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The Desolate Emptiness of Aftermath (Conflict, Time, Photography – Tate Modern)

Justin Cheuk: When HK Meets UK

From the Tate website

January 2015. Tate Modern.

In a building that merely thirty years ago housed a functioning power station, it is perhaps fitting to see an artwork of clouds.

Toshio Fukada, The Mushroom Cloud – Less than twenty minutes after the explosion (4), 1945 Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, © The estate of Toshio Fukada, courtesy Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum from the Tate website

Except that wasn’t your everyday industrial waste. The time was 6th August 1945, less than twenty minutes after the explosion. Location: Hiroshima.

Conflict, Time, Photography is Tate Modern’s latest photography exhibition that seeks to compile the aftermath of destruction. The exhibits operate in quite an unusual manner, to quote from the exhibition website:

In an innovative move, the works are ordered according to how long after the event they were created from moments, days and weeks to decades later. Photographs taken seven months after the fire bombing of Dresden are shown alongside those taken seven months after the end of the First Gulf War… The result is the chance to make never-before-made connections while viewing the legacy of war as artists and photographers have captured it in retrospect

I am not a trained eye on art: however as an International Relations student, the ways humans aim to destroy each other has been a weirdly fascinating subject and decided that I wanted to see them via the lenses of the past 150 years. The politics of war and violence has been a century-old controversy that has increasingly been complicated and bogged down by various calculations of ethics and morality: legality, legitimacy, ‘right vs. wrong’.

The agendas (and photoshop skills) of journalists and cameras notwithstanding, photography remains the most reliable way from which facts are presented. All the controversies and debates are removed, all we can see is the remains of destruction, or more clearly, the lack of remains.

That of desolate emptiness.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1854 by Roger Fenton. Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum, London From the Guardian website

Wars are fought in millions of ways as the opposing sides attempts to outwit one another. However, the aftermath of war instead carries an uncanny resemblance across history. Through a lens, the smoke minutes after explosion in Hiroshima looks no different in those in Kabul nearly six decades later. Old battlefields are equally deserted months after the Crimean and the Gulf War. After decades, Hitler’s Atlantic forts and soviet’s ex-nuclear test sites in Kazakhstan seemed to have met the same fate – overgrown, abandoned. The aftermath of war repeats itself, however much we wanted to believe otherwise.

Excerpt from Taryn Simon, Chapter VII, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, 2011 © Taryn Simon

Until somebody decides to do something about it. In many ways this exhibition is not a documentation of war: it is a reflection of response, of regret, of moving on and eventually forgetting. Towards the end of the exhibition as move further and further away from the destruction itself, the colours returned and, at some point, people started to live a normal life again. At least outwardly. Perhaps times is the best solution.

However, what happened during the war cannot be reversed. Subtle, but definitely noticeable, gaps remained in our lives. It is only when the generation of the war passes away that a conflict moves from part of life into the history books. Immortalised, but also impersonalised.

And this is how the medium of photography present conflict: from nuclear annihilation to an ordinary archive in Turkey.

Hrair Sarkissian, Istory, 2011, Courtesy of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries; from Manifesta Journal

The exhibition runs until 15th March. For more details and ticketing matters, visit the Tate website.

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