Political Promise

Tate Modern’s anti-war art exhibition “confuses” our history in Afghanistan

In Jamie Walden on June 13, 2011 at 7:00 am

Jamie Walden attacks the Burke and Norfolk exhibition of photos from Afghanistan, currently on display at the Tate Modern in London, for alienating visitors who do not share the confused and conspiratorial view of this war being portrayed.

I shall immediately confess that I am no expert in the art of photography.  The Burke and Norfolk exhibition currently on display at the Tate Modern gallery will not be artistically reviewed here, although I would encourage those who have the opportunity to visit this dual display of images from the Afghanistan conflicts circa 1879 and 2010 to do so.

Upon entering the chamber in which the work of Victorian photographer John Burke and his twenty first century imitator Simon Norfolk is on display, one is instantly confronted with an informational video narrated by the latter.  Norfolk, who has bravely and repeatedly produced visual documentation of post-2001 Afghanistan, asserts that his pictures are designed to draw a disarmed audience in apolitically, which may then allow them to absorb what he considers to be covert political message embedded within.  At this task Norfolk comprehensively fails.

The introductory voice over and brief documentary film immediately alienates visitors who do not share his confused and conspiratorial view of this war.  Norfolk’s unimpressive and clichéd views are very much at the foreground, not least in the form of sniggering nods and winks to the audience when portraying the lives of American troops in the region as being more hedonistic than full of hardship.  Norfolk initially implies that nation building in Afghanistan may have been justifiably motivated, by referring to it as a ‘stupid mistake’.  The word ‘mistake’ implies incompetence as opposed to ill-intent.  However he goes on to denounce the interveners as colonisers and imperialists, which would not suggest ‘mistake’ but surely malevolence.  This conflict of criticisms is left unresolved.  If the contradictions of the discreet political declarations that confront guests before they have even left the foyer have failed to irritate, then the selective content of the images themselves is sure to do so.

Not a single shot depicts the crimes of the Taliban; in fact I sensed a faint respect for the so-called resistance.  Not a single shot focuses on the untold number of innocent civilian casualties caused by both sides in a decade of clashes.  Norfolk instead emphasises what he perceives to be an imperial adventure in Afghanistan, accompanied by the inevitable colonisation which follows.  Pictures of westernised shops for example are prominently presented, but without any indication if they pre-date the intervention, or how many jobs they have supplied to locals.  Norfolk’s message is clear- we are there for purposes of cultural annexation.

The gallery is concerned overtly by the Camp Leatherneck/Camp Bastion compound and the Kandahar air base.  Norfolk considers these military bases to be Western cities which have been dropped into Afghanistan for permanent colonial purposes, with their military personnel inhabitants as settlers.  The 26,000 population capacity of the former (not much of a city) is stressed and the facilities continued maintenance is supposed to indicate colonial ambition.

Norfolk’s anxieties are not merely consigned to the exhibition.  On the section of his website dedicated to the Burke and Norfolk project he criticises America for throwing money at re-building Afghanistan (the opposite I am sure would also have elicited Norfolk’s scorn).  Natural investors are reluctant to participate in the re-building of this failed state, we are reminded, given the potential return to power of the Taliban, once America withdraws.  You may notice the oxymoronic nature of continuous assertions of American permanence in Afghanistan, coupled with condemnation of the failure to re-build Afghanistan, as a result of the temporary nature of the American presence.  Furthermore, given Norfolk would have preferred no action against the Taliban (other than a naïve claim that a deal could have been done for Osama bin Laden) for incubating international terrorists, it seems unfair of him to criticise the withdrawal from a conflict he disagrees with on the grounds that said withdrawal will return to power the organisation that he would have preferred to have remained in authority all along.

Perhaps there is some beautiful photography on display (even my amateur eye could appreciate the historical significance of Burke’s nineteenth century work), but barely concealed beneath that veneer are sneers at the American military, paranoid assertions of ill-intent and an inarticulate, incoherent resentment of the attempt to build a post-Taliban Afghanistan.


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