“…the ‘war on terror’ [is] quite literally a war against an emotion (like ‘pity’ or ‘love’ or ‘hate’). It is thus a war on a projected spectre or phantasm, a war against an elusive, invisible, unlocatable enemy, a war that continually misses its target, striking out blindly with conventional means and waging massive destruction on innocent people in the process.”
WJT Mitchell in The Life and Death of Images: Ethics and Aesthetics
The Mosaic Rooms, London, are pleased to present the first public solo exhibition by artist David Birkin, bringing together a series of works centred around censorship, spectatorship and the legal and linguistic frameworks underpinning war. Reflecting on not only the failure of images, but also the failure of truth and the manipulation of legislative language to suit political expediency, Birkin’s recent research focuses on the use of indefinite detention and targeted killing in the “war on terror” and the contrived ambiguity of political and military rhetoric.
Severe Clear (2014) was a skywriting performance that took place on Memorial Day weekend, for which the artist wrote the words EXISTENCE OR NONEXISTENCE above New York City. The phrase was extracted from a rejection letter sent by the CIA to the American Civil Liberties Union in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for records relating to the government’s classified drone program. Documentation took the form of images uploaded to social media sites by people across the city, and the event went viral just days before the CIA’s public relations department officially joined Twitter. A follow-up on Veterans Day saw a plane circle the Statue of Liberty’s torch towing a banner that read, “THE SHADOW OF A DOUBT”. Eyes Only (2014) is a two-screen video installation depicting night-vision drone footage of a couple kissing on a roof, alongside news coverage of Michelle and Barack Obama dancing at the 2008 presidential inauguration. The juxtaposition of these two videos — one depicting a moment of intimacy between two people watched by an audience of hundreds of millions, the other between a couple who do not even realise they are being watched — echoes the blurring of private and public domains in the modern surveillance state. Cyclura nubila (2014) sees a legal argument visualised through a series of commissioned drawings of Cuban iguanas by Janet Hamlin, the official courtroom sketch artist at the Guantanamo Tribunals. Protected under the 1973 US Endangered Species Act, the unlikely reptilian protagonists helped persuade the Supreme Court to hear the case of a group of Kuwaiti GTMO detainees being held without charge or trial. Attorney Tom Wilner argued that extending jurisdiction to include the iguanas but not the inmates would effectively grant the lizards more rights than the people.
These works, created during Birkin’s residency with the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program in New York, are presented alongside previous photographic works relating to the unseen in war, with an emphasis on the way media representations vacillate between aestheticised spectacle and image-saturated ambivalence. Profiles (2011) considers the visibility of civilian casualties of the Iraq War, and the paucity of such images. The series entailed inserting identification numbers from the Iraqi civilian casualty database into photographic software to generate a chromatic “value” for each person. These colours were then exposed onto sheets of 10×8 inch transparency film and displayed on X-ray light boxes discarded by British and American hospitals. As a series of failed photographs, these monochrome portraits point to blanks in the visual record, recalling what Judith Butler describes as our differential allocation of grief. Pietà (2012) traces the history of the Renaissance colour ultramarine back to the lapis lazuli mines of Badakhshan, Afghanistan. The piece comprises an image of a mother at the funeral for her infant child in Kabul, veiled in blue pigment. With a gesture that both respects the Islamic prohibition on anthropomorphic imagery and forces the viewer to construe meaning from the caption alone, the work is redolent of Western photojournalism’s recycling of Christian iconographic tropes. I Was So Entranced Seeing That I Did Not Think About The Sight (2012) takes its title from Helen Keller’s description of the New York City skyline from atop the newly built Empire State Building in 1932. In a lyrical response to the dialectics of looking and seeing, faith and foresight, the artist embossed a braille transcription of her words onto photographic paper and exposed it to the light while facing south toward the newly rebuilt World Trade Center, at the spot where Keller stood eight decades previously. The resulting Malevich-black photogram was then framed without glass, creating an image that is both tactile and invisible. Also presented are three new works including a sound piece, a public performance and an installation based on a quote by Donald Rumsfeld: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Mouths At The Invisible Event derives its title from Hamlet’s final soliloquy as he observes a hot-headed Fortinbras preparing his army to fight a hubristic and frivolous battle. The phrase speaks to both the brazenness of military policy in an increasingly automated era, and its voiceless victims: the fleshy reality of Baudrillard’s virtual war.
