Most of the time, the works could be approached and appreciated up close…apart from several roped-off works that triggered an obnoxious alarm every time you approached them too closely.Other than that – the works were presented beautifully, in an airy space that remained thankfully devoid of too much cluttering or colour, letting the works speak for themselves. Grasping the transparent luminescence of one of his watercolours, the fine ink lines of his spontaneous yet delicate drawings is a pleasure that the eye washes upon without effort, the intensity of the shapes and tones he pieces together always an eternal source of inspiration. The works shone through the display and lighting.

There is a slight discrepancy between the notion of artist process and progress and the fact that ultimately, these are all finished works. I was expecting more drafts, more first versions, scrapped versions and tentative splashes to test the numerous colour schemes. Having solely finished work to accompany an exhibition concerning the research and creativity of an artist can fall slightly short…but the flawless presentation of the works and their immense diversity makes up for this. In the same way, I would have liked to see more documentation about his life, Klee as the cultured violinist we are told about in the beginning of the exhibition…before this fact is cast aside and not really brought up throughout the rest of the exhibition.

However, the bewildered question of a visitor to one of the museum guards does sum up the main problem.“How many rooms are there?” 17 was the answer. And with a desire to cram everything into one exhibition while at the same time while not providing an overall clear focus or pathway…the exhibition does tend to drift off-course at certain times. I enjoy exhibitions that throw me upon a route, a journey, capturing my interest and making me leave an exhibition with a slightly different viewpoint on the artist than when I first entered. In a sense this did happen…but I feel as though I had to hang on tight for this to happen. What I certainly feel is that anyone without a certain knowledge of Klee before entering the exhibition might feel slightly lost. I feel as through a retrospective should be less concerned with finding all it can and more concerned with showcasing less and making us focus more upon the key points of his career. It could have been more tight-knit and although I loved the exhibition in itself albeit my criticism of it, I know that feelings around me were more than mixed, finding it either too monotonous or too busy…if not a mix of both. But maybe this is something that has less to do with the curating of the Klee exhibition and more to do with the format of retrospectives and their struggle of quantity and coherence versus quality.

Despite some problems in managing the general focus of the exhibition in my opinion, the formal qualities and transformations of Klee were beautifully handled and displayed. Yes, there were a few shortcomings. But did the exhibition make the complexity and diversity of Klee’s experimentation in colour and medium visible? It certainly did.

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Fire in the Evening 1929 (© 2013 Digital Image, the Museum of Modern Art, New York/ Scala. Florence. Image source: Tate.co.uk).