Posts Tagged ‘australian war memorial

29
Mar
16

Review: ‘Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan’ at the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum

Exhibition dates: 15th January – 15th April 2016

 

This is the most profound exhibition that I have seen so far this year. Simply put, the exhibition is magnificent … a must see for any human being with an ounce of understanding and compassion in their body.

While I am vehemently anti-war, and believe that we should have never have been in Afghanistan in the first place, these sensual and skeletal paintings represent the danger that these soldiers exposed themselves to in the line of duty. The sensuousness and vulnerability of their solitary, contorted poses – poses which they themselves chose to for Quilty to paint – reflect an actual event, such as taking cover to engage insurgents. That these naked poses then turn out to have a quiet eroticism embedded in them confirms the link between eroticism, death and sensuality as proposed by Georges Bataille. The three forms of eroticism (physical, emotional, religious) try to substitute continuity (life) for discontinuity (death). In these paintings the soldiers lay bare their inner self. They bring forth experiences that have been buried – their dissociation from the reality of what occurred, the experiences they have repressed, the post-traumatic stress – brought to the surface and examined in these paintings through the re-presentation of suppressed emotions, through a form of emotional eroticism, a primordial rising of eroticism, death and sensuality. An affirming act of life over death.

As an artist, Quilty intimately understands this process. I think a strong element of this exhbition is the feeling that there is something missing, that the range of concerns is lacking something. I suspect this is deliberate. Something is being withheld. And what is being withheld in the paintings is, I believe, narrative.

While there is an overarching text narrative – soldiers painted “after Afghanistan” – and individual paintings have titles such as Sergeant P, Troy Park, Trooper M and Trooper Daniel Westcott, these paintings could almost be of any human being who has been a soldier. Other than the specific triptych of Air Commodore John Oddie (and even then the portraits remind me of the ambiguity of Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953), these paintings could be of any soldier. As Gerhard Ricther observes, “You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that.” After Richter, you might say that “there is no plan”, there is only feeling in the work of Ben Quilty, embodied through his brush. Here, I see links to the work of that great British painter, Francis Bacon.

“Bacon was deeply suspicious of narrative. For him, narrative seems to be the natural enemy of vision; it blinds… Bacon seems to propose an opposition between narrative as a product that can be endlessly reproduced, as re-presentation – the ‘boredom’ is inspired by the deja vu of repetition – and narrative as process, as sensation. Conveying a story implies that a pre-existing story, fictional or not, is transferred to an addressee. Narrative is then reduced to a kind of transferable message. Opposed to this ‘conveying of story’, ‘telling a story’ focuses on the activity or process of narrative. This process is not repeatable; it cannot be iterative because it takes place, it happens, whenever ‘story’ happens… Bacon’s hostility toward narrative is directed against narrative as product, as re-presentation, not against narrative as process.
(Bacon) does not paint characters, but figures. Figures, unlike characters, do not imply a relationship between an object outside the painting and the figure in the painting that supposedly illustrates that object. The figure is, and refers only to itself.”1

The figure is, and refers only to itself, and it is up to the viewer to actively interpret this telling of the story each time they view one of Quilty’s paintings. There is no transferable message.

Further, much like Bacon’s triptychs, Quilty’s paintings depict isolated figures or figural events on the panels. The figures are isolated in their space and their is never any clear interaction between the figures. “Bacon explains the use of the triptych as follows: ‘It helps to avoid storytelling if the figures are painted on three different canvases’ … The figures never fully become characters, while the figural events are never explained by being embedded in a sequence of events. The figures interact neither with each other nor with their environment. Although Bacon’s paintings display many signs which traditionally signify narrativity, by the same token any attempt to postulate narratives based on the paintings is countered.”2

In these paintings, Quilty does not turn away from the evidence of the soldiers before him who express through their bodies that life is violent. He does not attempt to save the viewer from such unpleasantries. As Bacon comments, “The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.” Quilty stretches his sensibility as an artist and as a human being by getting down and dirty with his subject matter, both physically and emotionally. In fact, I would say Quilty becomes his subject, so close does the artist get to the object of his attention (after all, this is also Quilty’s experience of Afghanistan, as much as it is the soldiers who he is painting. The artist is always present in the work). The closer you get to one of his paintings, the more the detail vanishes and the more the paint becomes like blood and guts. The artist presses up against his subject which dissolves into abstraction. A bravura tour de force of painting that it so confident in its intent… [that there are] huge stretches of bare white canvas as flesh, with these striking gestures for throat and nipple executed without fear in one stroke of the brush. The black hole appearing out of the side of the soldiers head reminds me of Carl Jung’s ambivalent feelings toward his unconscious shadow; and at one end of the gallery you have a black hole (Trooper Luke Korman, Tarin Kot, 2012, below) and at the other a white hole (Trooper Luke Korman, 2012, below), such are the energies of yin yang that flow through the lighter of the gallery spaces.

