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Rohan Jayasekera Questions and Answers

Rohan Jayasekera Questions and Answers

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Published by Julian Stallabrass
A conversation about the show 'The Sublime Image of Destruction' shown at the de la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill as part of the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial, and including the work of Paul Seawright, Broomberg and Chanarin and Simon Norfolk.
A conversation about the show 'The Sublime Image of Destruction' shown at the de la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill as part of the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial, and including the work of Paul Seawright, Broomberg and Chanarin and Simon Norfolk.

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Published by: Julian Stallabrass on Jul 26, 2010
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03/30/2011

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Rohan Jayasekera and Julian Stallabrass in conversationabout
The Sublime Image of Destruction
shown at the De LaWarr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, as part of the Brighton PhotoBiennial, 2008:
Memory of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images
RJ: Let’s talk about that title:
The Sublime Image of Destruction
.Classically speaking, the sublime is a quality of awesome grandeur,usually sought by artists in nature or God, not normally in war. Whylook there?  JS: The sublime is also threatening, though: the stormy sea that wefind a sublime spectacle when seen from a safe distance may also inother circumstances drown us. Kant distinguishes two types of sublime—the mathematical and the dynamic. The mathematical isabout ungraspable magnitude, and the dynamic about ungraspableforce. Both may threaten us physically but also and morefundamentally they threaten us mentally, challenging our rationaldescriptions of the world, and our powers over it. There is a military sublime which is a subset of both of Kant’scategories. You can see the mathematical sublime for example inSimon Norfolk’s wide landscapes of destruction; and the dynamicsublime in the force used to cut through a thick concrete wall (wesee that in the works of all the artists in the exhibition). The sublime does not have to be an elevated experience. It can befelt on a fairground ride or in a war movie. There is something aboutthe scale and resolution of most museum photography that tradeson the sublime, just by throwing at the viewer more informationthan they can readily process (I’ve called this effect, which is notconfined to photography but is quite common in contemporary art,the ‘data sublime’). So the photographs in this show bring thesevarious aspects of the sublime into a disturbing but also appealingcombination.RJ: The media has always sought to be both disturbing andappealing. And that overdose of interpretable information youdescribe is the precise quality that distinguishes conflict journalismtoday from how it was ten years ago. Inevitably the viewer nowselects from a storm of media practitioners - perhaps a foreign TVstation, certain bloggers, a paper, maybe an Iman’s sermons onDVD - a chosen few whose vision they favour with their trust. Canyour artists’ vision be trusted?  JS: Certainly not! Trusting artists (or the media), the very idea… TheBiennial is showing a lot of work that it does not necessarilyrecommend, or not unreservedly. We will be showing official USArmy photography, for example, and some of the photographs
 
taken at Abu Ghraib. The De La Warr exhibition looks like aconventional museum show of objects that are firmly placed in the‘art’ category, but it should be seen in the context of the Biennial asa whole which deals with a wide range of war imagery, and whichgives viewers the chance to look across that range and formulatecritical views of its different components. Broomberg and Chanarin,Simon Norfolk and Paul Seawright all make work that has aconscious relation to photojournalism, and seeks to be moreconsidered and less driven by the spectacular and transitory eventthan pictures made for the newspapers. But, in doing so, they haveevolved a range of positions that should, of course, also bequestioned.RJ: True. I’d urge everyone intrigued by the De la Warr exhibition totake a look at the rest of the Biennial too. Journalists are alwaysdebating the whys and wherefores of war imagery, but I’ve neverseen that debate addressed in such an original and diverse way.But, further to trust: Generally there’s a kind of veterans’ deferencegiven to opinions from those ‘just back from the front’ that trumpsdissent from those safe at home. You say their positions should bequestioned, but how do the artists facilitate that challenge? JS: The artists in the Bexhill exhibition do so by taking a widerapproach to the issue of war than one that focuses on theexperience of the troops (which is what embedded journalism isintended to focus upon). Seawright’s pictures place us beforeexpansive but terribly dangerous vistas, and implicitly ask viewersto imagine the experiences of those who have to live in such places,surrounded by ruins, mines and unexploded shells. Norfolk is moredirect in his spectacular scenes of ruins, and in photographs of blood-covered walls and burnt-out archives. Through their pictures,Broomberg and Chanarin ask what conflict, actual and latent, doesto the landscape of a contested territory, and depict the manymeans used to take ownership of it, physically and symbolically. The question you ask is an essential one, for the social compact thatthe troops cannot be criticized (which was fractured in Vietnam, notleast by many of the troops themselves who returned relatinghorrific stories of what they had been urged to do) has been firmlyre-established. The swiftest political suicide would await any MP whohad the temerity to suggest that ‘our boys’ ever acted with anythingless than the utmost honour and professionalism, no matter theevidence to the contrary. The Biennial does not want to dismiss theviews of the troops, and in Julian Germain’s exhibition in Aspex,Portsmouth, photographs taken by them will be shown anddiscussed. Their perspectives, though, must be complemented, setin context and ultimately enriched through the consideration of other views.
 
 JK: That’s
our 
responsibility as citizens. To engage with other views,for and against, before signing off on that particular compact. It’sclear from the artists’ backstories that they are totally engaged inthis way already. But I know that some viewers will still wonder howthat commitment to engage sits with the apparent distance –physical and emotional – the works put between themselves andtheir subjects. Can they still retain meaning if the message isrendered abstract by disconnection, obscured by distance? JS: That’s a fascinating question, and I think that to begin to answerit you have to look at the habits and constraints of museumphotography. Those massive, spectacular prints that adorn museumwalls are made with large-format view cameras, the kind you usewith a tripod and (perhaps) a cloth thrown over your head. They arewonderful at capturing detail in broad scenes but generally notmuch good for rendering movement close-up, the very essence of photojournalism. If people do appear, they tend to be immobile and/or distant. Here technical constraints and an ideological suspicion of too overt an engagement come together to produce that ‘abstractdisconnection’.I think that such works can carry meanings—and as I suggestedearlier, those meanings can be quite various. Maybe there is adanger that in drawing on the sublime, and on distancing, theyproduce a view in which the artist stands above and outside theconflict and reports on it, almost as though it was a naturalphenomenon. That the weight of detail, the degree to which therecording power of the large cameras is relied upon, tend to createa picture of which the tendency is to say: this is how it is. Whatthose pictures show is, of course, terrible enough; but in and of themselves, it may be argued, it is hard to derive from them overtpolitical standpoints; and in this way, inhabiting a zone of ambiguity,they do not cut against the fundamental rules of the art world.RJ: In some of the works, it is hard to discern an overt politicalstandpoint, true; maybe we should take the chance to exercise ourcritical faculties looking for it! But that distance from politicalopinion might be good for some. Bexhill has many residents whoselives were defined by that sublime British historical monolith, WorldWar II. Politics aside, I’m sure that distance - of time - does notmake abstract or disconnect them from their own personalexperiences of wartime tragedy, courage, cruelty and inspiration. JS: I think it is there, and it is the artists’ intention that it should be.With Broomberg and Chanarin, for example, there’s a sophisticatedunderstanding of how nations define themselves through images,and through an interplay between the transformation andrepresentation of the landscape. It is just that the coolness of the

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