As it awaits the unveiling of its new galleries in 2025, the Australian War Memorial (AWM) has had to defend itself against hostile forces. At a proposed cost of more than $500 million the renovation has attracted criticism from architects, academics and heritage groups, not to mention the envy of other institutions that can only dream of such a lavish government hand-out. Regardless of the fracas, the administration has continued to push forward with its grandiose plans.
From a Sydney perspective, the controversy in Canberra seems less alarming than the proposed redevelopment of the Powerhouse Museum, which would leave little change from $2 billion and achieve an entirely negative result. Even allowing for the heritage issues, the AWM has a much better chance of success.
The exhibition, Art in Conflict at the S.H. Ervin Gallery shows what the AWM has been doing while the builders have been in residence. It seems the curators have kept themselves busy shopping and commissioning.
There are more than 60 works in this show, by 50 artists from Australia and New Zealand. It makes for a busy, demanding display. In terms of presentation, it would have been easier for everyone – curators, installers and audience – had there been some judicious editing. Trying to cover the widest possible territory the organisers have succumbed to the vice of showing one work each by many different artists. It’s generally wiser to show fewer artists in greater depth and put the rest aside for a future occasion.
A catalogue would have helped matters and provided some context for this giddy variety. Apparently, this role was going to be filled by an anthology of essays called The Politics of Artists in War Zones, but publication has been delayed.
What we get is a show divided into five sections, the first being a series of mixed media works by Megan Cope, who gets more space than any other artist. This is followed by Recent Conflicts, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Historical Reflections, and Personal Experiences.
Ever since the AWM restored the post of war artist, sending Rick Amor and Wendy Sharpe to East Timor in 1999, there have been numerous appointments. Most of these war artists have been painters, notably Ben Quilty, who went to Afghanistan in 2011, and made a powerful statement about the psychological stress and fatigue suffered by the soldiers. Others, such as Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, who were sent to Iraq in 2007, have taken a more deadpan approach, producing detailed records of Australian troops interacting with locals.
Artists such as Shaun Gladwell, Susan Norrie and Angelica Mesiti have created video works. The most impressive is Mesiti’s A hundred years (2019-20), a haunting pan over the battlefields of the Western Front, the scene of so much bloodshed in World War One. The work’s power lies in its simplicity, showing landscapes that were once seas of mud restored to fertility but bearing indelible scars. An ambient musical score adds to the feeling of melancholy.
Since Vietnam, the war artist’s role has changed in line with the changing status of the Australian Armed Forces abroad. In fierce conflicts such as World War One, artists had to decide how close they should get to the action, balancing the horror that met their eyes with the need to produce positive, patriotic statements. To put it crudely, they had to weigh the claims of realism and propaganda. Was it possible to be a dispassionate witness when one saw atrocities being committed? Or your countrymen being slaughtered?
Artists who might have been inclined to make anti-war statements had to tailor their inclinations to a war effort that required of images of heroism and endurance. Will Dyson pushed forward into the trenches of the Western Front and was wounded. Arthur Streeton stood at a safe distance, painting puffs of smoke on the horizon.
Today, Australia’s only active role is as a peacekeeper in international conflicts. This doesn’t preclude violence and danger, but we are not combatants engaged in a patriotic struggle. If the line has been crossed occasionally, that’s down to the nature of war and the dark aspects of human nature it ignites.
Every latter-day war artist has been conscious of the danger that exists in these zones but have had few opportunities to depict actual battle scenes, as George Lambert did in his after-the-event paintings of the Gallipoli campaign.
The seven works by Megan Cope, who has the distinction of being the first Indigenous war artist, follow her assignment to Operation Accordion, the Australian Defence Force’s Support Mission in the Middle East, in 2017. Rather than depict the everyday lives of soldiers, Cope has created a series of conceptually based works, using historic maps of the region overlaid with geometrical motifs, some resembling targets, others suggestive of the pictograms used in traditional Aboriginal painting.
While it’s refreshing to see an artist take a different approach, Cope could just as easily have made these pieces without ever leaving the studio. There’s a strong historical dimension but no sense of involvement with the men and women serving on the ground. These works appear to have more in common with those in the Historical and Personal sections of the show than with the works of other war artists.
Along with the changing roles of armed forces and artists, the exhibition chronicles the AWM’s growing willingness to consider conflict between settlers and first Australians as a war of dispossession. It’s a sign of official openness to a concept that has long drawn the hostility of conservative commentators who maintain “war” is too inflammatory a word to describe the messy process of colonisation that drove tribal people off their ancestral lands.
This begs the question: “How many acts of violence, how may forcible land grabs, does it take to constitute a war?” At least nobody has claimed the British engaged in a ‘special military operation’.
The AWM has signalled where it stands on such issues by acquiring works that commemorate the sites of historic massacres, along with Indigenous responses to other engagements, including pieces by Torres Strait Islander artists depicting a famous dance in which participants wear models of World War Two fighter planes on the heads.
Even more startling is a painting by Betty Muffler that recalls the British nuclear test at Maralinga on the APY lands of South Australia. Using the pictorial language of Desert painting, Muffler – a youthful eyewitness – depicts the explosion, the devastation, and the footprints of people fleeing the site, all in stark white-on-black. Her painting, Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country) (2017) is so densely encoded it would be impossible for the casual viewer to recognise what is going on without reading the wall label.
No such ambiguity applies to Bombing of Darwin (2016) by Susan Wanji Wanji. Arguably the most eye-catching work in this exhibition, the painting is heavily decorated with Tiwi designs but dominated by Japanese airplanes flying menacingly overhead. Look closely and one may see the tiny silhouettes of the pilots. Some planes spit bullets, but one is in trouble, having been broken into four pieces.
The action in this painting makes one realise the static nature of most of the other pieces in the show, with Khadim Ali’s allegorical paintings of wrestling demons being the only depictions of hand-to-hand combat. It leaves one with the sense that most of these artists have approached war as a distant, mediatised event, with none of the pathos or brutality of works that came out of World Wars One and Two.
We can be rightly thankful that today’s artists have not had to witness the mindless bloodshed of the Somme or the nightmare of Auschwitz, but that lack of affect also tells us something about our own attitude towards war. It’s something we see on TV, something that happens elsewhere, be it the Ukraine or Sudan. It’s terrible, but it presents no impediment to simply changing the channel. It would be unfair to expect artists to shake us out of our ingrained complacency, but great if they tried a little harder.
Art in Conflict
S.H. Ervin Gallery, 29 July – 10 September, 2023
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 September, 2023