Using what the photographer Imogen Cunningham termed the ‘paradox of expansion via reduction’ – closing in on subject (either physically and/or mentally), the intensity and focus attendant to a clear way of seeing – allows Quilty’s work to be flooded with sensuality and reductive power. The horror of the body, of how fragile we are (Damien Hirst) is expressed through the visceral paint. The viewer’s mind tells the story, creates the horror, the closer you get to the work. As I said earlier, there is no transferable message, no actual interpretation but universal triggers that impinge on the viewer’s mind. Quilty plays with the flow of time and space, memory and war by disassociating himself from traditional narrative. As the quotation below from Peter Handke’s novel Across eloquently expresses it, it is a sense of “being-empty” (Zen), an empty form that is also full at the same time. Every object in Quilty’s opus moves into place and we pass over, quietly, into a place we have never been before, through paintings that picture the unknowable. Something we have never seen or felt before. In painting, I don’t think there are many artists that could have achieved what Quilty has with this body of work.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Word count: 1,125

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Many thankx to Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

  1. Ernst Van Alphen. Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, 1992 quoted in “Francis Bacon and ‘Narrative’, the Natural Enemy of Vision,” on the ASX website, June 27 2013 [Online] Cited 29/03/2016.
  2. Ibid.,

 

 

“With the light of that moment, silence fell. The warming emptiness that I need so badly spread. My forehead no longer needed a supporting hand. It wasn’t exactly a warmth, but a radiance; it welled up rather than spread; not an emptiness, but a being-empty; not so much my being-empty as an empty form. And the empty form meant: story. But it also meant that nothing happened. When the story began, my trail was lost. Blurred. This emptiness was no mystery; but what made it effective remained a mystery. It was as tyrannical as it was appeasing; and its peace meant: I must not speak. Under its implosion, everything (every object) moved into place. “Emptiness!” The word was equivalent to the invocation of the Muse at the beginning of an epic. It provoked not a shudder but lightness and joy, and presented itself as a law: As it is now, so shall it be. In terms of image, it was a shallow river crossing.”

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Peter Handke. Across. Ralph Manheim (translator). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000, p. 5.

 

“I do not want to avoid telling a story, but I want very, very much to do the thing that Valery said – to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.”

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Francis Bacon

 

 

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Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery with, from left to right, Sergeant P, after Afghanistan (2012); Trooper Daniel Westcott, after Afghanistan (2012); and Troy Park, after Afghanistan (2012)

 

 

Sergeant P, a Special Operations Task Group soldier, is a survivor of a Black Hawk helicopter crash that claimed the lives of three Australians. Some of the soldiers depicted in the other portraits witnessed the crash and were first on the scene to provide assistance. The memory of this experience, and the friends who did not make it, will stay with these men for a long time.

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper Daniel Westcott, after Afghanistan' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper Daniel Westcott, after Afghanistan
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'Troy Park, after Afghanistan' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Troy Park, after Afghanistan
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

 

Installation views of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery with, from left to right, Troy Park, after Afghanistan, no. 2 (2012); Trooper M, after Afghanistan (2012); and Trooper M, after Afghanistan, no. 2 (2012)

 

Ben Quilty. 'Troy Park, after Afghanistan, no. 2' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Troy Park, after Afghanistan, no. 2
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

Quilty asked the soldiers to suggest a post that encapsulated some of the emotions that surrounded their experience in Afghanistan. Often the pose is quite contorted, as it reflects an actual event, such as taking cover to engage insurgents.

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper M, after Afghanistan' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper M, after Afghanistan
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

“You can’t really stop out there. You have to keep doing your job and keep moving forward … There is no time, until you get home, to stop and think about it.”

Trooper M

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper M, after Afghanistan, no. 2' 2012 (detail)

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper M, after Afghanistan, no. 2 (detail)
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

“Sitting for Ben is therapeutic; it does get a lot of stuff off your chest. And actually seeing your portrait on canvas, I think for me it’s definitely a chapter that I can close and leave there.”

