In the early seventies, when Cold War rhetoric cast its all-pervasive gloom over our teenage angst, we all reacted in different ways to the existential nuclear threat. I remember a rather intense fellow student, middle-aged before his time, who had stockpiled a forensic knowledge of the missile technology acquired by the opposing sides. After regaling me with arcane differences in missile range, payload and propulsion mode, he got me thinking. What did he find so absorbing about the technical details of these murderous weapons? Was it glorification of war or a fear of it? Did focussing on the machines rather than the potential victims provide a means of controlling the terror we all felt? Are the “boy’s toys” collected by adult males such as weaponry, games consoles, cameras and cars a defense reaction to the uncontrollability of their destinies?
I wondered the same during Richard Mosse’s current spectacular three screen video installation at the Barbican Curve, Incoming (2017), the title itself hinting at the parallel between missiles and human traffic. He has not ignored the victims of war but much of its unsettling visual impact derives from the dramatic and poetic “boy’s toys” imagery: missiles being loaded, fighterjets launching from aircraft carriers, ships ploughing through the ocean, trucks rumbling through the desert, firefighters hosing blazing refugee encampments. They have been captured using the latest hi-tech supergadget for the video artist, a thermal imaging camera sensitive to objects 20 miles away usually deployed for military surveillance. Mosse is clear about the irony of using a camera that in borderforce hands might be deployed to locate and eliminate incoming migrants. However we cannot ignore the strategic motivation that underlies an artist’s desire to create work that will stand out from the welter of art films vying for our attention. The shock value of novel technology to represent the visual world is a great help. But when refugees are the focus there is a danger that such an approach converts them into lost souls wandering in a netherworld constructed by the artist.
To be fair to Mosse his edit ensures that this is far from an arms dealers promo. A truck carrying refugees is comically overloaded but we fear it might topple. The movement of a man bowing in prayer mirrors a later shot of a man stooping to load a missile. A blur in the sky that might be a plane turns out to be a bird. In this way Mosse firmly locates the technology in a human context. He carefully rejects sentimentality or sensationalism in representing the refugee crisis. Life goes on as usual even in a refugee centre with a cheerful exchange between women about the size of their respective broods using hand gestures while the children are transfixed by their handheld screens. Two refugee boys are seen wrestling in a desperate tussle that seems to express a frustrated need for resolution. Among its many breathtaking images is a sunset where the clouds and sun appeared to be tacked to the sky like fabric cutouts. Some of the more brutal footage was excluded from the final version, but it is still a harrowing experience. It runs until 23 April.
Another artist who has contributed to the beauty of weaponry debate in her deliciously understated work is Fiona Banner. The Harrier jet fighter suspended from the roof of the Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain in 2010 with its nose cone inches from the floor will not be quickly forgotten by those lucky enough to have seen it. This absurd installation reduces the war machine to a helpless puppet or trussed bird that we can toy with at will. Like Mosse, Banner does not shy away from the unsettling, functional beauty of these killing machines.
Her exhibition Buoys Boys, at the Bexhill De la Warr last December explored this unreality of warfare through the story of the Red Baron, the infamous WWI German fighter pilot who kept a meticulous tally of the pilots he downed in his dogfights. He entered popular culture as the sworn enemy of the much-loved cartoon beagle Snoopy. In her film black balloons in the form of five large inflatable full stops, each in a different font, float ominously on the skyline like a parody of a fighter plane formation with the sea below and only the seagulls as absurd spectators. On the soundtrack a schoolboy’s choir sweetly sing the 1960s hit Snoopy vs the Red Baron with the ridiculously chirpy chorus:
Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more, the Bloody Red Baron was rollin’ up the score.
Eighty men died tryin’ to end that spree of the Bloody Red Baron of Germany.
Art can convey the absurdity of war far better than any other creative form and for me Banner has nailed it in the most original way. Mosse has focused on the tragedy of war but ironically its impact is more aesthetic than thought-provoking.