Darren Jorgensen on Australian art in a war zone
Much of the discourse around contemporary art in the last twenty years has been about the social turn, a catch-all for collaborative, conversational and relational practices of one kind or another. Claire Bishop has argued that much of this discourse is not about art at all, but ethics. She says that social practices should not be mistaken for ethical practices, comparing the art gallery dinners of Rirkrit Tiravanija to Santiago Sierra’s tattooed Mexican junkies, and the community outreach of Oda Projesi to Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of a miner’s strike protest in Britain. Here an ethical debate turns into a political one, as Bishop finds an analogy for social conflict in Deller and Sierra, in the way that their work does not carry a clear social message but enacts an ambivalence that suspends ethical judgement.
What if it were possible to reverse Bishop’s critique, and instead of finding conflict within the social practices of the artworld, we were to look for social practices within situations of conflict? In other words, to say that conflict is not so much the truth of the social as the social is the truth of conflict. Take for example the war zone of Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan, the front line of the US war on terrorism, where until recently Australian Special Forces raided remote villages and US drones are still targeting mud brick houses. Here Australian artists have also been working. George Gittoes has been running a studio for artists since 2011, while Shaun Gladwell and Ben Quilty have visited multinational military bases as official Australian war artists.
Gittoes’s Yellow House Jalalabad was established as a refuge from the Afghan war, and has turned into a production studio for local filmmakers. Cinema, as Brecht argued, is the most social form of art and at The Yellow House Jalalabad Pashtun artists film Pashtun stories for a Pashtun audience. This occurs as militants burn down DVD stores that stock entertainment films and in their place arise specialist shops of propaganda features that show footage of martyrdom and executions carried out by children. In the absence of an entertainment industry, Gittoes employs ice cream vendor boys to sell Yellow House movies from door to door, proving that it is possible for art to change the world.
Crucial to this artistic revolution is the role of women, who direct and perform in a conservative society that is largely segregated by gender. Here, Gittoes has help. Partner and performance artist Hellen Rose helped set up the House, runs filmmaking workshops for women and stars in some of the films. Life is best documented by Gittoes’s own film Love City, Jalalabad (2013), that along with Miscreants of Taliwood (2009) and Snow Monkey (2015) make up a trilogy whose subject is cinema amidst the war and violence taking place in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gittoes, like the hero of a Pushkin novel, narrowly escapes death and kidnapping with a mixture of luck and sheer chutzpa. He shoots cameras and guns for action movies in the tribal areas of Pakistan, is trapped with cast and crew by a hostile crowd in a shopping centre in Jalalabad, stopped by armed insurgents while taking a children’s circus into the hills of Afghanistan and visits the house of Taliban leader Maulana Gul Naseed, who is entirely against entertainment films (the only moment in the trilogy that we can see Gittoes is visibly afraid).
Gittoes and Rose are not the only ones at risk here. During the filming of Miscreants, his star actor is kidnapped, while another actor is threatened with death after absconding from the set to feature in a pornographic film. In Love City, his actors out scouting locations are stopped and accused of spying for the United States. They narrowly escape with their lives and return to The Yellow House in fear and shock. Here, the fictional movies that Gittoes and his group are making mingle almost indiscernibly from fact, as the action-packed lives of these artists are indistinguishable from those of the heroes and villains they play. At one point, in Miscreants, an actor is mistaken for a Sufi making a sacred pilgrimage. He attracts a crowd and begins healing the sick. Fantasy becomes documentary and vice versa, all amidst the surrealist spectre of war itself.
This trilogy can be thought of as part of a wider, new documentary movement. Gittoes is now being produced by Piraya Film, who are also behind Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking The Act of Killing (2012). Comparisons can be made, as Gittoes employs some of Oppenheimer’s strategies in having a child gangster describe his brutal acts of violence and extortion, recreating scenes of violence on Jalalabad streets. The difference of Gittoes and Oppenheimer from the typical documentary maker lies in the way that they give some insight into those who are typically cast as bad guys. In Miscreants and Snow Monkey, unlike the controversial Armadillo (2010), a documentary filmed from the point of view of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, Gittoes gives a voice to Taliban leaders.
Here Gittoes also differs from Gladwell and Quilty. Their experience of the country was very different, as they made work within military bases sealed-off from the rest of Afghanistan. As Gittoes and the director of Armadillo Janus Metz agree, these invaders might as well be from another planet: their hi-tech surveillance and weapons are at complete odds with local conditions. These bases are neither Afghanistan, nor are they the country of the occupiers. Quilty’s Transparent Might After Afghanistan (2011) – the cover of Artlink 35:1 Badlands: Art & War (March 2015) – captures this kind of alien, placeless sensibility, as he writes the word Afghanistan over purple mountains that lie atop the print of Arthur Streeton’s painting Hawkesbury River (1896). Here the landscape of Australia is suddenly Afghanistan and Afghanistan is Australia, reminding us that until very recently this was an Australian war. Arthur Streeton was also an official Australian war artist, painting distant smoke as he sat far behind the action of the First World War.