Trooper M

 

Ben Quilty. 'Bushmaster' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Bushmaster
2012
Aerosol and oil on linen
Donated by Ben Quilty through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program in 2013

 

 

Portraiture for Quilty can also take a vehicle as its subject. This destroyed Bushmaster reflects the soldiers’ identity and is a vestige of their physical experience. They risk their lives while carrying out their duties in these versatile military vehicles.

“I met a young man who’d been in the back of a Bushmaster that had blown up. The Bushmaster is the big armoured four-wheel-drive vehicle that’s saving a lot of Australian lives, but even so the explosion caused every single you man inside that vehicle to suffer from concussion and one of them was blown out of the gun turret and landed in front of the vehicle among possibly more hidden explosive devices.”

Ben Quilty

 

Ben Quilty. 'Captain S, after Afghanistan' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Captain S, after Afghanistan
2012
Oil on linen
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

 

“I think when Ben paints, he’s not looking for what’s on the outside … He’s more after what they’re feeling o what they’ve been through … He’s looking at the inner instead of just the outer.”

Captain S

 

Ben Quilty. 'Lance Corporal M, after Afghanistan' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Lance Corporal M, after Afghanistan
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'Lance Corporal M, after Afghanistan' 2012 (detail)

 

Ben Quilty
Lance Corporal M, after Afghanistan (detail)
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

The naked portraits have a sensuousness and vulnerability in their solitary, contorted poses. The rough surface signifies the uniform and body armour that have been stripped away in front of us, and them. We and they recognise what they have endured and achieved.

“I wanted [this soldier] to be naked, showing not only his physical strength but also the frailty of human skin and the darkness of the emotional weight of the war.”

Ben Quilty

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of drawings from the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery including, at bottom left, Captain M II, Tarin Kot (October 2011, below) and third from left top, Waiting, Tarin Kot (October 2011, below)

 

 

“This very wild place”

Sitting and talking with the Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, Quilty became intrigued by their experiences. He came to feel responsible for telling the stories of these young men and women.

“I started doing drawings of the soldiers, and hearing their stories about their experiences of being in this very wild place. I realised that I needed to just sit with them … making portraits of these guys in Tarin Kot or wherever I was … getting them to sit still and talk to me about their experience. Those little drawings are a reminder to me of the time that I spent with those people. I hoped that there’d be some remnant of that experience that I could then draw out … to put into the paintings when I returned to Australia.”

Ben Quilty

The trust that Quilty developed with these soldiers in Afghanistan was strong enough to continue at home in Quilty’s studio, where he invited some to sit for larger portraits.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

(top row, first three from left)

Ben Quilty
Private C, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured felt tip pen on paper
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

Ben Quilty
Trooper M, Special Forces, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured felt tip pen, pencil and ink wash on paper
Collection of the artist

Ben Quilty
Captain Kate Porter
27 October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured pencil and ink wash on paper
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

(bottom row, first three from left)

Ben Quilty
Sergeant M II, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Pencil and ink wash on paper
Collection of the artist

Ben Quilty
Chinook pilot, Kandahar Airfield
October 2011
Drawn at Kandahar Airfield, Kandahar province, Afghanistan
Pencil and ink wash on paper
Collection of the artist

Ben Quilty
Brigadier General Noorullah, Afghan National Army, Tarin Kot
22 October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured felt tip pen on paper
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

 

While in Tarin Kot, Quilty attended a marching out parade of 400 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers who had completed training under the Australian Mentoring Task Fore. There he met a senior ANA commander, Brigadier General Noorullah. Just days later, three Australian soldiers were killed at a similar training parade being held at Forward Operating Base Sorkh Bed (aka Pacemaker). Quilty learnt of the incident the day after he left Afghanistan, giving him an even greater sense of the dangers that the soldiers he met face daily.

 

Ben Quilty. 'Captain Kate Porter' 27 October 2011

 

Ben Quilty
Captain Kate Porter
27 October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured pencil and ink wash on paper
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

 

Quilty wanted to meet a cross-section of people serving in Afghanistan – soldiers driving Bushmasters, Chinook pilots, Special Forces soldiers, and both men and women of all ranks – to try to understand who makes up the Australian Defence Force. He met Captain Kate Porter at Tarin Kot. There he spoke to her about her experiences as female in the very masculine community of the Special Operations Task Group, as well as her general experience as a soldier in Afghanistan.

