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Imperial War Museum North artworks reveal futility that war reporters fail to cover

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Issue 2378
Camp Boundary by Paul Seawright
Camp Boundary by Paul Seawright (Pic: IWM ART 16792)


There are 70 powerful pieces of art from more than 40 artists on display at the Imperial War Museum North’s new exhibition.

Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War leaves the visitor carefully considering the real impact of war—and how much our views of it are shaped by the media and government rather than our own experiences.

All the pieces have been produced since the first Gulf War in 1990. The museum considers itself politically neutral, and aims to give a “balanced view” on war and conflict. But none of the art glorifies war. It concentrates on the futility of conflict and the personal cost of war, in a subtle challenge to the belief that war is widely supported.

In today’s world of 24 hour media, images and reports are instantly transported from war zones. These are inevitably pro-government and can feed an impression that the majority of people support war. In this context the exhibition is hard-hitting and thought-provoking.

It includes Photo Op, the iconic photomontage portrait of Tony Blair taking a “selfie” in front of a huge explosion, by anti-war artist Peter Kennard. He told Socialist Worker when Blair stepped down that he hoped his art could help people “to see in it the reasons why we marched and protested”.

Different artists use very different approaches, from Paul Seawright’s stark photos to John Timberlake’s dioramas of nuclear explosions in well-known landscape paintings.

The music echoing gently around the exhibition adds to the ambience. Melancholy yet determined, it is the soundtrack from one of the films shown—Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me. This is a harrowing documentary of a dancer remembering her life in the Auschwitz death camp and after she was liberated.

The music perfectly suits the mood of the entire exhibition, and the museum itself is an impressive and atmospheric backdrop. Daniel Libeskind—a Jewish architect whose parents were Holocaust survivors—designed it to resemble a globe shattered by conflict. Once pieced back together it is never quite whole again.

Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War, Imperial War Museum North, Salford 

Until 23 February, free entry

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