“The horror, the horror”
—Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
A body ‘sculpted’ by tank tracks.
A shell-shocked marine, wild-eyed, staring.
An emaciated child, crumbling into his mother’s empty breast.
I emerge from war photographer Don McCullin’s retrospective at Tate Britain and I’m battered. Truth just hit me over the head and left me for dead — no apologies… My only recourse is to flee and forget. Forget even my useless, self-conscious tears because that screaming, burning child doesn’t care, she’s long dead…
Writing this it’s now three weeks later and I’ve collected myself… recollected myself…
Truth and lie
Although now ‘retired’ to the life of landscape photographer, Don McCullin used to risk his mind and body to capture the kind of images most of us would pay to avoid. His ‘adventures’ were a unique and unsettling journey into a heart of darkness… his companions included U.S. marines in Vietnam, mercenaries in Congo, starving children in Biafra. His were not the kind of ‘holiday snaps’ you’d relish: “If they think I’ve come back happy they know I’ve got something ghastly to show.” The images are terrible reminders of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, they nod to every war and humanitarian disaster still happening and they attempt to awaken us to the ugliness at the heart of the machine.
But there’s a problem…
“Time eventually positions most photographs […] at the level of art.” — Susan Sontag
”I’m neither an artist or a poet – I’m a photographer” says McCullin, and yet as
John Berger, (Ways of Seeing), has stated, the more exposure the images receive, the less real they become.
It’s nearly forty years since Vietnam and over forty since Biafra. In the meantime we’ve had Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq. We now have Syria and any number of unseen atrocities the world media decides to ignore. McCullin’s images, symbols of the continuing ‘madness of war’, are fading into art history…
The art lie
My darkroom is a haunted place, that’s where the real pain lives”.
In the film documentary, McCullin (2013), he talks about his ‘battle scars’, the post-traumatic nightmares that come to life in the darkroom, the after-image of horror.
If the real pain emerges in the darkroom how does he survive ‘in the field’..?
“We possess art lest we perish of the truth”
“I almost became paralysed, I was so shocked, I thought: ‘take your mind off it, take some pictures.”
McCullin places the camera lens between himself and the sheer drop of terror and disgust. He creates the distance required to function in the midst of extreme misery, by becoming ‘part machine’.
It’s something the work of Andy Warhol reflects upon brilliantly. His Marilyn series of silk screen prints were started in the month of Marilyn Munro’s death and completed in the same year.
In multiple and subtly differentiated prints the actress lies buried in a landscape of repetition. We witness a splintered death mask in the full knowledge of its fakery. Death, sadness, loss is knowingly mediated. Warhol illustrates the distancing powers of art, he tells the story of the story of death in its reproduction. He moves us away from the fact of death to its mythologising and it opens a whole can of truth worms.
As pure documentarist Mccullin gives me little room for manoeuvre. As artist Warhol, allows me to extend the virtual horror, partake in its dissemination and pay for the pleasure. After the fact I become somehow complicit in the narrative, the conspiracy surrounding the passing of someone I knew but never knew. The truth is not on display here, it’s the lie of art, but it still manages to become personal.
Following Nietzsche, the only way to enter true horror is under cover of ‘art’. Art is not about revelation it’s about concealment. The art image stands between us and a truth that escapes view.
Art is what we do and how we survive. If McCullin opens an abyss, a horror show we cannot possibly grasp, Warhol and others lead us to its doors and guide us back.
It’s not about the truth of art it’s about the art of truth.
When McCullin references Goya and Hogarth he enters the realm of storytellers, the ‘liars’ who reframe the truth in order that it not be lost. He does it reluctantly. Warhol on the other hand wilfully obfuscates, he plays with truth’s ‘misspellings’, its blind spots and erasures.
Warhol is not attempting to illustrate death he’s creating a narrative around death’s absence. Rather than shocking us he engenders fascination for a part of our life experience which is always beyond us. He takes it further… by massaging the cult of personality into extended media channels, he facilitates reflection upon self-reflection and we become aware of the possibility of our own commodification. The existential suddenly becomes political and it’s a brilliant feint.
This isn’t to undermine the truth it’s to re-wire and re-ignite the lie. I can’t grasp the full horror of a McCullin photograph but I can ‘discuss’ its dystopian implications. I can appropriate and re-position the image, ‘retell’ its story, unfreeze its historical embeddedness — make the ‘memorial’ mobile.
This is what Swiss artist, Christian Boltanski, achieves with Reserve of Dead Swiss, an installation featuring forty-two framed photographic portraits of men, women and children of varying ages. Organised into three rows, each photo sits on a shelf with an electric lamp directing light into the image. Fabric is bunched around each photo and electrical wiring trails across the images down to the floor. The images were appropriated from obituaries collected from a Swiss newspaper. Boltanski rephotographed the images and enlarged them to just larger than life-size. The, already, poor quality is exacerbated to make the subject unidentifiable.
We stare into the face of anonymous death and we see ourselves. Not a self we can name but that absence which precedes and follows us.
Boltanski describes his work as “a fight against death and an attempt to save memory”, and he admits failure. But only in failing can the work succeed. In failure, an emotional bond is established between what is lost and what will be lost.
“Ultimately, photography is subversive, not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.”
After the fact, after the shock, we can converse with McCullin’s images, thoughtfully, and ‘under cover’.
When we place McCullin’s work into an ‘art’ context it becomes Janus-headed. It spans the divide between horror and its ‘translation’ which isn’t to undermine the critique of war, or extreme poverty, or the results of rampant capitalism, it’s to lead the discussion into the heart of human self-consciousness. If the “the work is completed in the looking” (Boltanski, following Duchamp) we become part responsible for the image we bear witness to. We are wounded, but empowered.
We can’t grasp true horror and we’ll never see with Don McCullin’s eyes, but we can bridge gaps between truth and lie, between ourselves and something abyssal. This is what we bring.
I’d argue that Don McCullin was an artist of the highest order. He looked into the most painful darkness and sent back postcards, and he risked his life and sanity to do it. The best we can do in return is to collaborate…
“The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”.
– Oscar Wilde
The Don McCullin retrospective is at Tate Britain until 6th May 2019.