Can art help us understand the ‘age of terror’?

A new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London attempts to address the changes to our world since 9/11 and the beginning of the ‘Age of Terror’. While not entirely successful, it offers plenty of food for thought.

How has 9/11 changed our lives? This is the question posed by ‘Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11’, currently on show at the Imperial War Museum in London. Only 16 years have passed since the World Trade Center attack in New York and it is undoubtedly still far too soon to process the enormity of the act and the conflicts that have come in its wake. Despite this, the show offers much to consider, via a series of works created by artists from across the world.

We are, of course, still living in the ‘age of terror’. But the show opens by looking back – to the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The works in this section offer the chance to observe how much attitudes on terrorism have changed, and hardened, over the past 16 years.

New York-based artist Tony Oursler sets the scene with a fascinating documentary film shot during and immediately after the event. The imagery of the attack, so devastatingly familiar now, blends quickly into footage of a city already bouncing back, even as the twisted girders of the towers are still being tackled by emergency services.

Ground Zero quickly morphs into part-shrine, part-tourist attraction, as people stop to take selfies (before this term was really coined) in front of the shattered remains. Commerce is revived equally quickly with Oursler capturing much footage of street sellers hawking postcards, T-shirts and other 9/11 ‘memorabilia’. All this is presented without overt judgement or comment from the artist, allowing the viewer to decide how it makes them feel.

Top: Jitish Kallat, Circadian Rhyme 1, 2001, © the artist; photo courtesy Thelma Garcia; Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels; Above: Ivan Navarro, The Twin Towers, 2011; © IWM
kenneardphillipps, Head of State, 2007

A film by Kelly Tribe also forces the audience to question their own potential prejudices. Just two months after the attacks, Tribe placed an advert in a LA movie industry magazine asking for applicants to play the role of a ‘terrorist’. Twenty-nine participants feature in the footage, which is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s screen test films. Virtually all are men, but the film shows a wide range of ethnicities – far more than most TV and films depicting ‘terrorists’ do now.

From the shock of the attacks themselves, the exhibition moves on to the impact they have had on our daily lives since. This, of course, differs depending on where it is in the world you live. Perhaps inevitably, the effects felt most obviously in the West are addressed first, through artworks documenting increased security and state powers. Jitish Kallat’s Circadian Rhyme 1 depicts the daily airport security dance via a series of miniature figures, while Ai Weiwei’s Surveillance Camera With Plinth immortalises this now-everyday object in marble.

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera with Plinth, 2015; © IWM
Coco Fusco, Operation Atropos, 2006; Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; © Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society, New York

Omer Fast’s film Five Thousand Feet is the Best is among a series of works which look at the various wars that have followed the attacks. The film restages a number of interviews conducted in a Las Vegas hotel room with a former drone operator, and expresses the disturbing blurring of reality with fiction encouraged by the use of drones in warfare. Similarly, Coco Fusco’s reenactment of torture techniques on a group of female students by retired United States Army interrogators emphasises the ‘hidden wars’ that have gone on since 9/11.

This is a cluttered show, and features a number of works from the big names of British art including Grayson Perry and Jake & Dinos Chapman. It is easy to see why these have been included – they make for an easy publicity win – but they are ultimately among the least thoughtful works on display, and the show could have benefited, particularly in the early rooms, with being less packed.

Grayson Perry, Line of Departure, 2014; © IWM
Jamal Penjweny, Saddam is Here, 2009-10. Courtesy the artist and Ruya Foundation

Thankfully, one of the most powerful sections of the exhibition is given more space. In ‘Home’, a number of contemporary artists from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria present works that express the ongoing affects of war and exile, while other works reflect on the trauma experienced by some of the servicemen and women who have fought in the ‘War on Terror’.

The sense of futility and despair in many of these works is summed up in Homesick, a film from 2014 by Hrair Sakissian, who left Syria in 2008 but whose parents still live in Damascus. Sakissian built a scale model of their home, which he proceeds to methodically smash to pieces in the artwork. The trauma and hopelessness is visceral and it cannot help but make some of the almost decorative works from earlier in the show appear banal and shallow in comparison.

While for many the term ‘age of terror’ is an abstract, at times aggravating political phrase, Sakissian’s work serves as a stark and important reminder of just how real and everyday it remains for many.

‘Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11’ is on show at the Imperial War Museum in London until May 28, 2018. It will be accompanied by a series of film screenings and talks, including a panel discussion on conflict journalism since 9/11 on November 22;

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