We are in a Post-Photoshop Moment. In conversation with Suzanne Treister on her War Artists series.
In conversation with Suzanne Treister on her War Artists series
“War artists” was shown in Autumn 2008 at Annely Juda Gallery in London – together with two other drawing projects, one on Hermetic diagrams (“Alchemy”), and another on official letterheads (“Correspondence: From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe”). In the accompanying catalogue, Richard Grayson writes:
“War Artists’ shows us twelve people using means of representation that were once central in our descriptions of the world and still held by some to have some essential value: the pencil, the pen, the drawing and the painting were a privileged means of understanding. They could deal with timeless verities and reveal hidden truths. The images span the Second World War and the Iraq war, the first of which was seen largely as a just war on the part of the allies, and the other, which despite the rhetorics of those who have pursued it, seems to be more complex, more compromised. The artists drawn here are dealing with the actions of mankind at their most extreme: where abstract notions such as ideology or nation, or of state are expressed through technology onto the human fabric, into the physical sphere. These small drawings pose deep and complex questions about the agendas and possibilities of art and how it might represent the worlds around us, about the relationship between representation and power. Each individual drawing represents a point of engagement, that in turn will generate hypotheses of truth and the promiscuous webs of connection by which we pursue and chart our endless quest for meaning.'“
Grayson’s comment leaves a sufficient number of aspects and questions undiscussed to let an e-mail interview with Suzanne Treister appear very useful.
Alexander Roob: By tracing these very diverse photographic materials of a multi-national gallery of war artists, you manage to unify them into something like one single corpus; a body shaped by the similarity of experiences and visions. All these artists seem to be deeply connected, because, as you said in your last mail, “inside the eyes of each of them are retinal imprints of what they are witnessing or have witnessed, like with a Russian doll, images inside images inside images.” Maybe you could achieve a similar impression of equalization by manipulating the photos with a digital editing program. What does this act of redrawing mean to you?
Suzanne Treister: If I were to manipulate the photographs it would become also a work about the photographers who took the original photographs of the war artists. In this series the idea is to turn the photographs into drawings, so that they become my own drawings of artists who in turn have made drawings of war or are in the process of doing so in the photographs. (In the series however there is the exception of Lee Miller who was a photographer, but perhaps that exception is there to test the rule.) By making drawings there is a physical connection through the medium. Whilst clearly my drawings of war artists are made from the comfort of my studio, I am connected to them and the events they have depicted by a thread of history which I am creating myself through the act of drawing, and somehow it’s this thread which is making visible the tenuous ‘armchair’ connection most of us have to the kind of scenes these artists have witnessed and which they in turn have not fully operated within, in the sense that they were not using weapons but pencils or brushes and somehow this thread seems more real through being a drawing rather than a manipulated photograph.
A. R.: As far as I can see, all the examples of war artistry you have chosen, were official ones, and their positions in the field were mainly „embedded“ ones. The only exception in your gallery seems to be Otto Dix. His expressive accusatory mode is the only one which really plays a role in popular art historiography today. But aside from that there were countless other “hot” descriptions of World War I, mainly of the opposite, affirmative, and heroic kind. And also innumerable descriptions of the “cold”, distanced manner like the ones of François Flameng, or John Singer Sargent or Adolf Hitler, whose watercolours are very representative for the works of art of the legions of soldiers, who were, though not professionals, nevertheless very ambitious. – So why did you choose Otto Dix as the only representative of World War I reporting?
S. T. : Otto Dix was the last artist I chose to draw in the first group of twelve drawings I made in this series. The series is ongoing however, and this choice represented a shift in focus, as you point out, firstly to further back, to World War 1 and also to the unofficial ‘expressive’ war artist. I have since made another drawing titled, ‘War Artists/American/Kristopher Battles - sketching mock assault at Mojave Viper training base, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, California, USA, 2008’. Mojave Viper is an extensive month-long training that uses more than 250 role players and two working towns to test Marines from throughout the USA on urban warfare and the rigors of the desert. To make a drawing of a war artist drawing a mock war scene at US training base, rather than a real war scene, is again another departure from the main focus of the first twelve works and I hope there will be other directions that emerge as I follow things up.
But getting back to Otto Dix and thinking back to my motives at the time, I would say that since I have personal (Jewish) history to do with the Holocaust, when choosing a German artist I decided in this instance to avoid WW2 and the German war art of the National Socialists. This is not to say I won’t include examples of these artists later on in the series but to do it in the context of only twelve drawings seemed too pointed and would have unbalanced the project for me. Instead I chose to represent a German artist who was not complicit with National Socialism. Another reason for Otto Dix may have been the opportunity to represent an example of a largely anti-military, anti-war artist, a position shared by many other artists, and thereby to insert the perhaps obvious question as to whether for an artist to be an official war artist, a reporter who supposedly supports the regime of his or her nation, might in some sense be anathema.
