Exhibition review: Bringing the War Home

An unconventional take on war photography at the Impressions gallery in Bradford.

Bringing the War Home is an exhibition that wants to get away from the conventions of war photography. Seeking to expand our concept of a genre that is traditionally the preserve of photojournalists on the frontline, it attempts not only to reflect the experiences of those not serving in combat - those left behind, civilians in the aftermath of conflict etc - but to question whether it's even possible to accurately document the experience of warfare.

This last may seem a hoary old path to go down , since it touches on the "truthfulness" of photographic images in general (the question of the authenticity of Robert Capa's iconic war image The Falling Soldier certainly comes to mind during this exhibition) but this is, in fact, a far more layered and conceptually ambitious exhibition than that opening gambit implies. 

The exhibition brings together 10 contemporary visual artists, and not all work directly in the medium of photography but rather as collators of "documentary" evidence, so we also have postcards, letters and emails. It was partly inspired by American artist Martha Rosler, whose series of photographic collages, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, from the late 60s and early 70s depicted images of soldiers in the Vietnam war inserted into idealised American homes, rather in the manner of Richard Hamilton's Just What Is It That Make's Today's Home's So Different, So Appealing?

Rosler's collages presented an agit-prop critique of a war that was, for the first time, fought out in living rooms, so that, in a very graphic sense, it was "brought home" to us via our television screens. In Rosler's work, heavily-armed soldiers had literally invaded the American home, the consumer dream trampled by the brute tread of American foreign policy.

This exhibition is preoccupied with neither politics nor protest, but rather representation. Embedded with British troops in Afghanistan, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin chose to completely reject the camera, mindful of the cultural saturation of images of suffering and armed with the notion that a "good" war photograph was a questionable criteria.

Instead, the duo present a large roll of photographic paper which has simply been exposed to light. So in a work entitled The Repatriation II, June 16, 2008 (from the series "The Day Nobody Died", 2008) all there is to see is a roll of film that goes from opaque black to swimming pool blue to shimmering white. The duo used the Snatch Land Rover they were driving (used to transport troops) as a makeshift dark room - just as photographic vehicles were used in the very early days of war photography - and, in response to dramatic events such as a suicide attack, they opened the vehicle doors at the appropriate location and exposed the paper to the sun.

It's interesting to note that in Roger Fenton's own photographs of the Crimea - the precursor of all war photography - images of the dead, the injured or the mutilated were all diligently avoided. But in this age of over-saturation, the avoidance of such images in Broomberg and Chanarin's work becomes a form of critique rather than sanitisation.

In his "Theatre of War" series, Christopher Sims simulates the carnage of war, but in a way that exposes its artifice. Using fake settlements in Louisiana, constructed by the US military to serve as training grounds for soldiers prior to deployment, Sims takes the viewer "backstage": a man casually poses for the camera with his guts poking out through the tear in his shirt; a woman in a Niqab, her eyes beautifully made-up, has explosives peeking out from her breast pockets. We're meant to engage with the incongruity of these images, not to be deceived by them. For the participants the theatre of war, is, for a while at least, literally make-believe.

This is war as experienced outside the warzone: mothers wait for the return of their sons, holding up pictures of their boys in uniforms; "care packages" from loved ones are photographed against a stark black backdrop; a child-like scrawl in a toilet of a US airstrip in Kuwait speaks of homesickness, while one piece of graffiti shows a hungry Pac Man facing the hooded enemy: an Iraqi woman and a "ghost monster".

But the most arresting work in this quietly compelling exhibition is Asef Ali Mohammed's "Stories from Kabul", in which Kabul residents from a range of professions are photographed in their setting of work and asked the question: "How has America influenced your life?" From lavish gratitute, to outright hostility to pragmatic concerns you really couldn't get a more disparate set of responses. The images might be two-dimensional, but little else is.

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Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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