I’m regretful about Sappers and Shrapnel: Contemporary Art and the Art of the Trenches at the Art Gallery of South Australia – not about the show but about how long it lingered in the queue before I could get down to Adelaide for a viewing. Exhibitions at the AGSA are often of a short duration and there’s now only a week to run for this event. Nevertheless, one of the roles of this column is to provide a critical assessment that lingers long after an exhibition is finished.
Sappers and Shrapnel deserves the attention because it is a genuinely innovative attempt to contemplate the First World War through the eyes of contemporary artists. Of the $325 million this country has devoted to WW1 commemorations until now there has hardly been a worthwhile art exhibition. The 2015 touring show, Your Friend the Enemy, in which I was involved, was privately organised and funded. Later this year, another group of artists will travel to the Western Front to work in the battlefields.
The AGSA has followed a different path by not concentrating on the landscapes of conflict but on the artistic impulses that stirred even in the depths of the trenches. Curator Lisa Slade and her team hit upon the inspired idea of using the Australian War Memorial’s collection of artefacts created by Sapper Stanley Keith Pearl as the nucleus and inspiration for an exhibition featuring work by 18 contemporary artists, including 8 members of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers collective.
The other artists are Tony Albert, Olga Cironis, Nicholas Folland, Brett Graham, Fiona Hall, Richard Lewer, Alasdair McLuckie, Baden Pailthorpe, Ben Quilty and Sera Waters. A great deal of thought went into this selection and each participant has risen to the occasion, many of them venturing into entirely new areas. It’s fantastic to see Richard Lewer creating old-fashioned dioramas in emulation of the classic pieces in the Australian War Memorial; Nicholas Folland making ‘dazzle camouflage’ abstractions; or Baden Pailthorpe putting aside his video work to produce a wall of papier-mâché Kevlar helmets.
Sapper Pearl, the catalyst for this show, was a remarkable, somewhat enigmatic figure. Born in Tasmania in 1894, he served as a Field Engineer on the Western Front, getting a first-hand view of the carnage. At the end of the war Pearl moved to Canberra where he worked as a carpenter at the AWM, but remained so anonymous that no-one has managed to find a photo of him.
During those long stretches of boredom that punctuated the slaughter, Pearl kept himself busy making sculptures from whatever bits of metal and wood he could obtain. Today we’d call these works “assemblages”. There is a wall relief of Tasmania, a hat stand, a paper knife, an inkstand, napkin rings, a model aeroplane, several vases, and even a clock face, all constructed from the detritus of the battlefields.
Pearl had a powerful artistic imagination, and there is a lot of wit and flair in these pieces. The components were scavenged from many different sources, making each sculpture an anthology of stories. Pearl is almost unique in that he made notes on these works recording the origins of his finds.
Inevitably, there is a macabre aspect to crafting decorative objects out of the weapons of war. It takes the line from Isaiah about beating swords into ploughshares one step further: from making something to use in the fields to creating ornaments for the mantlepiece. This ambiguous mix of registers is echoed in Tony Albert’s Universal Soldier (2014), a relief sculpture made from the kitsch items found in junk shops, depicting a soldier holding a wounded comrade in his arms.
The head of the wounded man is a wooden map of Australia that doubles as a rack for souvenir tea spoons. There are numerous other examples of those tacky portrayals of Aborigines that were popular at a time when indigenous people didn’t even have the vote. Kitsch is a debased, sentimental, domestic form of art that Albert reconfigures into a piece that highlights the gulf between the experience of war and the trivial preoccupations of peace. He also commemorates the Aboriginal warriors who fought in defence of their own land, only to end as motifs on ashtrays.
Brett Graham works in similar territory, with a series of wooden targets, and even a model armoured car, incised with traditional, geometric Maori patterns. Once again there is a dual reference – to WW1, and to the frontier conflicts between indigenous people and colonists which resulted in the subjugation of an established culture. Graham reverses the process, superimposing Maori motifs on western implements of war.
The weavings made by the Tjanpi Weavers and Fiona Hall, during a two-week bush camp, are far more rough-and-ready: a ghostly flotilla of prams, trolleys and pushcarts, covered in native grasses and coloured twine. This series of abandoned toys evokes the loss of childhood innocence. Those children may have been taken from their families by force, or simply grown up and left. One thinks of the young men who went to war never to return.
Aside from her participation in the bush camp, Fiona Hall has created a large vitrine full of ‘trench art’ pieces made from beer cans and other junk; but her major contribution to the show is All the King’s Men, a sequence of grotesque, woven heads and ragged, trawling bodies suspended on wires.
These works were made for the 2015 Venice Biennale, but isolated in this show they give the impression of a cannibal encampment in the deepest jungle, or a scene of ancient warfare where the mutilated heads of the enemy are displayed as trophies. Embedded in these heads one finds a billiard ball, a boxing glove, animal bones and horns. Hall doesn’t transform weapons into domestic kitsch, but takes everyday objects and imbues them with the full horror of violent confrontation and the obscene celebrations of the victor.
I’ve left Ben Quilty to last, because his room-sized installation, Dresses for Soulaf (2016) takes his work into momentous new territory. In place of his trademark expressive paintings Quilty has created an ensemble of found objects – large-scale reliefs made from the phoney life-jackets sold to refugees crossing the Mediterranean; wedding dresses created by a Syrian seamstress living in a refugee camp; children’s drawings showing bombs falling on cities; a video recording a visit to camps in Lebanon and Serbia, undertaken in company with the writer, Richard Flanagan.
A lot of his art world peers are unsettled by Quilty’s radical humanism which has lured him outside the sedate spaces of the art gallery into war zones, refugee camps, and the Bali prison where Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chang were executed. Not many of us would willingly undertake such journeys, which reveal Quilty’s compassion for the victim, and his determination to use his skills (and an increasingly high profile) to make a difference.
Is it great art? If it moves us and makes us question our own complacency in the face of suffering and injustice, such work cannot be ignored. The art lies in creating pieces that transcend political propaganda, retaining an aesthetic dimension that distinguishes them as works of spirit and human ingenuity. That feeling is present in Soulaf’s immaculate dresses – a defiant attempt to create beauty in the midst of squalor. It’s there in the children’s spontaneous records of destruction. It’s there in Quilty’s life-jacket assemblages, which play on the tragic paradox that these so-called aids to survival have helped drown countless people driven from their homes by the ravages of war.
In his installation Quilty captures the essence of this show, in which every artist has played their part. It’s a belief that art is one of the most important ways of dealing with experiences that are too traumatic, too frightening, too terrible for words. It may be the deep-rooted traumas of WW1, the pain of indigenous dispossession that has echoed through generations; or the new barbarism that has devastated the Middle East, while the west grows more insular and self-serving. In times of war people cling to fragments of sense and beauty provided by art, like refugees clinging to a vestige of hope.
Sappers and Shrapnel
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
until 29 January