How London made a great impression
Age Of Terror: Art Since 9/11 Imperial War Museum, London Until May 28
The Imperial War Museum is going through an exciting period of renovation and rethinking. It’s always been fabulously interesting, but the spectacular new atrium and a new sense of purpose make it particularly worth visiting at the moment.
A new exhibition, Age Of Terror, shifts the museum into new and hip areas. It surveys the responses of a range of international artists to events since 9/11. Artists being artists, you aren’t going to see many gung-ho defences of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq here. But in the Nineties we spent a year discussing Monica Lewinsky. What excited artists were the installations of an unmade bed and a stuffed shark. September 11, 2001, made art political again.
In Britain, Grayson Perry continued work on the pot he had been making, its purpose now horribly altered. In Los Angeles, Kerry Tribe placed an advert calling for actors who looked like terrorists. The resulting audition tapes are troubling.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are prominent in the imagination. Some images have become iconic – one of the soldiers who tortured and humiliated prisoners at Abu Ghraib is reimagined in a glossy suburban kitchen. John Keane paints the unmistakable orange of a Guantanamo jumpsuit, and Mona Hatoum places exquisite glass models of hand grenades in a middle-class display case.
There are plenty of powerful images, often of destruction or fruitless labour. Lida Abdul shows a video of herself whitewashing both a ruined Afghan palace and a man. Hrair Sarkissian’s paired videos show a scale model of his parents’ block of flats in Damascus, and the artist destroying it with a sledgehammer.
The best of the videos is noncommittal. Francis Alys shows a pair of screens in a corner of a room. In each film, two soldiers assemble and disassemble a firearm. On one screen the soldiers are British; on the other they are Afghan Taliban fighters. Two chairs are offered for the viewer, but each gives more prominence to one screen. You have to choose where your interest or sympathy lies. The focus on the morally neutral task, and the far from neutral consequences, is compelling.
This is an exceedingly mature exhibition. Although violence is its inspiration, the art is thoughtful, personal and reflective, and far from exploitative. The world of art installations and video often appears rather trivial. These well-chosen creations show what potential such things can have.
The Twin Towers, by Iván Navarro, 2011