Age of Terror at the Imperial War Museum (2017)

The largest contemporary art exhibition IWM has presented to date, Age of Terror, examines artists’ responses to conflict since the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. The catastrophic events of that day changed public perception and understanding of conflict. The exhibition considers how the complex issues surrounding the global response to 9/11, the nature of modern warfare and the continuing state of emergency in which we find ourselves have become compelling subject matter for contemporary artists.

The exhibition features more than 40 British and international contemporary artists, including several who work in the medium of film and video. The quality and clarity of the sound accompanying moving images works is equally important to the visuals and the audio equipment supplied by Bowers & Wilkins has provided us with the high standard we required for this exhibition.

Age of Terror takes 9/11 as its starting point and the artworks featured communicate a range of perspectives on subsequent events and consequences.11 September 2001 is a date which is etched onto collective memory. Those who experienced it, whether directly or through the media, will always remember where they were and what they were doing. The day’s events were broadcast live by the world’s media. Digital photography and electronic newsgathering transmitted the visual spectacle globally in an instant. As a result of the attacks, almost 3,000 people were killed and over 6,000 injured. For many people living outside conflict zones, that day brought home the realisation that terrorism could affect anyone at any time.

Some artists had first-hand experience of the events and produced work in the immediate aftermath. New York based artist Tony Oursler began filming from his apartment close to the World Trade Center and later on the streets of Lower Manhattan as the tragedy unfolded. His camera recorded the responses of New Yorkers and tourists at the Ground Zero site in the days and months that followed, capturing how the dead and missing were memorialised and the extraordinary humanity displayed in the recovery effort.

Immediately after 9/11 levels of state control intensified. As a result, civil liberties have become increasingly compromised and security and surveillance amplified. There is a sense that we now exist in a perpetual state of emergency. Many artists have questioned the legal and political practices that developed as a result of the ‘War on Terror’. They communicate a collective anxiety about these changes, highlight their impact on fundamental human rights, and contribute to debates on terrorism.

Shona Illingworth’s work 216 Westbound, 2014, addresses the London bombings of 7 July 2005. The film explores the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on John Tulloch, a survivor. The assault he experienced was further exacerbated by the global media dissemination of his image taken after the attack. It was used to promote the British government’s ‘90 days detention without charge’ anti-terror legislation, which Tulloch strenuously opposed.

The torture and abuse of Iraqi detainees by US service personnel at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War in 2003 has also provoked a powerful response from artists exploring the institutionalisation of violence. Coco Fusco was shocked that revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib included violent acts being carried out by women. She worked with retired US Army interrogators to explore their methods. She and a group of female students were subjected to simulations of prisoner of war experiences. Documented in a film, the work includes interviews with the interrogators that shed light on how they read personalities, evaluate reliability, and use the imposition of physical and mental stress strategically.

Since 9/11, developments in weaponry and their ethical and practical implications continue to provide fascinating subject matter for artists. The exhibition explores our complex relationship with firearms, bombs and drones. Omer Fast’s film, 5,000 Feet is Best, 2011, is based on a series of interviews conducted in a Las Vegas hotel room with a former drone operator. The film reveals the psychological impact of engaging an enemy from thousands of miles away, and it offers a subtle exploration of how the use of drones has rapidly changed the politics, principles and personal experience of contemporary conflict.

The final section of the exhibition examines how the ‘War on Terror’ has challenged our understanding of home – and the comfort, safety and security that the word ‘home’ should evoke. The impact of conflict on landscape, architecture and people has long been a subject addressed by artists. This section contains works by artists from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, several of whom are working in exile in the West, reflecting from a distance on the destruction inflicted on the countries of their birth.

Hrair Sarkissian recreated and destroyed a scale model of the apartment building in Damascus where his parents live in the video work, Homesick, 2014. Sarkissian grew up in this building, and lived there until he left Syria in 2008. As well as providing shelter to his parents, it is where he belongs, a place for his family’s collective identity. By taking fate into his own hands, he is trying to regain some control over a frightful situation.

Artists have always responded to world-changing political events. They use different tools and media to address the subject of conflict, which provide new and often challenging viewpoints. Conflict as a subject matter has been more regularly covered in contemporary art exhibitions, art fairs and biennials internationally since 9/11. It is perhaps a consequence of the internet age that people are more quickly and comprehensively informed about world events, and this is reflected in how artists respond and the subjects they choose to cover. From its inception in 1917, IWM has worked with artists in order to give insight into current conflicts. The art collection of over 20,000 works is a testament to that. In our contemporary era, we are aware of the work of artists living in or displaced from conflict areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. This exhibition brings together a wide selection of international artists’ viewpoints and responses.

Sanna Moore
Senior Curator, Contemporary Conflict

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