The language of crisis is duplicitous: while it implies ‘crisis points’ – flashes of intensity and violence which recede as quickly as they emerge – it also signals continuous, on-going, unresolvable conflict, which mutates into fresh antagonisms. The politics of marking, remembering and memorialising contribute to this open-endedness, as the memory debates in post-reunification Germany regarding the legacy of the Holocaust, or even the multiple reactions to the recent poppy exhibit at the Tower of London, vividly demonstrate. It is apposite therefore, that many of the works in exhibitions organised to mark the First World War centenary complicate the finality evoked by the word ‘remembrance’, instead exploring how after the initial act of aggression, dynamics of conflict and crisis continue to work away at fragile – even chimerical – distinctions between war and peace, while simultaneously conveying the political necessity of engaged memory.
Chloe Dewe Mathews’ latest photographic series ‘Shot at Dawn’ occupies this grey zone between obliteration and memorialisation, between marking the end of conflict and acknowledging its continued reverberations. Dewe Mathews researched files relating to soldiers shot for cowardice and desertion during WW1 (closed to the public until the 1990s) and returned to the places where the men were executed, taking photographs on the day and time that most closely approximated the dates of their deaths. The charge infusing the resulting images stems, paradoxically, from the banality of the sites: the knowledge that such ostensibly innocuous terrains vague – from a damp looking ditch on the outskirts of a city under a watery dawn, to a children’s playground with incongruously brightly-coloured equipment – were once stages for violence, suggests the ease with which conflict can infiltrate everyday life.
Selected images from ‘Shot at Dawn’ currently feature in Tate Modern’s major exhibition ‘Conflict, Time, Photography’, where they sit alongside other images taken at varying degrees of temporal distance from traumatic epicentres. There are affinities, for example, between Dewe Mathews’ methodology in ‘Shot at Dawn’, and Indre Serpytyte’s photographs of models created by a traditional wood carver representing buildings in Lithuania that were used for interrogation and torture during the Soviet occupation, and which today are often inhabited without knowledge of their former use. In Serpytyte’s grainy, grey photographs, the buildings assume a haunting, fairy-tale quality, demonstrating both the political power of remembrance and recovery, but also its own particular pain.
In tandem with ‘Conflict, Time, Photography’, Dewe Mathews also has a solo show at the Stills: Centre for Photography in Edinburgh, in which viewers have the chance to see the wider portfolio of images from ‘Shot at Dawn’. Across the series, Dewe Mathews alternates between landscape images and close-up shots of the earth, which has the effect of pitching the viewer forward as if following the trajectory of a slumping body. Some of the micro-level images are the most disconcerting: in one, green shoots of some crop push through the soil, with an irreverence that seems almost cruel against the simple list of names, times and dates that Dewe Mathews places alongside each photograph.
Dewe Mathews’ show at Stills follows hard on the heels of another exhibition at the gallery entitled ‘The King’s Peace: Realism and War’. Although part of nationwide programme ‘Generation: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland’, this exhibition also spoke to the ideas and issues explored by Mathews, and projects like ‘Conflict, Time Photography’. As in the Tate’s show, ‘The King’s Peace’ took a wide-ranging perspective on the relationship between photography and conflict, combining works from Argentina, South Africa, Egypt and Italy to reflect on the legacies of war, the ways in which the rhetoric of crisis and violence is deployed for political ends, and how remembrance might become a tool for continued resistance.
This was demonstrated particularly well by that inclusion of an image from the US artist Martha Rosler’s ‘House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series’ (2004 – 2008). Rosler first created photomontages under this title during the Vietnam War: by splicing images from the conflict with fantasies of domestic space from lifestyle magazines, Rosler executed an incisive commentary on the mediation of conflict and its psychosomatic impact. In the ‘New Series’, replications of the same blonde model wield smartphones as orange fireballs from the conflict in Iraq unfold through the windows of a slick modernist apartment. Through re-working her own images, Rosler conveys both the repetitious nature of much conflict and violence, and the deep roots of contemporary imperialism.
Co-curated by the photographer Owen Logan (together with Kirsten Lloyd), as its full title indicated ‘The King’s Peace: Realism and War’ was particularly concerned with the slipperiness of representation, and the constantly uneasy relationship between war-photography and supposed veracity. Logan’s own work Masquerade: Michael Jackson Alive in Nigeria (2001-5) is a rake’s progress photo-essay which follows a performer in a Michael Jackson mask as he makes his way across the country, interacting with both the political elites and representatives of foreign businesses, gradually building a composite picture of the corruption and continued conflict bequeathed by colonialism and the civil war of 1967 to 1970. In this respect, the show as a whole seemed to infer, the closest photography might get to ‘realism’ is by engaging with the surreal insanity of conflict, and with its protean, ever-adapting voracity.
Although there are clear differences between the varied – and often more explicitly politicised – tones of the works brought together for ‘The King’s Peace’ and Dewe Mathews’ solo exhibition ‘Shot at Dawn’, the placement of these two shows back to back at Stills has added to an on-going dialogue about the difficulties of laying a conflict to rest without forgetting, and of memorialising without losing critical insight.