Manchester Art Galleries (UK) are currently home to ‘The Sensory War (1914 - 2014)’ which is billed as ‘the responses of a range of artists over the past century to the sensory effects of warfare through a series of themes’.
Indeed the underlying thematic of the senses assailed by the technology of war is paralleled by the sheer quantity of work and the relentless role call of sub-categories: ‘Militarising Bodies, Manufacturing War’; ‘Pain and Succour’, ‘Rupture and Rehabilitation’; ‘Shocking The Senses’; ‘The Embodied Ruin’, and on and on.
In reality there’s probably half-a-dozen exhibitions here.
On a positive note ‘Sensory War’ has more than enough ‘art’ quality to justify several visits.
The works attempt to make sense of the chaos of war whilst often being seduced by the scale and visual beauty of the carnage; from First World War bombardments to the games console ‘virtuality’ of the predator drone.
Georges Leroux’s painting ‘L’Enfer (Hell)’ (1921) shows a First World War landscape: cement greys, porridgy mud, green-grey smoke and interchangeable bones, rubble and twigs. A similar post-Apocalyptic entropy and decay radiates from CRW Nevinson’s ‘The Harvest Of Battle’ (1919), a large canvas with a middle ground of trudging wounded surrounded by dead grey greens and blues, slashes of turned buttermilk yellow; the dead expanse of Passchendaele and Ypres.
The flat certainty of photography as trustable ‘fact’ is used as a blank report (with aesthetic tweaks ) of our violent assaults on bodies or, in Richard Mosse’s aerochrome photograph of a valley in the Congo ‘Poison Glen’ (2012), as a restaging of chemical processes which parallel the war’s toxic defoliation of landscape and soil.
Keeping things traditional in artistic terms, Sophie Jodoin’s ‘Helmets and Gasmasks’ series (2007 - 2009) uses the subtle tonal complexity of conte drawings to show the charcoal blur of distorted faces trapped inside an exoskeleton of the circles, tubes, studs and straps of a gasmask. There is no interest in a simple fetishizing of the enveloping thingness of archaic technology but like Mosse’s photo-work there is an instinctive understanding of the contrary seductive aestheticization enforced by the medium.
Herbert R Cole’s 1918 watercolours of faces torn, deformed and disfigured by war injury and Harold Sandys Williamson’s pencil and watercolour side view of a ‘Human Sacrifice In An Operating Theatre’ (1918) are additionally disturbing because of the casual politeness of the medium. Roy Lichenstein’s ‘Wall Explosion II’ (1965), a roughly oval cartoon explosion constructed from layers of brightly painted metal, remains a joyous whoop of American ‘positivity’ lathered in art irony.
The moving image quite reasonably gets a digitally slick appearance in the tragically bland and clean dystopia of Larissa Sansour’s ‘Nation Estate’ (2012) and the three screen cinematic sweep of Dinh Q Le’s Vietnam documentary ‘The Farmers And The Helicopters’ (2006).
The works in ‘Sensory War’ emphasise the degree to which art is a transcriptive system of equivalences, necessarily informed by editing and simplifications, but nevertheless straining towards the most appropriate stylistic incarnation to carry more than can ever be shown or even re-presented.
The more successful individual works succeed in being depressingly appropriate visual equivalents for historical moments when human beings showed their latent impulse to socially and politically naturalize a clinical indifference towards each other.
Technoscientific progressions may depend on increasingly subtle understandings of electrical, mechanical and material interactions but they have always been at the expense of a secure sense of ‘selfhood’, psychic solidity as it were. Transgressing the secure frame of the body only serves to imply the liquid fluidity of the human psyche, its mutability and, by extension, its potential inhumanity.