An unlikely approach to a troubling, yet familiar subject is often the most effective in resetting our way of viewing it. Kurt Vonnegut must have had a sense of this when he wrote Slaughterhouse 5, his remarkable anti-war novel in which time implodes and a traumatised veteran telescopes between his present, past and a future where he has been kidnapped by psychic aliens who resemble green drain plungers. Drawing inspiration from this novel and its spasmodic narrative is Tate Modern’s Conflict, Time, Photography, a major new show of war photographs. What makes this exhibition notably different from the many others that have been staged about conflict photography is the way that it abandons the typical curatorial rationales. Rather than dividing and arranging its constituent photographs by themes, eras or regions, Conflict, Time, Photography instead structures itself around the amount of time that elapsed between the conflict depicted in each photograph and the release of the actual camera shutter.
This chronology means that on first entering the gallery you are confronted by a puff of smoke, a photograph by Luc Delahaye showing the moment after an American airstrike on an Afghan Taliban position in 2001. In the same room are four remarkable photographs by Toshio Fukada of the Nagasaki atomic bomb mushroom cloud, billowing above the city about twenty minutes after its total destruction in 1945. Again, because the emphasis is on the elapsed time between event and photograph, images of conflicts from very different regions and time frames come to inhabit similar spaces simply because they were made with similar speed or slowness. As well as the chronological relationship there is some thematic closeness between the works in many of the rooms, but you sometimes have to search quite hard to find it.
Moving through the gallery the duration between image and event becomes longer, growing into weeks, months, years and eventually decades. Half-way through the exhibition an entire room is dedicated to works about the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, all of them (like Kikuji Kawada’s landmark 1965 book The Map) made some twenty or thirty years after the end of the war. Coming to the end of the exhibition the time elapsed between event and image is now nearing a century. The final photographs on show are from Chloe Dewe Mathews series Shot at Dawn, which records locations where First World War soldiers accused of cowardice or desertion were executed.
In the second to last room a corridor leads off to a hidden chamber housing an assortment of fascinating objects drawn from the esoteric Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) in a display which takes an irreverent look at war and the selective memory and amnesia involved in its reporting and commemoration. From fragments of sunken battleships, to a cabinet of military horseshoes, the selection is bizarre and something of a relief from the sometimes rather worthy art photographs in the main show. However, great as the AMC display is, it’s inclusion here also seems rather strange because it doesn’t obviously fit with the theme of the main show and has more than enough interest to stand alone as an independent mini-exhibition.
The AMC room also highlights one of the main issues with Conflict, Time, Photography, which is one that afflicts many of the headline Tate Modern exhibitions. It’s just far too big, and the selection of work often feels flabby and indiscriminate, with multiple works from the same artists when one would have illustrated the same point perfectly. Two very similar pieces on bloodlines by Taryn Simon are a case in point, as is a huge wall of not particularly remarkable photographs of Ukrainian holocaust survivors by Stephen Shore. There is also often a sense that one is viewing works which are less concerned with commenting on the disaster that is war and which are more focused on vying to outdo the competition in aesthetic loveliness and conceptual complexity. To slightly misquote Vonnegut; ‘everything was beautiful and nothing hurt’ and amongst so much self-consciously artistic photography it’s actually the very few truly raw images (like Don McCullin’s Shellshocked Marine) that really stand out and linger on in the mind.
The selection of events featured is a little strange as well, with some occurring excessively, like the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In contrast there is much less focus on other wars and regions. I only recall four works about the Middle East for example, though they were for most part very good and included Walid Raad’s brilliant and bizarre pseudo-documentary record of Lebanese car bombings, and Sophie Ristelhueber’s remarkable series Fait. This is a startling collection of photographs about the desert battlescapes of the First Gulf War, which beautifully and spookily anticipate the breakdown in scale and distance inherent in the drone and satellite tele-wars of today.
The chronological structure of the main show is very interesting and does quite an effective job of reminding you how long the traces of war last on the physical surface of places, and the bodies and minds of the people exposed to it. The downside of it is that as you progress through the gallery and find yourself drawn further and further away in time from the events depicted in the art works and it becomes harder to engage with and particularly care about the conflicts they deal with (something somewhat exacerbated by the sheer volume of photographs). Dogged by this sense of image fatigue, I found myself wondering if a reversed chronology might have been more powerful, with visitors entering the exhibition instead starting with photographs showing events that occurred a century ago, and then drawing closer and closer to the actual act of conflict as they moved on through the gallery. Finally, turning a corner into the last room, one would find oneself confronted by Fukada’s terrifying and accusatory quadtych of mushroom clouds.
Conflict, Time, Photography is at Tate Modern from 26 November 2014 until 15 March 2015.