5 May – Liberation day and an exhibition

In the Netherlands freedom and liberation are celebrated in the 5 May. On 4 May at 8pm a reflective two minutes of silence is held across the country to remember and reflect on those who died during the Second World War and conflicts since. Wageningen, the town in which I live, is in party mood today, the somber remembrance ceremony that I attended last night is followed up with a festival and processions that will draw tens of thousands to the town.

It is not an inappropriate day to be visiting an exhibition in the far north of the country though, before I too return to the Wageningen celebrations. In the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden in the north west of the country an exhibition entitled Burdened Landscape is on display until 5 June.

The exhibition explores how landscape can function as a sort of physical memory storage for history, and in particular, parts of history that while not being occasions that we should forget, are periods that don’t make for easy reflection. As the exhibition guide puts it:

“Violence, war and conflict leave their traces, even in the landscape. The past is visibly and invisibly gouged into the soil. Some places have become tangible monuments to history. However, more innocent-looking locations can also bear heavy burdens. Time and again, memories give the ‘crime scene’ its charge.”

It is an interesting and engaging collection of work, covering locations such as the landscape around Auschwitz (Oświęcim), Kuwait, Hanover, Ukraine, Armenia, Stalingrad and most recently, the Mediterranean Sea and its role in the suffering of migrants because of conflicts in North Africa.

Discovering works by Anselm Kiefer within such a context isn’t perhaps that surprising but there are plenty of less familiar works that open thoughtful windows on their own landscapes.

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Hans Citroen’s photographs show intimate corners of domestic landscapes, between vegetable gardens perhaps, yet there between the slightly overgrown fences are the remains of a railway line. The track lies, seemingly forgotten, in Oświęcim a short distance from the nearby Auschwitz. You are challenged, no, forced to reflect on those who passed through this space towards such a terrifying and uncertain future. Yet now, here it is, the line slowly being reclaimed physically by the landscape, but at the same time a landscape that is so heavily loaded by its history of seventy-five years ago.

The way landscape recovers and reclaims is also visible in the large-scale series of photographs by Sophie Ristelhueber. They show images of the Kuwaiti desert and the way it holds a physical record of the Gulf War (1990-91). In some images the relics, the evidence is slowly being covered over, fading from view.  In others though you can’t help feeling that these remnants will remain every bit a revealing in the distant future as Hadrian’s Wall is to us today.

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On a more recent note, but maybe more disturbing for it, the video work Liquid Traces the Left-to-Die Boat Case by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani tells of the tragic fourteen days adrift at sea experienced by a group of seventy-two refugees from Libya. The result of the two-week period without rescue, was that only nine of the seventy-two survived to recount their experience.

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The exhibition deals mostly with the traces that war and conflict leave on the landscape, but departs from this a little to end with the image of Frenk Windels, sitting next the place he, without the necessary permits, buried his wife after her death. The result is a small domestic landscape with a huge emotional charge.

Back home in Wageningen, the landscape that surrounds me is beautiful, green and for the most part peaceful.  But look at little more carefully and the same Burdened Landscape can be found. There was heavy fighting on the nearby Grebbeberg in 1940 and the parachute landing for operation Market Garden of A Bridge to Far fame occurred just north of the town. These and other periods during the 1939-45 conflict are still all too present and 4 and 5 May of all days are the days to reflect on this.

 

 

Showing images of violence to teenagers

We live in a world full of violent imagery. Some of this is factual some of it fictional. Our teenage children are as much submerged in this world as any of us. Some fifteen year olds are immensely sensitive to this aspect of our visual world, others seem immune to it, whilst others seem almost to crave it.

As someone who teaches art and visual culture I see at least part of my task as helping the young people I teach to engage and understand the nature of the images that they are constantly bombarded with, be that through the news media, social media, art or advertising. It is a form of visual literacy, developing an appreciation and understanding for the visual world around us.