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper M, Special Forces, Tarin Kot' October 2011

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper M, Special Forces, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured felt tip pen, pencil and ink wash on paper
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'Waiting, Tarin Kot' October 2011

 

Ben Quilty
Waiting, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured felt tip pen on paper
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

Ben Quilty. 'Captain M II, Tarin Kot' October 2011

 

Ben Quilty
Captain M II, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Pencil and ink wash on paper
Collection of the artist

 

 

“Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan is an extraordinary Australian War Memorial Touring Exhibition by one of the nation’s most incisive artists, and is of great relevance to all Australians. The exhibition officially opens at Castlemaine Art Gallery on Friday 15 January 2016.

The exhibition itself was the result of the Archibald Prize-winning artist’s three-week tour across Afghanistan in October 2011. Engaged as an Official War Artist, his purpose was to record and interpret the experiences of Australians deployed as part of Operation Slipper in Kabul, Kandahar, and Tarin Kot in Afghanistan and at Al Minhad Airbase in the United Arab Emirates. In fulfilling his brief, Quilty spoke with many Australian servicemen and women, gaining an insight into their experiences whilst serving in the region, and ultimately leaving with an overwhelming need to tell their stories.

Quilty recently spoke on ANZAC Day 2015 and paid tribute not only to those who did not return from Afghanistan and their grieving families, but also to “the young men and women who live amongst us who have paid so dearly and will quietly wear the thick cloak of trauma for many years to come, after Afghanistan.”

The exhibition is a must see as Quilty is arguably one of Australia’s greatest living painters, and this exhibition, with its intense and emotional subject matter is particularly important to Castlemaine, a town with a history of young men and women serving their country far from home. The exhibition has been very well received across the country with over 70,000 visitors attending the works when on display most recently in Darwin. Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial believes Quilty should be considered one of Australia’s great official war artists.

“Ben Quilty’s works follows a truly great tradition at the Australian War Memorial of appointing artists to record and interpret the Australian experience of war.”

“Ben brought to this task all his brilliance, sensitivity and compassion. The works he produced will leave Australians a legacy which informs them not only about the impact of war on our country, but even more importantly, about the effects on the men and women he has depicted,” said Dr Nelson.

Dr Jan Savage, President of the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum Committee of Management said the exhibition, “was significant in understanding the impact of war on serving members of the Australian armed forces and I encourage visitors to attend this most important exhibition.”

Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan is on display at Castlemaine Art Gallery from 15 January until 15 April 2016.

An Australian War Memorial Touring Exhibition, proudly sponsored by Thales.”

Text from the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum website

 

Ben Quilty. 'Tarin Kot, Hilux' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Tarin Kot, Hilux
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'Kandahar' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Kandahar
2012
Oil on linen
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

Ben Quilty. 'Kandahar' 2012 (detail)

 

Ben Quilty
Kandahar (detail)
2012
Oil on linen
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

 

Kandahar Airfield is a multinational vase with approximately 35,000 people from the International Security Assistance Fore, aid organisations, and a pool of local civilian staff. Weapons are carried at all times by both military and civilian personnel, creating a tense atmosphere with a violent undercurrent. Quilty described Kandahar as being a cross between the worlds of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Catch 22, a surreal, dusty, and violent place. “For the first week in Kandahar, I basically felt like I was dodging rockets. The first night we landed there, two or three rockets landed inside the compound.”

This painting was Quilty’s first visceral response on his return from Afghanistan and i sums up his emotions, particularly his personal experience of Kandahar and being a part of the maelstrom of war.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery with, at centre, Tarin Kot, Hilux (2012) and, at right, Kandahar (2012)

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation views of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

 

Returning from war

“You can’t take the experiences out of your head.
You can’t take the damages out of your head.”

John Oddie

 

On his return to Australia, Ben Quilty contacted Air Commodore John Oddie (Ret’d), whom he had met during his Afghanistan deployment, to invite him to sit for a portrait in his studio. From February to October 2011, Oddie had been the Deputy Commander of Australian forces in the Middle east, a position of immense responsibility.

Quilty eventually produced three portraits over five months. These works reveal a man returning from war and its burden of responsibility, exhausted emotionally and mentally, and his progress towards a more positive view of life and of himself as a survivor.