In this respect we could look at the case of another artist in the series, Steve McQueen, the official British war artist to Iraq in 2003, whose project for postage stamps depicting soldiers who died in the conflict was rejected as a series of real commemorative stamps by the Royal Mail’s director Allan Leighton. Apparently the Ministry of Defence asked McQueen why he couldn’t do a landscape instead.
I am also interested in the idea of the outsider artist and of specific genres of art practice which are not acknowledged by the mainstream contemporary art world. Those who are specifically war artists rather than mainstream artists who have been chosen to be (temporarily) war artists – perhaps because the contemporary art world tends to take a critical stance towards war – have not been recuperated into the mainstream in the same was as other ‘outsider’ artists who have often become fetishised in recent years and so I thought it might be interesting to depict some of these artists within my own more mainstream art practice, to see what that felt like, to put let’s say Michael Fay, a full time war artist with the U.S. Marines, next to someone like Otto Dix.
A. R. : Why did you restrict your choice of war artistry mainly to the span between World War II and the contemporary Iraq War, to an era where the execution of this profession has almost become something of a quixotic project? By the end of World War I “ the pencil, the pen, the drawing and the painting” had ceased to be “privileged means of understanding”, at least in the field of visual documentary.
S. T. : I like that seeming perversity. I spent a long time working within the context of the new media art world and through most of the 1990s I rejected more traditional media. I now find media like drawing totally unquixotic and very relevant again, it feels to me like a political act not to use the advanced media of the corporate and military spheres, although I still do from time to time in my work when I feel it’s necessary or relevant. I like the idea of being self sufficient with just a few pencils and paper, but like most other people I am hooked most of the time to my computer, part of the techno arms race, compromised up to my neck.
But again in relation to your question, I could almost say we are in a post media moment, post Photoshop, post the moment where new media, new technologies and the internet feel so new even though they are still developing, post the grass roots period of net politics where there was an idea of a utopian future… but isn’t it interesting that governments continue to send out people with pencils to the Iraqi desert, just why do they do that? Probably for a few reasons, maybe because of what I said earlier about the physicality of old media, because people are jaded by so much photography and documentary footage on TV and in the papers, because drawing is physical as is war, and it can be used differently for propaganda purposes. This undermines my previous comment about drawing not being co-opted by the military, because it has been, it always was and it still is. So maybe that’s one thing this work is exposing, critiquing and also employing, playing with the idea of complicity, which is an issue for all of us.
Suzanne Treister,ALCHEMY/Le Figaro ,16th January 2008
A. R. : Another recent project of yours was the updating of hermetic diagrams from the 17th and 18th century by “overwriting” them with texts and images from the front pages of the international daily press. In a broader sense this project is also about connectedness and international conflicts. Do you see any analogies between the art of war reporters and the art of hermetic illustrators? Both professions seem to share the same fate in being ignored by mainstream art historiography.
S. T. : That’s very interesting you say that. I think I have partially answered it at the end of my answer to your second question when I talked about different types of outsider art which have been variously recuperated.
I think mainstream art has been seen to be a language that must develop its own forms and reference its own history, rather than stepping too far outside itself and forsaking that obligation. Both alchemical drawings and war art contain other knowledges and have other functions outside art, they are not pure art as required by some gatekeepers of art history where the illustrative has often been taboo. Also perhaps you can see alchemical drawings as an early form of current sci-art which also has problems being incorporated into the mainstream, but then I think a lot of that is because of the ‘commissioned’ nature of many of those projects which doesn’t often result in very interesting art.
Within contemporary art as well, until recently, there has not been much art dealing with history or complex narrative based subject matter. Unlike literature, for example, contemporary art was somehow supposed to be about the present, this was like an unwritten law. ‘History painting’ was a genre of the past. (Of course there were exceptions, quite a few in Germany, eg. Kiefer, Richter, Beuys…) Now it seems to be reincarnated in various new formations everywhere in the mainstream contemporary art world, everyone is looking backwards, digging up archives, but a relatively short while ago it was the exception. I guess what I am saying is that Alchemical drawings from the 17th and 18th century are most likely in the process of being re-incorporated into a more central place in art history and your Alchemy book is perhaps part of that process.
With the war artists series I am in a sense making art about art, recuperating and re-presenting a marginalised art form, but in doing so, ironically I am making work which is more about the world outside art than about art, or more perhaps about the relationship between art and the world.
Now that we are living in a complex and difficult time perhaps ‘pure art’* looks a little escapist at the present moment. Perhaps the complexities of 17th and 18th century alchemical diagrams come closer to describing – albeit in different code¬- the sense we have right now of the insane interconnectedness of the new globalised world order under collapse, and in their search for knowledge, for the philosopher’s stone, they echo our need to work out our future. That’s how it goes, doesn’t it, when you’re in a fix you look to the past for help. Alchemy was early science, at a moment where it seems to me from those drawings/diagrams that art and science were more in harmony, and so it feels interesting and positive to recuperate them into the present for the future.
* Disclaimer: I hate these generalised categories… I just googled ‘pure art’ and the first thing that came up was a ranch in Idaho, USA, run by someone calling himself Farmer Brown.