The Art of Anti-War

Detail from Last Riot by AES Group. Photo by John Feffer.

The future has arrived, but the Futurists didn’t make it.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Futurist movement of artists in Italy, led by Filippo Marinetti, glorified war as a dynamic organizing principle for their art work. If art was about energy – and the raw power of the modern machine age — where could you find more energy and concentrated machinery than on the battlefield? Art, they proclaimed in their manifesto, “can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.” Marinetti and his war-worshipping Futurists easily fell in with Mussolini and the fascists. But, after Nuremburg, few artists have followed their lead.

This month, at the Istanbul Biennale, the future has arrived in the form of a very different kind of art. The curator of the Istanbul show, Hou Hanru of China, begins his exhibition catalogue with an unadorned statement: “We are living at a time of global wars.” The rest of the introduction reads like the agenda of the World Social Forum. “Most of these wars, conflicts and clashes take place in the developing world,” Hou continues. “The centre of the Empire has ruthlessly exported violence to other parts of the world.”

This narrative does not refer to any specific wars such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor does it suggest anything that might offend the Turkish hosts of the event, such as Ankara’s preparations for a possible cross-border incursion against separatist Kurds operating in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Still, the art at the Biennale does not pull any punches. In the same way that war represented an ideal organizing principle for the Futurists, anti-war serves a similar purpose for the Biennale curator and many of the artists that he selected for the exhibition.

The Istanbul show does not focus exclusively on the issue of war. One venue, the Textile Traders’ Market, is a complex of classic modernist buildings designed to promote Turkey’s role as a global economic crossroads and to update the ancient chaos of the Grand Bazaar nearby. Another exhibition installed at the Ataturk Cultural Center, a ravishingly ugly modernist edifice once symbolizing Turkey’s model ascendancy to world-class nation status, focuses on the failed promise of utopian architecture.

Nevertheless, some of the most interesting art at the Biennale engages questions of violence, militarism, and the creativity that arises from conflict. But a question lingers over the show: does all this anti-war art add up to a movement that can rival or even replace the Futurists?

Creative Conflict

Much of the anti-war art of the Istanbul Biennale directly comments on the Turkish experience. Perhaps the most controversial contribution comes from Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, whose powerful 2002 film on the Armenian genocide, Ararat, was also shown as part of the Biennale.

In his original contribution to the exhibition, Egoyan offers an eerie reimagining of the life of Aurora Mardiganian, an Armenian teenager who survived the mass slaughter of her people in Turkey in the early part of the 20th century. She eventually made it to the United States where she tried to find her brother, the only other surviving member of her family. Her story was compelling enough for the early motion picture industry to dramatize in the 1919 film Auction of Souls, which turned out to be an early blockbuster. Unable to reconcile the tragedy of her life with her newfound fame, Mardiganian went AWOL from the promotional tour before it even began, and the film company hired seven look-alikes to fill her shoes. In Egoyan’s short film, Aurora, seven women read portions of Mardiganian’s life, describing the events leading up to the killing of her mother. In the same space is another short film, by Turkish video artist Kutlug Ataman, about his Armenian nanny who can’t recall a key event from her own life. Both films are painful, slow, horrific, and convey the unalluring reality of the violence that the Futurists so fetishized.

Construction Site by Huang Yong Ping.

Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping also takes up the challenge of engaging Turkish life and culture by turning the top of a minaret at an angle and enclosing it in a cloth fence. Tilted upward, the minaret looks like an anti-aircraft gun, thus echoing a famous Turkish poem by Ziya Gokalp (“The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.” ). Surrounded by a cloth fence, the minaret is enclosed as if by a headscarf that both conceals and reveals.

In Scary Asian Men, Turkish artist Banu Cennetoglu takes what resembles surveillance photographs of Turkish men. They are small figures in unremarkable landscapes, relaxing or talking beside the road that connects the Asian part of Istanbul with the European part. Turkey is a candidate for membership in the European Union, but several Western European government leaders have expressed doubts about including a predominantly Muslim country in the grand European project. As Cennetoglu suggests, the European governments have projected their long-held fears of violent Asian men – Ottomans, Huns, Mongols – onto the unarmed, benign figures of Turkish workers and peasants.

A Friendly Fire Poster by Jonathan Barnbrook. Photo by John Feffer

Sometimes the Biennale art is quite graphic in its depiction of violence. Britain’s Jonathan Barnbrook has designed posters that would not look out of place at an anti-war rally, though their content is somewhat more ambiguous. The mandala-like cycle of violence depicted in one poster, of a symbolic Moslem shooting a symbolic Jew shooting a symbolic Moslem and so forth around in a circle, refuses to assign primary responsibility to either side in the conflict. Pakistani Hamra Abbas sculpts life-sized figures in imaginative sexual positions from the Kama Sutra, and yet the men wield weapons. The AES Group, the initials formed from the last names of three Russian artists, contribute a long, mural-like composition, Last Riot, that depicts hyper-realistic young people of various ethnicities in a kind of apocalyptic Benetton billboard. The girls and boys in battle fatigues are on the verge of choking each other, stabbing themselves hara-kiri style, and clubbing their younger charges and small animals, all against a montage of recognizable urban landscapes. Their faces reveal not anger or bloodlust, but merely bored resignation, as if playing a video game.

Finally, perhaps most subversively, there are the two large plastic Coke bottles, taped together and fitted with what looks like a timer, flashing ominously. This homemade Coke bomb sits hidden beneath a staircase inside the gallery space. There is no nearby label to take the sting out of the intervention by giving it a name, assigning it to an artist, or otherwise enclosing it in a safe package called “art.” It is anonymous, has clear links to the United States and the global economy, and might go off at any time – to destroy itself and the Biennale. In security-conscious Istanbul, where political violence is a recent memory if not a present reality, and in a world where we are constantly reminded that terrorism is no joking matter, this Coke bomb is pure effrontery.

Where are the Anti-Futurists?

The Futurists are gone, and no anti-Futurists have taken their place. Dada briefly coalesced around a group of artists disgusted with World War I, and some of their art reflected their anti-war sentiments. But although quite a few artists have taken clear anti-war positions in their art, no art movement has taken so passionately to the principle of anti-war as the Futurists once did to war. There are several reasons for this vacuum. Manifestos are rare in this day and age. Artists are reluctant to launch world movements. And didacticism is only intermittently popular in an art world so thoroughly soaked in irony.

RGB’s War by Porntaweesak Rimsakul. Photo by John Feffer

But there is another explanation as well. In the Biennale installation RGB’s War, Thai artist Porntaweesak Rimsakul sets up remote-controlled vehicles topped by army helmets that collide with each other and with tiny houses filled with the primary colors. From this battlefield emerges a work of abstract expressionism. The very act of painting depends on the collision of colors and the use of machines like brushes reinforces the essential point of the Futurists. Perhaps art does in fact arise out of conflict, and artists are as fascinated by technology today as they were in Marinetti’s time.

Indeed, many of the anti-war artists rely on the power of violence to drive home their points. The Biennale is full of guns, missiles, and bombs. All of this deadly hardware is alluring, even if the weaponry is deployed for anti-war purposes. The Futurists may well be dead. But as long as war and violence continue to hold such sway over our imaginations, the Futurist ideology will live on in some small way within us.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) at the Institute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org).