 

Ben Quilty. 'Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 3' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 3
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 3' 2012 (detail)

 

Ben Quilty
Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 3 (detail)
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

“I don’t necessarily see beauty, I see insight in what Ben does. That’s reflected in the way he paints … I think his later portraits, done after he’s got to know us better, are different from the raw emotion of the first ones.”

John Oddie

 

Ben Quilty. 'Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 1' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 1
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

“With through a lack of insight or through an unwillingness … I wasn’t always admitting the truth to myself about my life. Ben really took that out and put it on a table in front of me like a three-course dinner and said, well, how about that? And you know, I sort of thought well, I’m not going to come to this restaurant again in a hurry!”

John Oddie

 

Ben Quilty. 'Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 2' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 2
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

“He’s got this one little gash of paint and it brings out this wry smile that I didn’t even know I had … When I stood back and had a look, I was just stunned at the honesty of the painting – until then I hadn’t really been fully honest with myself about what I was feeling.”

John Oddie

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Introductory text from the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Introductory titles and text for the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper Daniel Spain, Tarin Kot' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper Daniel Spain, Tarin Kot
2012
Oil on linen diptych
Collection of the artist

 

 

In some of the works, Quilty has used dramatic symbols to represent the emotional weight and the sense of emptiness he felt some soldiers brought home with them after Afghanistan. The black hole motif also reflects his own feelings of anxiety and uncertainty during his time there.

“I had such extreme feelings about the smell, sound, emotions of being in Afghanistan … I wanted to convey this.”

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper Luke Korman' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper Luke Korman
2012
Aerosol and oil on linen
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery with, on the far wall, Trooper Luke Korman, Tarin Kot (2012, left) and SOTG, after Afghanistan (2011, right)

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper Luke Korman, Tarin Kot' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper Luke Korman, Tarin Kot
2012
Aerosol and oil on linen diptych
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'SOTG, after Afghanistan' 2011

 

Ben Quilty
SOTG, after Afghanistan
2011
Oil on linen diptych
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

 

As part of his initial idea for the war artist commission, Quilty photographed soldiers of the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan in the same pose. He asked each of them to face the sun with their eyes closed, then open them and stare into the blinding light. At that instant Quilty would take the photograph. “To me, this symbolises what they’re facing, something immense, overwhelming.”

Back in Australia, Quilty attempted to work from these photographs, and created a handful of portraits. He was dissatisfied with the results. Determined to re-establish a personal connection with his subjects, he invited some of them to sit for portraits in his studio.

 

 

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03
Sep
12

Exhibition: ‘Home Front: Wartime Sydney 1939-45’ at the Museum of Sydney

Exhibition dates: 31st March – 9th September 2012

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Some poignant photographs in this posting of young Australian men setting off to fight in the early stages of the Second World War. The message scrawled in chalk on the side of the train (below, at left) reads, “Berlin first stop. Look out Hitler, we’ll be there soon.” Little did they know it would be five long, hard years of fighting and countless deaths before that aphorism would come true. The 6th division AIF troops first fought in North Africa against the Italians at Tobruk and was then sent to Greece to fight the German advance. About 39 per cent of the Australian troops in Greece on 6 April 1941 were either killed, wounded or became prisoners of war. The division then fought in the Pacific War on the Kokoda Trail campaign in the New Guinea theatre until the end of the war.

I wonder how many of the men, smiling and leaning out of the train carriage or departing on a troop ship, returned to these shores?

The last photograph in the posting is so very eloquent it actually moved me to tears. The women being hoisted aloft to kiss her loved one last time – clutching her handbag, complete with rumpled, lumpy stockings. To the right (and this is what caught my eye), a man looks straight at the camera while another right next to him has this distant melancholy look on his face as though he is not actually there. A portent of things to come. Brave men, fighting in the only war that Australians have had to fight for their own freedom, not at the whim of a colonial power or overseas ally in some far of distant land. Brave men and women – we wouldn’t be here without them.