Gladwell’s posting to Afghanistan also captures a surreal sense of suspended time and space. In the two-channel video POV Mirror Sequence (Tarin Kowt) (2010) the artist and soldiers circle and film each other in a mise en abyme of these two incommensurable occupations. Gladwell’s videos are the kind of contemporary art that the philosopher Jacques Ranciere finds most effective, as they open up aesthetic contemplation amidst the demands of political thought. The politics of POV Mirror Sequence lie in the infrastructure of airfields, drones and trucks that pass by in the background, while the figures circling each other create an aesthetic ambivalence about these materials of war.
Both Bishop and Ranciere are looking for the avantgarde project within social practices. They want politics with their art but don’t want it shoved in their face. Bishop is very critical of the way artists allow themselves to instrumentalise party politics, making parallels between social practices in the UK that are sponsored by New Labour policies with New Labour itself. It is instructive to compare Bishop to the Taliban. Naseed makes an institutional critique of his own place in Miscreants, as he asks Gittoes’s Pashtun cameraman, “Who is spending money on this? The West! Who is providing the facilities? Whoever provides the facilities will automatically take the benefit.” Naseed is ambivalent about being interviewed by Gittoes, as he thinks that “This interview will damage Islam, not benefit it.” It is not what Naseed says that is of significance here, but the fact that he is talking in the documentary in the first place. His is an aesthetic act, imbued with ambivalence.
A few years on, Gittoes has earned the support of local Taliban leader Maulana Haqqani, and begins distinguishing good from bad Taliban, and Taliban from Islamic State. Art has changed conservative minds and as a symbol of this change in Snow Monkey Gittoes gives his new friend a drone to fly (the kind you can now buy in an electronics store). This is probably the only drone being flown by the Taliban that is being used to make art rather than war. Here the double-sided dimension of the avantgarde, its politics and aesthetics, produces a different kind of mise en abyme. The distance between artist and soldier in Gladwell’s POV Mirror Sequence turns into their interchangeability, the drone an instrument of both war and peace, flown by a Taliban fighter turned politician.
The differences between Quilty and Gittoes are also instructive as, like Quilty’s Transparent Might, The Yellow House Jalalabad mixes up Australian art history with the Afghan war. As many readers will recognise, the Yellow House was also an artist collective in Sydney in the early 1970s. Here, too, this artist’s space gathered a divergent group of artists, while its foundations were laid in an anti-war activism, in this case the Vietnam War activism of both Gittoes and Martin Sharp. The end of this war marked the end of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, so an end to war and the persecution of artists in Afghanistan would make the Yellow House Jalalabad obsolete. The difference between the Yellow Houses and the ideas of Bishop and Ranciere lies in the way that they lack the kind of ambivalent distance that these theorists favour. The Yellow House Jalalabad flies a flag for art and peace amidst burning piles of DVDs and beneath the whine of passing drones. In a war zone ambivalence is impossible, and antagonism an everyday event. Even the most innocent of activities, like singing and dancing, are politicised and provoke violence.
The Yellow House Jalalabad has less to do with the oppositions of aesthetics to ethics, art to politics, than it does with a historical avant-garde that is committed to changing the world. Peter Burger’s 1974 distinction between revolutionary avant-gardes like surrealism, and aesthetic and politically ambivalent avant-gardes like cubism, is one in which art and aesthetics do not occupy an autonomous realm. Instead, art lies in the relation between action and society, in the aspirations of art for total change. Art has the world as its playground, a world that necessitates taking sides in the ongoing struggle for peace.
Bishop’s criteria for judging the art of the social turn, our contemporary avant-garde, is identical to the question the Taliban asks of Gittoes: “Who benefits?” Nobody benefits from work by leading artists like Deller and Sierra, and for Bishop, perversely, this is precisely where their artistic achievements lie. That art and politics, aesthetics and ethics, should be so rigorously opposed by Bishop and Ranciere, two of the most influential theorists of contemporary art, should alert us to the malaise of the contemporary artworld. Their rehabilitation of the modern avant-garde neglects the experiences of the Russian Revolution and the First World War that created much of its radicalism, in configurations of violence, senselessness and utopianism that gave birth to new artistic sensibilities. Some of the best artworks made at this time (such as the many manifestos that set out the revolutionary goals of this or that movement) were explicit in their politics, and ideological in their determination to change the world. So is some of the best art being made today.
- ^ See Claire Bishop’s ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October, no. 110, 2004, pp. 51–79;‘The Social Turn’, Artforum, 44.6, 2006, pp. 178–83; and Artificial Hells, Verso, 2012.
- ^ Jacques Ranciere’s ‘The Paradoxes of Political Art’ in Dissensus, Continuum, 2010, in particular pp. 149–51,where he gives examples of what he calls “critical art” .
- ^ See Peter Burger, Theory of the Avantgarde, Manchester University Press, 1984.
Darren Jorgensen lectures in art history in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts at the University of Western Australia.