Artist’s Impression: Mangled Metal

This post was contributed by John Timberlake, the Peltz Gallery’s artist-in-residence – a position which, in its inaugural year, has been carried out in collaboration with Bow Arts.

John and Dr Gabriel Koureas, senior lecturer in the Department of History of Art at Birkbeck, have joined forces to devise an exhibition now on at the Peltz (Artist’s Impression: Mangled Metal), which reflects on the use of mangled metal as an exhibitionary strategy by museums of war in representations of Britain’s ‘small wars’ from 1945 to the present day, and the War on Terror.

 Here, John outlines the genesis of the exhibition.

Artist's Impression: Mangled Metal (cardboard,glue and acrylic paint, 30 x 2.5 x 2.7 cm.)

Artist’s Impression: Mangled Metal (cardboard,glue and acrylic paint, 30 x 2.5 x 2.7 cm.)

‘Artist’s Impression: Mangled Metal’ takes its title from respective concerns of both Gabriel Koureas’ academic research on the representation of the ‘terrorist’ in museological debates (see Gabriel’s essay ‘Competing Masculinities in the Museum Space: Terrorists, Machines and Mangled Metal’) and my own long standing interest in ‘artist’s impressions’, collages, fabrication, and the representation of history in art.

At the time we started our conversation in April of this year, the anniversary of the 7/7 bombings was not something Gabriel or I had particularly thought of. However, our thoughts had been concerned with thinking about visual representation of the traces of violent conflict in museum contexts, and we were interested in having a conversation about that. Since 1945, Britain has been involved in a series of so-called ‘small wars’ that have at times seemed invisible.

In particular, the project reflects interests Gabriel and I realized we shared – around uses and readings of the photographic archive and mediation of trauma and cultural memory, in terms of both the efficacies and inadequacies of such mediations.

Fabricator of devotional ‘relics’

AI MM fragment (cardboard,glue and paint, 45 x 47 x 23 cm)

AI MM fragment (cardboard,glue and paint, 45 x 47 x 23 cm)

We set about looking at the evidential documentation in the photographic archives in the Imperial War Museum, and I started making approximations of what I saw. In this context, my role as artist carries echoes of a fabricator of devotional ‘relics’ – perhaps analogous to that of the maker of religious icons or devotional objects, who constructs fake relics in order to help others believe.

Terrorism, like all militarisms, ultimately seems to believe in the possibility of violent gesture as historical tool agency or motive force. However, terrorism seems to particularly relish its role in the staging of horror, and might be thought of as the point at which (para)military violence most closely approaches the point of a sort of obscene theatre.

There is a strange convergence to be made here – perhaps distasteful, perhaps a category error, but perhaps also necessary, as ‘war art’ itself might be: ‘Theatricality’ was held by Modernists to be the point at which art became less than it could be a point of degeneration – hence the criticisms of emergent Minimalism in the 1960s and 1970s by the defenders and supporters of Clement Greenberg, then and since. For that reason if no other, an installation which referenced the Minimalist scatter piece, in which no single element dominated, and no particular resolved form of craft or artistic judgment was elevated above others, seemed to me an appropriate form of installation as the work developed.

Paul Nash,The Battle of Germany

Bomb fragment drawing

Bomb fragment drawing

Beyond the role of fabricator I have described above, my role as an artist in a project like this might also be seen as that of an interpreter of dubious reliability: making three dimensional objects from photographs which show them only from one angle inevitably leads to misjudgments about scale, size, and perspective – all of which are ripe in their potential as metaphors for reading history generally.

This work represents an engagement with sculpture of course, but like my We Are History installation at Beaconsfield in Vauxhall last year, it is also a work of painting – a ‘landscape’ of ‘abstracted forms’ which carries with it echoes of particular pre-occupations of English Modernism. So in that sense, I also found other preoccupations re-surfacing in the work as I made it. Prior to beginning the conversations with Gabriel I had been thinking a lot about Paul Nash’s great painting The Battle of Germany (1944) which is currently hanging adjacent to my own large landscape, Another Country XV in the Imperial War Museum in Kennington in the exhibition Visions of War From Above and Below.

When it first emerged, Nash’s painting reportedly left patrons and supporters bewildered. Looking at the painting now with the hindsight of seventy-one years, it proves the doubters wrong and seems absolutely right for its time – overdeterminedly so, in fact, so that it remains an uneasy painting. I always feel that having experienced war first hand a generation earlier, Nash must have been aware that working from photographs for this later work placed him in a position of ‘flying blind’.

artists-impression-mangled-metal-2Seemingly teetering on the brink of post war Pax Americana abstraction, the canvas presents the final stages of the Allied bombing onslaught on Germany as only half discernable in conventional landscape terms, as an airborne vista. Nash’s work creates a momentary strained cohesion of figurative elements, brushwork motifs, elisions and shifts that seem to emerge and retreat amongst abstract gesture: for example, there is a distant moon-lit horizon of the kind one might imagine seeing from an aircraft at altititude, extending midway from the left edge of the picture, but by the middle of the canvas its authority as a point of register for the viewer is supplanted by other horizontals, suggesting different planes of focus, or perhaps the pitching diving and banking of attacking and defending aircraft in a dogfight over a target zone, but also reflecting personal painterly pre-occupations of the artist evidenced in earlier, pre-war work.

The effect is one of a field of elements in flux. Hito Steyerl has written of how the blurred tilting horizons reflections and displacements of J.M.W.Turner’s Slave Ship Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840) reflect the moment when the very idea of a ‘calculable and predictable future shows a murderous side through an insurance that prevents economic loss by inspiring cold blooded murder’.

At this point, Steyerl writes, ‘Space dissolves into mayhem on the unstable and treacherous surface of an unpredictable sea.’ (The Wretched of the Screen, pp21-22) Something similar might be ascribed to The Battle of Germany, painted at that point where the intensity and immensity of total war piles statistics upon ever more statistics, and extant terms of reference in terms of both moral choices are challenged or overthrown.

Nash’s collaging of different painterly passages, figures and abstractions seems to tentatively suggest uneasy equivalences, of which he himself does not seem to be sure: a rising cloud of unearthly spheres (a figure found in works of the interwar years such as Voyages of the Moon, 1934-37).

An ‘artist’s impression’

AIMM-installationIn some way or other, then, all these concerns found their way into the piece now on display in the Peltz Gallery: one might be tempted to be deliberately obtuse and claim it to be exactly that ‘landscape of abstracted forms’ that has been the pre-occupation of a certain kind of Home Counties English Modernism for the past century.

But I also hope that, given its subject matter, lowly materiality (it is just cardboard, paint and glue after all) it evidences an inversion of that, and embraces a more tentative and less self confidently resolved mode of making art, one attuned to flux and provisionality: an ‘artist’s impression’ that admits its fallibilities and misreadings.

Artist’s Impression: Mangled Metal, runs at the Peltz Gallery, 43 Gordon Square, from Saturday, July 4 to Friday, August 14. Opening times are Mondays to Fridays, 10am-8pm, and Saturdays, 10am-5pm

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