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Many thankx to the Museum of Sydney for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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S Hood
6th division AIF troops waving from troop-train carriage, 13 September 1940
1940
© Australian War Memorial

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Anon
Troops of the 6th Division wave goodbye, Sydney 1940
1940
© Australian War Memorial

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Anon
Men of the 6th Division returning from Wewak crowd the deck of HMS Implacable, 18 Dec 1945
1945
© Australian War Memorial

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Anon
An Australian built DAP Bristol Beaufort VIII aircraft, serial no A9-700, in flight over Sydney Harbour near the Bridge
c. 1944
© Australian War Memorial

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Anon
Partly submerged RAN accommodation ship damaged during the unsuccessful Japanese midget submarine attack 1 June 1942
1942
© Australian War Memorial

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Anon
Two women donning gas masks as part of an air raid drill
Nd
© Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

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Anon
Members of the Wardens’ Women’s Auxiliary making for the scene of an incident
c. 1943
© Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

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“In May 1942 three Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour in an attempt to sink allied ships, bringing the once far away war to the shores of the harbourside city and shaking the country to its core. Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Sydney Harbour, Home Front: Wartime Sydney 1939-45 a new exhibition opening 31 March at the Museum of Sydney, explores the experience of the women, men and children who rallied together to support the war effort from home.

Unprepared for another world war, Australians initially referred to the conflict as ‘the phoney war’, however it wasn’t long before propaganda posters were plastered around Sydney, censorship and food rationing became the norm, and tank traps and barbed wire replaced bronzed bodies on Sydney beaches. For six long years the world seemed to come to Sydney as soldiers, sailors and airmen from many nations called Sydney home, making wartime an exciting and thrilling period for some, while for others it was a long and lonely time interrupted by the occasional letter from a loved one serving overseas.

Almost 40,000 Australians lost their lives with the war leaving a lasting impact at home and transforming the lives of generations of Australians, in particular the lives of women, says Curator Annie Campbell. “As well as having to cope with war related anxieties and stress, many women were ‘manpowered’ to work in wartime industries such as ammunitions factories and aircraft construction. Everyone had to make sacrifices on the home front, however despite wartime shortages and rationing, women were expected and actively encouraged to look smart, which often involved some innovative thinking. One of my favourite objects in the exhibition is a wedding dress made out of parachute silk and mosquito net for a war bride, later worn by her sister and two girlfriends on their special days.

While the troops were busy on the battlefields, Sydneysiders prepared for the possibility of an enemy invasion on home soil. An anti-submarine boom net was installed across Sydney Harbour to keep out attacking forces, bomb shelters were constructed in Hyde Park and protective timbers were placed around landmark buildings. In 1942 blackout restrictions were introduced to limit the effectiveness of air raids, all Sydney lights were switched off and car, train and tram headlights were masked, giving the city a sinister feel. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, large numbers of people were ready to have fun in Sydney and the Trocadero on George Street became a mecca for white American servicemen, while the Booker T Washington Club in Albion Street Surry Hills serviced the African-American GI’s,” says Campbell.

Highlights of the exhibition include the microphone used by Prime Minister Robert Menzies to announce that Australia was at war, remnants of the Japanese midget submarines that attacked Sydney, over 100 photographs and artworks depicting wartime Sydney, and a short documentary featuring historic footage. Over 200 wartime Sydney mementoes will also feature in the exhibition including propaganda posters, warden’s memorabilia, letters from soldiers serving overseas and a selection of wartime fashions.”

Press release from the Museum of Sydney website

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Anon
Sydney kindergarten children wearing air raid headgear designed to muffle sounds and prevent them from biting tongues
Nd
© Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

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Anon
Eve Holliman, Hilda Jamieson and Vera Thurlow converting a car into an ambulance
Nd
© Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

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Anon
Woman war worker
1944
© Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

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Anon
Change Over to a Victory Job propaganda poster
Nd
© Australian War Memorial

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Anon
Advertisement for Ponds
1945
© National Library of Australia

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Weaver Hawkins
Jitterbugs
1945
Oil on canvas, Art Gallery of New South Wales
© Estate of H F Weaver Hawkins
Photograph Jenni Carter

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S Hood
Sydney embarkation, 13 September 1940
1940
© Australian War Memorial

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S Hood
Sydney embarkation, 13 September 1940
1940
© Australian War Memorial

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Museum of Sydney
Cnr Bridge and Phillip Streets
Sydney, NSW 2000
T: (02) 9251 5988

Opening hours:
Open daily 9.30am – 5pm
Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day

Museum of Sydney website

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18
Jan
09

Review: ‘Framing Conflict – Iraq and Afghanistan’ exhibition by Lyndell Brown and Charles Green at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 5th Nov 2008 – 1st Feb 2009

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. 'Afghan traders with soldiers, market, Tarin Kowt base, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan.' 2007-08

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
Afghan traders with soldiers, market, Tarin Kowt base, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
2007-08
From The approaching storm series 2007-09
Digital colour inkjet photograph
155 × 107.5 cm

 

 

Despite one brilliant photograph and some interesting small painted canvases this exhibition is a disappointment. No use beating around the figurative bush in the landscape so to speak, talking plainly will suffice. Firstly, let’s examine the photographs. Thirteen large format colour photographs are presented in the exhibition out of an archive of “thousands of photographs Brown and Green created on tour”1 from which the paintings are derived.

