Representation of war wakes us from childhood dreams

On the May 4 1978 South Africa mounted a massive air assault, part of Operation Reindeer, against a Swapo base and refugee camp at the town of Cassinga in Angola, almost 300km from the northern border of then-South West Africa. As is often the case with events such as this, Cassinga falls into the grey zones of history, changing shape and meaning with time, depending on who is doing the telling.

Various accounts, official and unofficial, note that South Africa sustained few casualties in the attack, whereas deaths on the Swapo side were in the hundreds and Cuban forces stationed nearby who came to the aid of Swapo also sustained heavy casualties. At least 300 of the dead at Cassinga were women and children. Swapo and Angolan sources indicated that these were refugees, whereas South African combatants recounted that Swapo was using civilians as human shields during the encounter.

In 1936, on September 23, during the Spanish Civil War, the French magazine Vu published a photograph by the Hungarian photographer Robert Capa. It was captioned Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5 1936. But subsequent research has cast doubt not only on the caption but also on the image itself, leading some to conclude that the photograph was not taken where it was alleged to have been taken and that Capa had staged it. The most ironic interpretation is that the soldier was shot by a sniper while posing for a staged photograph for Capa. Despite this controversy, The Falling Soldier, as it has come to be known, remains one of the most iconic images of war in the 20th century.

These two narratives bring to the fore some of the complex layers and references in Christo Doherty’s exhibition, Bos, which uses model-making and photography to construct images of the South African ‘bush war”.

Several broad art-historical trajectories intersect in Bos and certainly more than one arc in the history of representation in general. In the first instance Bos finds its place in the long tradition of what one might call war art (as part of a broader genre of history painting) – the grand allegorical paintings that stretch from Rubens’s Peace and War to Picasso’s Guernica; the paintings that give us ‘re-enactments” of famous battles and war events, like Winslow Homer’s scenes from the American Civil War; and also those paintings and prints that depict the barbarity and horror of war — Goya’s The Disasters of War, Manet’s three versions of The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian in the 1860s, John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, Otto Dix’s World War I etchings and Käthe Kollwitz’s searing drawings and sculptures.

The second great arc is the photography of war — the images that have helped define the way in which we understand military conflict and its aftermath. The photographer Jeff Wall notes that during the 69 years between Manet’s The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian and Picasso’s Guernica, ‘photojournalism as such came into existence and began to dominate historical discourse”. As evidence of this, photographs of the Crimean War, the American Civil War and the Spanish Civil War have assumed an important place in our archive of conflict, but then also the Korean War, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, and now, to add to this great archive of death and memorial, Namibia (and I am thinking here of John Liebenberg’s recent book, Bush of Ghosts).

A great deal has been written about the way in which war has been represented in photography. The seminal argument, following Susan Sontag, is that images of war have blunted our senses, slowed our moral response to atrocity. We have, in short, seen too much to be moved any longer. There are many ways in which to counteract this argument but, nonetheless, it has helped to generate a range of responses from photographers to war and, more generally, to trauma.

The third narrative of war representation is of course film, and here the references are many and varied, from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin all the way through both World Wars and Vietnam to The Deer Hunter and last year’s The Hurt Locker by Katherine Bigelow and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Doherty himself has remarked on the extent to which the images in Bos, singly and as a sequence (a succession of frames), allude to film not only through their subject matter but also through their deployment of a cinematographic language, a reliance on set-up and framing (the photographer Gregory Crewdson comes to mind here).

But all of this brings me to a significant ‘moment” in representational history — the photographic tableau and, more specifically and in relation to Doherty’s work, the photographed miniature. It is this extraordinary ability of the photograph to halt, capture and fling aside time that is its most mysterious characteristic.

Tableau photography, particularly in relation to war, is a direct response to this quality of the photograph — it seeks to heighten and, at the same time, call into question the temporal metaphor to which photography has been attached since its inception. But perhaps more obviously, this genre of photography (and I use the term genre rather loosely here) is also aimed directly at the other classical arguments about the medium — that it retains and represents a measure of truth that the other arts cannot represent in quite the same way.

Which brings me back home, to Cassinga. It signifies a key moment in a war that had been going for 12 years and would go on for 11 more. But it also points to the erasure and fabrication of the history of that war that is the result of propaganda and politics and even simple forgetting. Cassinga and the ‘bush war” more generally are represented in this exhibition as a kind of theatre. Of all the arts, theatre asks us to imagine more grandly, to see more creatively than other art forms do. It enlists our ability to believe in what we see not on the level of verity or logic or rationality, but on the level of the emotions.

But this emotional engagement is counteracted by the distancing mechanisms at work here: on the one hand, the play involved in the process of making these images — the model-making, the reconstructions from archival photographs, the toying with objects — and, on the other, the treble remove from an historical event through photographs of models that are themselves the recreations of photographs. When we first look at the images, we are caught between admiring the verisimilitude of the models (made by professional military model-makers) and ‘remembering” the events that they are supposed to depict. We are caught, in other words, in exactly the place that photography itself occupies.

Yet, quite surprisingly, Bos takes us beyond war — to childhood. Children teach us that we are emotionally connected to the objects we create and hold, that we construct and understand our world and our place in the world through games. They teach us, in other words, the deadly seriousness of play.

This is an edited extract of a speech delivered by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen at the opening of Bos at Resolution Gallery in Parkwood, Johannesburg, on January 15. Law-Viljoen is the editor of Art South Africa magazine and the co-director of Fourthwall Books. Bos runs at the Resolution Gallery, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, until March 12

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