Too often big galleries shy away from exhibitions based on ideas or themes, concentrating instead on the big names (the vermeers, the turners, the rothkos) that grab the attention of the paying public. Artists and their works become frozen in time, denuded of broader contexts in which they worked
The Barbican has hit on a good compromise. Include the big name (Capa and his partner Gerda Taro) but mix it in with a contemporary subject (Iraq, Afghanistan) and some contemporary artists. The result is one of the most surprising and powerful exhibitions of 2008, a demonstration of the intimate relationship between artistic creation and its political context.
There was a misty point in time when a photo-journalist’s pictures were taken as gospel – visual reports from the Spanish Civil War or from the D-Day beaches that stood testament to not only the personal challenges of a soldier, but represented a whole set of democratic values that many believed in. But as wars faded from public consciousness, or at least became messy, ambiguous affairs that happened in far away lands, the status of such work was very much under question.
And, intellectually, the whole postmodern turn re-evaluated and then tore down the authenticity of the image. Photographs like Capa’s Fallen Soldier were questioned, perhaps even ridiculed. Robert Capa (real name: Andre Friedmann) no longer carried symbolic value. Cynical viewers lost their faith.
This then is the intellectual landscape that contemporary artists have inherited, and are replayed in the Barbican exhibition. In particular, Omar Fast’s The Casting, was an exceptionally enlivening piece of work that embraces and extends the mutual inheritance of the photo-journalist and the visual artist.
The Casting is very much a single work, featuring multiple stories and multiple screens. As the video commentary below explains, it gives perfect voice to the idea “there are two sides to every story” (or even more).
A superficial review of the work could view it as a piece of postmodern trickery. Certainly, there is no attempt to present the work as documentary truth. Rather a series of narrative devices first confuse, and then admit to the fact that this is a created work of art.
So we hear the narrative and the accompanying images switching between the story of the American solider and the German girl, and the American solider and the Arab shooting; we see the characters suddenly breaking off the narrative as if frozen in their roles; we see other characters looking directly at the soldier recounting his story(s), emphasising its first-person, subjective nature (and maybe also reminding the viewer of the presence of the cameras).
And then, later on our visit to the gallery, we chance upon a room with the other side of the screens, where we hear the same soundtrack but witness an entirely different visual scene – a scruffy journalist interviewing a young, burly solider, and we think the true source of the story of the German girl and the Arab family is revealed. But then this document falls apart again: the image keeps jumping around, showing the journalist and the soldier in different poses, different clothes and with different attitudes; the video and the soundtrack have been spliced together from several interviews. The whole thing has been (re)arranged for artistic consumption.
The Casting works hard to admit the transparency of its fiction, and yet we do not react with cynical withdrawal. Emotion is invoked with the initial set of stories – the soldier’s confused relationship with the German girl, but it is the impulsive shooting of the Arab family member in the battered car that provokes a response. There is clear emotional distress here, but the precise nature, cause and fault of such distress are not clearly articulated with an reliability. There’s a story here, but the details are smudged. The fact that both narratives are recounted by the soldier, thereby not offering even the Germans or the Arabs a voice, assists this notion. We feel for the victims (and the victims could also include the solider, at the centre of events he cannot comprehend) and the confused narrative urges us to discover more – what is the truth of the story?
The Casting demonstrates the mutable nature of war art, but also clamours for its accurate documentation. In the context of recent western ‘adventures’ in the Middle East, its images and its reporting (‘weapons of mass destruction’, ‘rendition flights’, Abu Gharaib), The Casting serves as call to acknowledges the foibles in communicating war but also highlights the need to surpass them. The viewer is forced into seeing the absolute need to restore credibility to the image.
The subtlety with which Omer Fast reveals the fragility of the image as a carrier of truth leads us back to the work of Capa.
Exhibition shot of Capa’s A Fallen Solider with other photos from same film. The Fallen Solider is at the bottom of the middle column. (Thanks to Paul Carvill for the original picture.)
The curators have made an excellent effort to respond to the fluctuations in Capa’s reputation. The status of Capa’s republican icon for the Spanish Civil War, The Falling Solider, has withered since its creation, critics providing a variety of evidence to undermine its reputation as an authentic, spur-of-the-moment portrait of heroism and individual pathos. So the curators have presented not just the single image, but all the shots from that film, shots that re-establish (but probably do not quite confirm) the original argument that the event was a sudden dramatic event in the midst of some routine photograph. We see how the image, with the passage of time, became gradually separated from the other photos that provided evidence of its genesis.
The exhibition is equally good for works in similar positions, concentrating not on single images from Capa’s oeuvre, but providing the photographic and historical context. The story of the D-Day landings is recounted; what films Capa took with him; what images he took; where he was when he took them; how the films got transported to London (and how some got damaged); what the editors of the publications thought about them; what the technical staff did (and what they messed up) with the images; how the images were presented in the final publication.
This works particularly well for another dramatic Capa image, that of the American solider killed by a sniper’s bullet in 1945 Leipzig. By itself, it’s a powerful image. The ugly sprawl of the soldier, trapped between inside and outside, and the rich, telltale river of blood. But the exhibition shows not just this, but the other images taken by Capa at the same time – the soldiers casually chatting on the balcony, the sudden rush inside, the silent confusion of the other soldiers after the event. One gets a better feeling for the the hows and whens – where was Capa standing; how did he take this picture; and, perhaps most potentially fall, which of the soldiers was killed.
Nevertheless, the contextual information does not deaden the image with scholarly context, but provides a shocking reminder of war’s bleakness. Two soldiers are chatting idly on a balcony, smoking cigarettes, perhaps discussing the end of the war. The photo seems everyday, mundane. And then seconds later, there is a shot, a frantic rush to safety indoors, and Capa captures the infinite tragedy of death.