Rohan Jayasekera and Julian Stallabrass in conversation about The Sublime Image of Destruction shown at the De La Warr Pavilion

, Bexhill-on-Sea, as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial, 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. Why look there? JS: The sublime is also threatening, though: the stormy sea that we find a sublime spectacle when seen from a safe distance may also in other circumstances drown us. Kant distinguishes two types of sublime—the mathematical and the dynamic. The mathematical is about ungraspable magnitude, and the dynamic about ungraspable force. Both may threaten us physically but also and more fundamentally they threaten us mentally, challenging our rational descriptions of the world, and our powers over it. There is a military sublime which is a subset of both of Kant’s categories. You can see the mathematical sublime for example in Simon Norfolk’s wide landscapes of destruction; and the dynamic sublime in the force used to cut through a thick concrete wall (we see that in the works of all the artists in the exhibition). The sublime does not have to be an elevated experience. It can be felt on a fairground ride or in a war movie. There is something about the scale and resolution of most museum photography that trades on the sublime, just by throwing at the viewer more information than they can readily process (I’ve called this effect, which is not confined to photography but is quite common in contemporary art, the ‘data sublime’). So the photographs in this show bring these various aspects of the sublime into a disturbing but also appealing combination. RJ: The media has always sought to be both disturbing and appealing. And that overdose of interpretable information you describe is the precise quality that distinguishes conflict journalism today from how it was ten years ago. Inevitably the viewer now selects from a storm of media practitioners - perhaps a foreign TV station, certain bloggers, a paper, maybe an Iman’s sermons on DVD - a chosen few whose vision they favour with their trust. Can your artists’ vision be trusted? JS: Certainly not! Trusting artists (or the media), the very idea… The Biennial is showing a lot of work that it does not necessarily recommend, or not unreservedly. We will be showing official US Army photography, for example, and some of the photographs

taken at Abu Ghraib. The De La Warr exhibition looks like a conventional museum show of objects that are firmly placed in the ‘art’ category, but it should be seen in the context of the Biennial as a whole which deals with a wide range of war imagery, and which gives viewers the chance to look across that range and formulate critical views of its different components. Broomberg and Chanarin, Simon Norfolk and Paul Seawright all make work that has a conscious relation to photojournalism, and seeks to be more considered and less driven by the spectacular and transitory event than pictures made for the newspapers. But, in doing so, they have evolved a range of positions that should, of course, also be questioned. RJ: True. I’d urge everyone intrigued by the De la Warr exhibition to take a look at the rest of the Biennial too. Journalists are always debating the whys and wherefores of war imagery, but I’ve never seen that debate addressed in such an original and diverse way. But, further to trust: Generally there’s a kind of veterans’ deference given to opinions from those ‘just back from the front’ that trumps dissent from those safe at home. You say their positions should be questioned, but how do the artists facilitate that challenge? JS: The artists in the Bexhill exhibition do so by taking a wider approach to the issue of war than one that focuses on the experience of the troops (which is what embedded journalism is intended to focus upon). Seawright’s pictures place us before expansive but terribly dangerous vistas, and implicitly ask viewers to imagine the experiences of those who have to live in such places, surrounded by ruins, mines and unexploded shells. Norfolk is more direct 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, does to the landscape of a contested territory, and depict the many means used to take ownership of it, physically and symbolically. The question you ask is an essential one, for the social compact that the troops cannot be criticized (which was fractured in Vietnam, not least by many of the troops themselves who returned relating horrific stories of what they had been urged to do) has been firmly re-established. The swiftest political suicide would await any MP who had the temerity to suggest that ‘our boys’ ever acted with anything less than the utmost honour and professionalism, no matter the evidence to the contrary. The Biennial does not want to dismiss the views of the troops, and in Julian Germain’s exhibition in Aspex, Portsmouth, photographs taken by them will be shown and discussed. Their perspectives, though, must be complemented, set in 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’s clear from the artists’ backstories that they are totally engaged in this way already. But I know that some viewers will still wonder how that commitment to engage sits with the apparent distance – physical and emotional – the works put between themselves and their subjects. Can they still retain meaning if the message is rendered abstract by disconnection, obscured by distance? JS: That’s a fascinating question, and I think that to begin to answer it you have to look at the habits and constraints of museum photography. Those massive, spectacular prints that adorn museum walls are made with large-format view cameras, the kind you use with a tripod and (perhaps) a cloth thrown over your head. They are wonderful at capturing detail in broad scenes but generally not much 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 ‘abstract disconnection’. I think that such works can carry meanings—and as I suggested earlier, those meanings can be quite various. Maybe there is a danger that in drawing on the sublime, and on distancing, they produce a view in which the artist stands above and outside the conflict and reports on it, almost as though it was a natural phenomenon. That the weight of detail, the degree to which the recording power of the large cameras is relied upon, tend to create a picture of which the tendency is to say: this is how it is. What those pictures show is, of course, terrible enough; but in and of themselves, it may be argued, it is hard to derive from them overt political 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 political standpoint, true; maybe we should take the chance to exercise our critical faculties looking for it! But that distance from political opinion might be good for some. Bexhill has many residents whose lives were defined by that sublime British historical monolith, World War II. Politics aside, I’m sure that distance - of time - does not make abstract or disconnect them from their own personal experiences 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 sophisticated understanding of how nations define themselves through images, and through an interplay between the transformation and representation of the landscape. It is just that the coolness of the

museum photography mode may be thought to come into tension with an overt display of political passion. I am sure many Bexhill residents have memories of the World War II, and that many have personal experiences of Britain’s numerous subsequent military adventures. All of these are tainted by imperialism: the fight against Nazism was against a system that applied imperial methods to Europe, after Germany’s colonies had been stripped from it following the Great War. Some of its most despised features—concentration camps, the aerial bombing of civilians—were invented by the British for use abroad. Following the end of the war, Britain continued with National Service to man its many interventions in defence of its Empire. We continue to do so, in alliance with the new global superpower. So those memories are directly linked with what is happening today, and they, too, should not escape critical questioning.
Julian Stallabrass is the curator of the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial; Rohan Jayasekera is an editor of Index on Censorship.

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