Most of the photographs are inconsequential and need not have been taken. Relying on the usual trope of painters who take photographs they are shot at night, dusk or dawn when the shadows are long, the colours lush supposedly adding ‘mystique’ to the scene being portrayed. In some cases they are more like paintings than the paintings themselves. Perhaps this was the artist’s plan, the reverse marriage of photography and painting where one becomes the other, but this does little to advance photography as art. There is nothing new or interesting here: sure, some of the photographs are beautiful in the formal representation of a vast and fractured landscape but the pre-visualisation is weak: bland responses to the machines, industry, people and places of the conflict. Go look at the Andreas Gursky photographs at the National Gallery of Victoria to see world-class photography taking reality to the limit, head on.

Too often in these thirteen images the same image is repeated with variants – three images of the an aircraft having it’s propeller changed show a lack of ideas or artefacts to photograph – presented out of the thousands taken seems incongruous. The fact that only one photograph is reproduced in the catalogue is also instructive.

Some images are just unsuccessful. For example the photograph Dusk, ship’s bridge with two sailors, northern Gulf is of a formulaic geometry that neither holds the viewers attention nor gives a deeper insight into their lives aboard ship and begs the question why was the photograph taken in the first place? The dark space has little physical or metaphysical illumination and seems purely to be an exercise in formalism. The photograph Dusk, ships’ bridge with sailor, northern Gulf is more successful in the use of light and shade as they play across the form of a sailor, his head resting pensively in his hand, red life vests adding a splash of colour to the bottom right of the photograph.

The brilliant photograph of the group is View from Chinook, Helmand province, Afghanistan. This really is a monstrous photograph. With the large black mass of the helicopter in the foreground of the image containing little detail, the eye is drawn upwards to the windscreen through which a mountain range rises, with spines like the back of a Stegosaurus. To the right a road, guarded by a desolate looking pillbox and yellow barrier, meanders into the distance. Dead flies on the windscreen look like small bullet holes until you realise what they are. This is the image that finally evidences a disquieting beauty present in the vast and ancient landscape.

Turning to the paintings we can say that some of the small 31cm x 31cm paintings work well. From an ‘original’ photograph the artist selects and crops a final image that they work up into a highly detailed oil painting. Distilled (as the artist’s like to put it) from the ‘original’ photographs, the paintings become a “merging of a contemporary sense of composition – borrowed from photography, film and video – with the textures and processes of traditional oil painting.”2

“These works were developed by the artists to be something akin to “Hitchcockian clues” which create the sense of looking out at a scene but being distanced from the action. To some degree the entire suite of small pictures participate in developing this intrigue, by showing an array of ambiguous scenes in which direct action is never present, or is obscured by limited perspectives … The artists noted that the war zones they witnessed were low in action but high in tension”3

To an extent this tension builds in some of the small paintings: the small size lends an intimate, intense quality and forces the viewer to engage with highly detailed renditions of textures of clothing, material, skin and hair and the distorted scale of the ships and aeroplanes portrayed. In these intense visions the painting seems less like a photograph and more like a new way of seeing. However, this occurs only occasionally within the group of small paintings.

If we think of a photograph in the traditional sense as a portrayal of reality, then a distillation of that photograph (the removal of impurities from, an increase in the concentration of) must mean that these paintings are a double truth, a concentrated essence of the ‘original’ photograph that changes that essence into something new. Unfortunately most of these small canvases show limited viewpoints of distilled landscapes that do not lead to ambiguous enigmas, but to the screen of the camera overlaid by a skein of paint, a patina of posing.

This feeling is only amplified in the three large ‘History’ paintings. The three paintings seem static, lifeless, over fussy and lacking insight into the condition of the ‘machine’ that they are attempting to portray. It’s a bit like the ‘Emperors New Clothes’, the lack of substance in the paintings overlaid with the semantics of History painting (“a traditional genre that focused on mythological, biblical, historical and military subjects”) used to confirm their existence and supposed insight into the doubled, framed reality. As Robert Nelson noted in his review of 2008 art in Melbourne in The Age newspaper it would seem that painting is sliding into terminal decline. These paintings only seem to confirm that view.

