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(c) The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels Jitish Kallat, Circadian Rhyme 1, 2011

Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11

27 December 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in September 2001, there have been profound political and ideological shifts in the global scene. The effects of President George Bush’s declaration of a ‘war on terror’ and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq are still being felt today. But there have been other effects more difficult to pin down in terms of the way we envision conflict, the limitations of our personal freedoms and the idea of privacy.

The Imperial War Museum’s exhibition brings together work that has occurred since the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Though we may feel trepidations about calling the post 9/11 world a definitive period in and of itself, the exhibition aims to trace the effects it has had both personally and politically, breaking it up into broad categories: art work dealing with the event of 9/11 itself, State Control, Weapons, Home. This is an exhibition containing a diverse group of artists, from the UK, America, Germany, Afghanistan and Syria and is the largest showing of conceptual art the Imperial War Museum has ever had.

As you first enter the exhibition, Tony Oursler’s personal documentary ‘9/11’ plays in the room directly in front of you. Shot on a hand held camera, the film is an impressionistic response to the immediate aftermath of the attack in the city of New York itself. Oursler, a multimedia artist, is from New York, and lived not far from the World Trade Centre at that time. This is the first of several interesting video works included in the exhibition; in particular, two performance pieces stand out: Fabian Knecht’s short video ‘VERACHTUNG’ (the word for contempt in German) follows a man walking around New York wearing a suit covered in dust, clearly evoking memories of the images of dust-covered survivors in the wake of the destruction of the towers. In actuality, the dust comes from a 2014 suicide bombing in Iraq, in which almost 50 people were killed. Knecht connects that atrocity with the foreign policies that provoked it, foreign policies that precipitated from Bush’s declaration of war. Moreover, he also reminds us about the problem of visibility in the western media; though we may know about more recent attacks in Middle-Eastern countries, we cannot help but be reminded of an attack that took place years before. Lida Abdul’s work ‘White House’ also connects the immediate moment with the past, by painting over the rubble of a former presidential palace in Afghanistan. Like Knecht, she also thinks about the literal ‘white washing’ of history: both artists show that terrorism does not just effect white Westerners, and that the narratives underpinning some of the post 9/11 policies are a ruthless oversimplification.

The exhibition also provides viewers an opportunity to see works by some of the most well known female conceptual artists working today. Martha Rosler is best known for her 1975 work ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’ and ‘House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home’ (c. 1967–72). Her 2014 photomontage ‘Election [Lynndie]’ follows on from the latter work, placing images of war and torture from Abu Ghraib within a modern kitchen. Jenny Holzer’s work typically explores the function of language in the public space; she is known for projecting words onto the facades of public buildings. In the piece included here, ‘some treatment 2014-2015’ she deals with the invisibility of words, reproducing a redacted document about torture in a large format. Both works provoke viewers to think about their personal responsibility in the wake of violence, whilst also showing that the personal life is inextricable from politics.

The contributions from British artists Grayson Perry and Jake and Dinos Chapman are some of the weakest. The work by the famous Chapman brothers, ‘Nein? Eleven!’ showing toy Nazi soldiers bloodied and heaped into two piles that vaguely resemble towers seems like a cheap joke rather than an interesting contribution to the conversation. The same criticism can be made of Perry’s painted pot: this piece was originally about mining communities, but the day after the attack on the Twin Towers, Perry went to his studio and painted over it. This seems to say more about Perry and his need to make something that seems responsive, as something cathartic for himself rather than for an audience. Both pieces seem careless, works thrown together exactly for a purpose such as this exhibition.

Perhaps the issue with the exhibition lies in the name of the exhibition itself: ‘art since 9/11’ could essentially be any artwork made since that time. By defining this as a period, it suggests that we can exactly pin point a change to that date, rather than relating the events of 9/11 to any historical precedents. Though we may be able to pin point some effects of the horrific attack, we cannot divorce it from a long history of American foreign policy. While some confusion is created by the wide range of voices within the exhibition, it also offers an opportunity to see some interesting conceptual work.
 
Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11 is at the Imperial War Museum until 28 May 2018.
 

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