Particularly when referring to images of violence in war this brings me and my pupils into a sensitive areas and raises questions about what I can show them in a lesson situation and what is appropriate. I was confronted this week by exactly this dilemma. It came within the context of a cross-curricular project week on the theme of war and peace. Most timetable subjects participate and twist their lesson material in such a way that it touches on this shared theme in one way or another.

In my art course I had planned a couple of lessons. The first one of which was simply to take a look at how the presentation of conflict has changed through the centuries and how we the viewer are affected by what we see and what the creator of the artwork or photographer wanted us to think.  We talked about battlefield images ranging from those on Ancient Greek ceramics, the Bayeux Tapestry, the Medieval conflicts depicted during the Renaissance. I gradually brought the developments through the centuries and reached the hugely significant moment around the beginning of the nineteenth century where we go from the heroic images of Napoleon on the battlefield to the victim of war being pushed to centre stage in Goya’s 3rd May. From then on the nature of the imagery becomes a whole lot more confrontational as we move through the First and Second World War.

Most of what I show my groups of fourteen and fifteen year olds are paintings. But by the second half of the twentieth century it is difficult to ignore the place of photography and to help me cover this I have an interesting film about World Press Photography award winning images.  The film discusses a number of photographs, but two in particular are dealt with at length. Firstly, the iconic image made by Eddie Adams of a street execution in Vietnam. It’s a shockingly confrontational image, and one that I remember thinking long and hard about in the past as to whether to show it to my pupils or not. It is also an image that is embedded in our visual culture and I know now that many in the class will have come across the photograph in other contexts. Seen alongside Goya’s image of execution it presents an excellent opportunity to consider how the tools of the painter and photographer allow to experience moments of extreme destruction, what are the advantages and disadvantages of the different media? Why do we feel what we do when viewing the images?

Perhaps more importantly though, it is a particular land mark in the sort of journalistic photography that we (my pupils included) are confronted with all too often in a news reporting context. Offering the pupils, a greater understanding of how we respond to these sorts of images is certainly worth doing. It raises a plethora of questions that can be discussed and the pupils themselves have plenty to opinions and ideas to bring to the discussion, the place in our lives of imagery of real and fictional violence being a particularly interesting one to have.

But does this mean that I can show my pupils anything and everything? The second photograph in the film, David Turnley’s helicopter interior form the first Gulf War back at the beginning of the 1990s. It’s a powerful image that doesn’t show the violence as much as the results and consequences of the violence as a fully kitted out American soldier sits crying next to the body of his friend that is concealed in a body bag. I wouldn’t hesitate to show and discuss this image with my fourteen and fifteen olds. Yet in the same film there is a twenty second sequence where I turn the screen off. It shows the results of the bombing of the Iraqi column of vehicles that were bombed when they were fleeing Kuwait. I draw the line at showing the graphic images of this monumental destruction with its burnt bodies and unimaginable suffering.

My action of turning the screen off (and explaining why) always prompts discussion. Like I said at the start some teenagers seem almost to crave this sort of imagery. I feel no inclination to feed this craving in my lessons, but I do want to lead my pupils to seriously consider the journalistic photographs that report the world around us. It is a fine line to tread on occasions, a point that was brought home to me this week by a pupil who expressed nervousness when searching for her own images to be used in a related project didn’t want to be confronted by shocking photographs from the battlefield. A reason to tread cautiously, but not one to step away from the subject.

Other war and art related projects:

There they stood project

Guernica project

War and conflict project

As a follow up to my previous post I thought perhaps a little more documentation of the There they stood…. project would be good. Firstly the the installation of the work as it is at school at the moment. Trapped behind the glass at eye level does seem to work well for it.

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Discussions with the local museum are ongoing and hopefully with time it will be exhibited there I would fantastic for the pupils involved to see their work displayed alongside the work of others in such a professional context.

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The close up work shows a little of the process involved in the project and in particular the poems written by the pupils about the likes of Picasso and Goya, whose work we have studied during the course of the project. It is worth remembering that the poems are being written by fifteen year old Dutch pupils who are writing in their second language.

If you haven’t watched the video documentation in my previous post, do take a moment to do so.