Tuesday, January 18, 2011

REVIEW: Dick Averns' War Art Now, Military Museums, Sept 2010 - Jan 31, 2011, By Special Guest Correspondent Eric Heitmann

Image credit: War Art Now, installation detail. Courtesy of the artist.

Growing up in Chile, "war art" is an oxymoron to me. The military and the arts are so far apart in the political spectrum it is outstanding to find myself in the presence of a joint effort between armed forces and artists.

When I walked through the Calgary based Military Museums I realized my predisposition to look at the exhibits as propaganda of a sort. The Museums’ use of video and sound recordings, period music playing in the background, the staging military history with mannequins can all be applicable to the category of "living history", a practice done to maximize profit from heritage--and in this case--to generate a profit of popularity and validation via commemoration.

It is through a wall of skepticism I entered the Founders’ Gallery at the Military Museums in Southwest Calgary where Dick Averns’ WAR ART NOW is currently showing and it becomes hard to separate content from commemorative intentions. The gallery’s mandate, in a war art context, has the dual ambition of being a space for historical and contemporary art, two very different languages of display where the former presents a number of ‘artifacts’ appealing to curiosity or nostalgia like natural history museums do, and the latter composes the show in order to generate dialogue between the work and the present context of the art world and contemporary life in general. Separately, each is a very valid form of display and useful to establish the military’s worth when looking at it objectively, but the problem is, they are trying to convey two very different messages at the same time.

The messages start mixing into the function War Art has had since the early 1900’s in Canada, one that consists of and archiving military history through art. More to the point, we first encounter the exhibit of the Afghan War Rugs borrowed from the Nickle Arts Museum, where the way the exhibition is displayed follows the tropes of an artifact collection rather than that of a contemporary art gallery and thoughts of the peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan set into the viewers’ minds before one comes face to face with Averns’ work when the artist never went to Afghanistan. It could be argued the curatorial blurb written for the show never mentions Afghanistan as a destination, yet I find the exhibition gives you plenty of time as a viewer to think of afghan armed encounters. Especially if you already know at least half of WAR ART NOW comes from his participation in Sinai with the CAFPCAP program (Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program) which was historically founded with the Canadian War Art collection, it seems to be a safe bet when set in the general context of the venue.

Image credit: Dick Averns, Liberty Avenue (MFO North Camp, Sinai), 2009
Archival Digital Print on Aircraft Grade Aluminum
24 x 36 x .5 inches flush mounted
on aluminum 

Courtesy of the artist.

Except that Averns’ work reaches far beyond the question of heritage and commemoration as so much war art has been attributed to Canadians. He has critically questioned the whole concept of war art and the relation it holds with a public regarding the creation of a particular, directed memory. The entire oeuvre moves in and out of a particular subversive sense of humor - especially with his photographs - pointing out the absurd and the ironies that emerge from a context of war. In the far back the video installation of Ambivalence Boulevard is set with the art trading card installation What is the closest you have been to terrorism? next to it. Both these pieces are of extreme ambiguity towards the Museums’ summarized narration, one of them regarding his feelings of ambivalence towards the city and its institutions (including the military) and the other for its constant change and subjectivity in the interpretation of terrorism by a visiting public.

The pieces are mostly remnants or registration of performance, installation and appropriation: being war art it is the archival construct of the archival construct. Though the Museums are currently showing a much directed effort to create a particular memory of Canadian war, the actual oxymoron of this war art show is presenting the ambivalence towards military effort. By using performance art and text based art, Averns successfully subverts the record keeping responsibility Canadian war art and the impossibility of such responsibilities.

Bio: Eric Heitmann is a current student at the Albert College of Art + Design majoring in sculpture. Currently he holds a minor in architecture from the Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile. Parts of this review first appeared in an essay for a class taught by Diana Sherlock

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