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The King's Peace: Realism and War

Stills, Edinburgh until Sunday.

Four stars

While the welter of artistic contributions to the one hundred year anniversary of the First World War's opening salvo have been resolutely non-triumphalist, recent events in Palestine and what looks set to be Iraq Part Three suggest little has been learnt in the intervening century. As Remembrance Day looms, this is where this dense and at times overwhelming compendium of war in pieces curated by artist Owen Logan and Kirsten Lloyd of Stills comes in.

A sequel of sorts to Logan and Lloyd's previous collaboration on the epic ECONOMY project, which looked at global capitalism in a similarly polemical fashion, the starting point of The King's Peace is selections from Masquerade: Michael Jackson Alive in Nigeria (2001-2005). Logan's satirical photo-essay sees him pick up the mantle – and the white mask – of the late pop icon and travels to Africa, where his mysterious collaborators the Maverick Ejiogbe Twins subsequently play-act assorted personas that move from self-deified guru through the echelons of a volatile society in flux.

Set against walls painted perfectly regimented red or white which host pithy quotes from Emmeline Pankhurst and others, Masquerade becomes the mast for an umbilically and socio-politically connected network of images from the USA, South Africa, Argentina, Italy and much closer to where the home fires may have burnt to be pinned to. The roots of this come in archive spreads from 1920s radical newspaper, Workers' Illustrated News, and The Greatest Show on Earth, from the 1930s. The now vintage imagery of both make explicit the economic relationship between capitalism and war.

The collateral damage of conflict can be seen both in Philip Jones Griffiths' remarkable frontline images collected in his 1971 book, Vietnam Inc (1971), and in the post Second World War shots of Paul Strand, who, along with writer Cesare Zavattini, produced Un Paese: Portrait of an Italian Village (1955) out of time spent in the rural town of Luzzara. While American soldiers observe Vietnamese mothers holding their dead children in the former, the dusty family idyll of the latter is upended by the words beside it from the mother of a clan decimated by violence.

On a wooden assemblage that resembles a wind-up washing line, but which is actually a reconstruction of a design first built by Latvian artist Gustav Klucis to host a living newspaper type structure, an archive of the 1960s Argentinian collective, Grupo de Artistas de Vanguardia Group of Avant-Garde Artists) is plastered. Archivo Tucuman Arde (Tucuman Burns Archive) (1968) is a series of posters and other documentation of a doomed attempt at alternative media which was eventually shut down by the authorities it opposed in a climate of social crisis in a US-backed dictatorship.

War Primer 2 (2011) finds Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin applying similarly disruptive strategies to Realpolitik by putting contemporary images over clippings collected by Bertolt Brecht in 1955 and accompanied by poems which are as pertinent now as then. One, in which American troops film a dead body with a camouflage covered video phone is especially telling of how war is immortalised as spectacle.

This is evident too in the selections of photo-montages from Martha Rosler's House Beautiful: Bringing The War Home, New Series (2004-2008). Here male models who seem to have stepped out of a Reservoir Dogs theme party promenade through a battlefield. In another, a chicly-dressed female model gazes with mouth wide open into her mobile phone as if about to take a selfie.

Blithely self-absorbed and seemingly unaware of the two bloodied children slumped in the chairs behind her, the woman registers posed faux surprise at the image of the man possibly caught in the crossfire on the small screen in her hand as what may as well be a downloaded action movie. Sheltered from the blast of the carnage outside the windows of her sleekly sound-proofed des-res, the woman's response, in all it's glossy vacuity, is an all too perfect encapsulation of desensitised lives during wartime.

Nermine Hammam's Press, from her series, Unfolding (2012), is a brutal juxtaposition of police brutality in Egypt following the 2011 uprising and the Zen serenity of a Japanese medieval landscape that makes it look like a frame from a science-fiction comic strip.

If the two images from Fred Lonidier's N.A.F.T.A. (Not A Fair Trade for All) series (2005) highlights the relationship between art and activism among exploited workers in Mexico, it is made even clearer in Digging for Diamonds...a Journey Back to Fairy Hales (1994/2014). This film charts the interventions of the Snapcorps photography group, based in the Wester Hailes area of Edinburgh in the 1990s. Here the group dressed up as an unemployed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for Hi Ho Giro, a piece that was part performance, part protest.

Through a series of reminiscences of four of the original Snapcorps members, the film made with Stuart Platt captures a moment from Edinburgh's oppositional past that created a mini community who discovered their own brand of self-determination and power through a piece of serious fun.

With books and essays in a newspaper style publication to read and films, including Eugene Jarecki's ninety-eight minute Why We Fight to watch, there's a lot to take in throughout what becomes a quietly didactic meditation on war's ongoing futility.

That intensity of concentration required may be partly why The King's Peace perhaps hasn't attracted the same amount of attention as the more voguishly marketable sections of GENERATION, the showcase of twenty-five years of contemporary art in Scotland which it forms part of. It's almost as if the show has been declared a no-man's-land, too serious and too engaged to make the front pages alongside the assorted art stars featured elsewhere in GENERATION. While this is a shame, it is also everything that The King's Peace is about. All it is saying, after all, is give peace a chance, and who would want to read about that?
 
A shorter version of this article appeared on The List online, October 2014
 

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