Here was a golden opportunity to try something fresh in terms of war as conflict – both in photography and painting – to frame the discourse in an eloquent, innovative manner. Most of this work is not interesting because it does not seem to be showing, or being discursive about anything beyond a personal whim. Because an artist can talk about some things, doesn’t mean that he can make comments about other things that have any value. Although the artist was looking to portray landscapes of globalisation and entropy, there are more interesting ways of doing this, rather than the nature of the transcription used here.

Here was a golden opportunity to try something fresh in terms of war as conflict – both in photography and painting – to frame the discourse in an eloquent, innovative manner. Most of this work is not interesting because it does not seem to be showing, or being discursive about anything beyond a personal whim. Because an artist can talk about some things, doesn’t mean that he can make comments about other things that have any value. Although the artist was looking to portray landscapes of globalisation and entropy, there are more interesting ways of doing this, rather than the nature of the transcription used here.

“It is very good to copy what one sees: it is much better to draw what you can’t see any more but in your memory. It is a transformation in which imagination and memory work together. You only reproduce what struck you, that is to say, the necessary. That way your memory and your fantasy are freed from the tyranny of nature.”4

No thinking but the putting away of intellect and the reliance on memory and imagination, memory and fantasy to ‘distil’ the essence. This is what needed to happen both in the photographs and paintings – leaving posturing aside (perhaps an ‘unofficial war artist’ would have had more success!) to uncover the transformation of landscape that the theatre of this environment richly deserves.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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Many thankx to The Ian Potter Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

References

1. Heywood, Warwick. Framing Conflict: Iraq and Afghanistan exhibition catalogue. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2008, p. 6
2. Heywood, Warwick. Framing Conflict: Iraq and Afghanistan exhibition catalogue. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2008, p. 6
3. Heywood, Warwick. Framing Conflict: Iraq and Afghanistan exhibition catalogue. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2008, p. 11
4. Degas, Edgar quoted in Halligan, Marion. “Between the brushstrokes,” in A2 section, The Saturday Age newspaper, January 17th 2008, p. 18

 

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. 'Afghan National Army perimeter post with chair, Tarin Kowt base, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan' 2007-08

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
Afghan National Army perimeter post with chair, Tarin Kowt base, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
2007-08
From The approaching storm series 2007-09
Digital colour inkjet photograph
111.5 × 151.5 cm

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. 'Dusk, ship's bridge with two sailors, northern Gulf' 2007-08

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
Dusk, ship’s bridge with two sailors, northern Gulf
2007-08
Digital colour inkjet photograph

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. "Late afternoon, flight line, military installation, Middle East" 2007

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
Late afternoon, flight line, military installation, Middle East
2007
Oil on linen

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. "Market, Camp Holland, Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan." 2007

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
Market, Camp Holland, Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
2007
Oil on linen

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. 'View from Chinook, Helmand province, Afghanistan' 2007-08

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
View from Chinook, Helmand province, Afghanistan
2007-08
From The approaching storm series 2007-09
Digital colour inkjet photograph
111.5 × 151.5 cm

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. 'View from Chinook, Helmand province, Afghanistan' 2007

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
View from Chinook, Helmand province, Afghanistan
2007
Oil on linen

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. 'Trolley, propeller change, on flightline at night, military installation, Gulf' 2007-2008

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
Trolley, propeller change, on flightline at night, military installation, Gulf
2007-2008
From The approaching storm series 2007-09
Digital colour inkjet photograph
87.0 × 87.4 cm

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. 'History painting: market, Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan' 2007

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
History painting: market, Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
2007
Oil on linen

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. Installation view of photographs from the exhibition 'Framing Conflict' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
Installation view of photographs from the exhibition Framing Conflict at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne
2009

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. Installation view of paintings from the exhibition 'Framing Conflict' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne 2009

 

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
Installation view of paintings from the exhibition Framing Conflict at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne
2009

 

 

The Ian Potter Museum of Art
The University of Melbourne,
Swanston Street (between Elgin and Faraday Streets)
Parkville, Melbourne, Victoria
Phone: +61 3 8344 5148

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Friday 10 am – 5 pm
Saturday and Sunday 12 – 5 pm

The Ian Potter Museum of Art website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Mask’ 1994

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