Strangely, the first thing that stopped me in my tracks was language. I was looking at one of a trio of colour photos of beautiful and bleak Scottish landscapes by Trevor Griffiths, each with a connection to the Second World War.
In this one, situated right in the corner of the Gallery, you see in the middleground a stone memorial and just beyond it one of those small concrete forts known as pill boxes, looking out across the grey waters of Loch Ewe. Some 40 convoys sailed from here, 481 ships in a three year period, carrying vital supplies across the northern seas to Russia. More than 100 cargo ships and numerous navy escorts went down. German ships, including 30 U-boats, also sank with their crew. The memorial has been put up by those who survived, in memory of those who ‘never returned to this stark anchorage’. And I was struck by the empty stillness of the photo, and the vulnerability of human anchorages, and the starkness and finality of war.
(The orange arrow in the photo above shows you where to find this image.)
I have never written about an art exhibition before, and I can’t easily summarise one as varied as this. Clare Lamkin is the main organiser, and I asked her to choose one piece of art that stood out for her. She took me to a large piece of white fabriano paper, some six feet long, with a mass of curved charcoal lines to the left and right hand sides. An explosion perhaps? Clare explained that College lecturers Dale Cochrane and Rich Jones had re-enacted a pre-battle exercise used by Canadian paratroopers, where two soldiers are tied back to back and they must struggle against each other, pulling in opposite directions to see who is strongest.
“Students volunteered to be tied together,” Clare explains, “wearing gloves with charcoal stuck to the fingers. This is the result – its created so much movement, it seems so uncontrolled, it is very interesting.” When I came to the opening last Thursday this piece made little impression on me, but now I see how one person has made intense, concentrated dark marks, while the other reached further but made lighter marks, and there are a faint footprints near the centre. There is a film you can watch, showing real soldiers tied together. The piece is called ‘Enmities residue’ – enmity between those who are forced to fight, the marks they leave behind.
Another piece that moved me was Hannah Lamb’s ‘Visible mending’. This is a combination of linen, digital print and darning and right next to it is an original 1940s leaflet ‘Needlecraft for HM Forces’. It is a reflection on the rending and mending of cloth in the war: the roles of men and women, the visibility and invisibility of scars, the tearing of fabric, of families, of flesh. I took a photo from behind the material: the other side is delicate and beautiful, but here you see just the stitching and faint lights beyond. Maybe this is the invalid’s perspective.
The exhibition is timed to accompany a major conference about war and art taking place at the National Media Museum and Bradford College, 21 and 22 February. “There is no one ethical message here,” says Clare. “The art and artefacts are very varied. A few evoke the glamour or patriotism of war, but most explore the symbolism of war and qualities such as courage, loss and aggression.”
Most of the work has come from College staff and current and former students, including two photos, ‘War’ and ‘Peace’, by Martin O’Nions who teaches photography at the College and was previously in the army.
Two other pieces that impressed me were Amanda Blake’s series of photos and circle of soil titled ‘Somme, 2013’ and Heather Boxall’s black, textured and rippling oil on canvas: ‘And what was left looked round at what was left’. I loved this. The title is a reference to ‘Crow’s account of battle’, which in turn is an extract from the much longer Ted Hughes poem, ‘Crow: the life and songs of the crow’ (1970). The extract is up on the wall, near the painting, a terrible indictment of war.
The exhibition ends on 22 February, and I recommend it. There is wit and humour as well as darker subject matter, and I am going to interview separately wonderful Helen Farrar, who has some intriguing work on display [read the interview with Helen here]. I’ll end somewhere very bleak, with words again from the Crow poem which seem very relevant to the first photo that I looked at, of the stark anchorage in a remote corner of Scotland:
“So the survivors stayed.
And the earth and the sky stayed.
Everything took the blame.
Not a leaf flinched, nobody smiled.”
Photographs are copyright to Bradford College.