David Birkin (b. 1977) studied at Oxford University, the Slade School of Fine Art and the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. His work has been exhibited internationally, including at The Courtauld Institute, The Photographers’ Gallery and The Saatchi Gallery, London; the Solyanka State Gallery, Moscow; MoMA PS1’s Rockaway Dome and the Whitney Museum’s ISP exhibition, New York. He is based between New York and London.
Open Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm, Entrance Free
Follow the exhibition on twitter #InvisibleEvent
until 28 February
Photo Credit: Royna Galka
with thanks to Nicholas Goodden Photography
for the introduction
“Spanish artist Pejac creates street art that are thought provoking and simplistic. He often uses silhouettes in his works which creates a lasting impact on the viewers mind. Pejac is conversant in all medium from canvas to wall murals. His minimalistic style and ability to use the surrounding as part of his artwork is something that makes his works noticeable.”
Tonight I am reading the poetry of Robert Burns and drinking Scotch whisky, very special Scotch whisky – I am drinking the award-winning Benromach Organic Speyside Single Malt Whisky, hand-made by just two men at Speyside’s smallest working distillery operated by Gordon & MacPhail of Elgin.
Time for another dram!
The whole process – raw ingredients, production, maturation and bottling is certified to the rigorous organic standards set by The Soil Association.
I have googled this and printed out a “Scottish lesson” to read to a small group of (soon to become) aficionados!
“The company work to source organic barley grown and malted to an exact specification ..”
I drink and read on …
“One of the key components in whisky production is maturation and with no sherry or bourbon casks certified as organic, the company – in a first for the industry – have used new American oak from environmentally managed forests in Missouri.”
Now that’s what I call detail – and the whisky is surely unique. It has a heather-inspired honey sweetness, a totally buzzing resonance and length, it is a real bumble bee of a whisky!
So to the poetry: I am so impressed by the depth and quality of Robert Burns’ work as we read it this evening; many of his lines are well known but there are real insights when one reads a little further in – what a romantic:
… pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or, like the snow-fall in the river,
A moment white, then melts forever.
From Tam O’Shanter
And profound political thinker, sage and sadly, prophet:
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
And (wait for this one!) a C18th feminist:
While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of empires and the fall of kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.
From The Complete Works
The night wears on and given the good nature of the whisky, I am glad to have some vegetarian haggis for the late repast.
So to the end of this Benromach and to something I read in the letters page of the London Evening Standard last week: appreciation of the Gordon & MacPhail from Elgin brand extends apparently to the very heart of Sassenach England where, last week a bottle of Gordon &MacPhail House of Commons Scotch was signed by David Cameron and George Osborne to be auctioned to support Homeless Veterans.
I wonder what Robert Burns would have thought of that?
I think he would have approved –
The brave poor sodger* ne’er despise,
Nor count him as a stranger;
Remember he’s his country’s stay,
In day and hour of danger.
From When Wild War’s Deadly Blast Was Blawn
A moment of pause, then a second whisky is brought out –
This from my local Co-op, their own brand 12 year old Highland Single Malt Whisky which picked up a silver medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC) and International Spirits Challenge (ISC) last year.
Another dram please before we read its history: It is matured in American white oak casks and aged-Olorosso sherry butts. Well, that’s fine with me! Darker in colour than the organic with a more traditional flavour, strong but with an after suggestion of almonds and even marzipan coming through. A very satisfying, good, goodnight whisky. I wonder what Robert Burns would have made of it.
Let other poets raise a fracas
“Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus,
An’ crabbit names an’stories wrack us,
An’ grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.
… John Barleycorn, Thou king o’ grain!
The next morning was rather different: a bit groggy and maybe also a bit unkempt, I walk down to the shops for bread and milk and recall other of the great poet’s lines:
Wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
by William Carlos Williams
Again I reply to the triple winds
running chromatic fifths of derision
outside my window:
You will not succeed. I am
bound more to my sentences
the more you batter at me
to follow you.
And the wind,
as before, fingers perfectly
its derisive music.