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At war

The exhibition At war takes a look at the experience of war, though it follows a thematic rather than a chronological order, stopping to analyse the different phases of a conflict.

‘If we describe a war, first we have to speak of the preliminaries, such as the generals' speeches, the money invested on both sides and their fears; secondly, of the attacks, the killings and the dead; and finally, of the trophy of victory, of the triumphal song of the winners and of the tears and slavery of the victims.'


As part of the preparations for war, the themes in question are the socialisation of violence, the construction of the enemy and the causes of the conflict. During hostilities, the exhibition focuses on the experience of soldiers and civilians, and on the action of the combat. And when the war is over, at the moment of victory or defeat, it looks at capitulation treaties, trials for war crimes and, finally, remembrance of the events, reflected in monuments and testimonies.

The exhibition therefore addresses the question of what war is, the different facets of the experience of war, its direct impact on individuals and communities and its formalised representation in cultural products.

To this end, the exhibition combines paintings, photography, film, conceptual art and installations, documents and objects, all from very different sources. The artists signing the numerous works on show include, among others, Otto Dix, Leon Golub, George Grosz, Philip Guston, Alfredo Jaar, Oskar Kokoschka, Barbara Kruger, Mikhail Larichev, Mikhail Larionov , Fernand Léger, Kasimir Malevich , Antoni Miralda, Henry Moore, Robert Morris, Paul Nash, Adi Ness, Christopher Nevinson, Robert Capa, Larry Burrows, John Hoagland, James Nachtwey, Peter Turnley, Gilles Caron, Simon Norfolk, Gilles Peress, Martha Rosler, Gino Severini, Félix Vallotton, Gervasio Sánchez, and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

The exhibition, curated by Antonio Monegal, Francesc Torres and José María Ridao, adapts to the principles and aims of the Forum and forms part of its programme under the thematic heading of The conditions of peace.

"If we are describing a war, we shall first of all mention the preliminaries such as the general's speeches, the outlay of both sides, and their fears; next, the attacks, the slaughter, and the dead; finally, the victory trophy, the triumphal songs of the victors, the tears and enslavement of the victims."


This exhibition seeks to encourage reflection on war's place in the culture and to invite visitors to convert the tour through said place into an experience of their own everyday position in this space "at war."

In the exhibition the changes produced in the evolution of war from the beginning of the twentieth century until now are identified, along with the invariable aspects that define the phenomenon of war as such and which are manifested in most conflicts. This isn't an exhibition in favour of or against war, but rather about what war is, about different facets of the experience of war, about its direct impact on individuals and communities, and about its representation as formalised in cultural products.

The concept of experience and the challenge of representing that experience are the axes that articulate the exhibition as a whole. Those who have been there have borne witness, taken the images, bequeathed their account to us. Those who haven't lived it accede via these representations to a mediated experience, yet one that is nevertheless a form of knowledge. The exhibition isn't limited to reflecting what occurs when and where a war is actually being fought, but also includes those aspects of the phenomenon of war which encroach on the social space that is seemingly at peace, like the one in which the exhibition takes place.

Instead of keeping to the chronological sequence of historic conflicts, the exhibition is divided thematically, permitting a narrative to unfold that reproduces and synthesises the different levels of the process: what happens before, during and after each war. Unlike discourses that only devote attention to the fighting, the violence and the destruction, we recognise a number of latent cultural conditions that precede the conflict, and a number of consequences that also establish themselves in the culture. We are "at war" long before hostilities break out and their echoes resonate long after the last soldier returns home.

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1.- The socialisation of violence:

In order to explain the phenomenon of war not only do we have to refer ourselves to its cultural origins in a remote past, but also to observe the social institutions and practices present in our own surroundings. There are many ritualised ways of expressing conflict and violence, and, starting with childhood games, human beings familiarise themselves with the idea of war, which invades the territory of civil society via entertainment, fashion and advertising. The infrastructures necessary for the organised use of force, such as armies and the arms industry, exist beforehand as instruments of prevention. Before any war is declared, we rely on every resource for conceiving its possibility and especially on the prior inscription in the collective imaginary of a culture of war.

* * * *

2.- The construction of the enemy:

Wars have many possible causes, causes why a society is divided into irreconcilable groups or why two established collectives finally decide that their conflicting interests or visions of the world are not negotiable and can only be resolved by violence. All the same, it is possible to observe a condition common to every conflict: without an enemy there is no war. The mechanisms of disqualification, dehumanisation and demonisation of the other are based on culturally established perceptions and prejudices that serve to lay the foundations for the use of force. Thanks to speeches by the leaders and to propaganda, to the memory of past grievances or the threat of future dangers, and often with the collaboration of the media, the cultural framework which shifts the notion of the necessity and legitimacy of war into the social sphere is gradually consolidated.

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3.- Hostilidades:

The expectation of war brings with it a call to arms. The outcome of this often irreversible process marks the beginning of hostilities as such. The main body of the exhibition, dedicated to the experience of war, addresses that of both the combatants and the civil population. It relies on the documentary record and on images that bear witness to an event whose complexity defies any attempt at representation, yet which has not, for all that, ceased to be constantly represented. From here on in we are effectively at war, in the space of collective and organised violence.

The wait to go into action:
"Instead of the dangers we were expecting, what we found there was filth, work and sleepless nights; to triumph over all this called for a heroism that didn't attract us much. Worse yet was the boredom; for the soldier this is even more enervating than the nearness of death." Ernst Jünger

The greater part of the soldier's time is not spent fighting, but waiting. An idle period which is full of activities and resources for dispelling fear and boredom, for escaping from that death of time which precedes the time of death.

The fighting:
"The battlefield is the epitome of war." (General S. L. A. Marshall)

Fiction and art can explicate a truth that eludes the merely documentary. Even when they are based upon a rigorous portrayal of historical fact, by bringing the spectator close to the viewpoint and the emotional state of the combatant, they attain a degree of immediacy and intensity that the documentary register can only produce with difficulty.

The historical avant-garde:
One can trace many of the transformations within the history of art in the twentieth century through art's dialogue with bellicose conflict and its successive responses to the challenge that representing war entailed. One often uses the term "avant-garde" without taking its military connotations into account, and without recognising the influence that the First World War had on the revolution in aesthetic language and on the formation of avant-garde movements. Avant-gardists like Otto Dix, George Grosz, Gino Severini, Fernand Léger, Oskar Kokoschka and Mikhail F. Larionov also formed part of that other avant-garde, the one at the front, and their personal experience in the war conditioned their aesthetic language. Surviving alongside such avant-garde models were other more traditional modalities of history painting, also frequently based on direct experience.

The literal avant-garde:
"The real war will never get into the books." Walt Whitman.

A qualitative difference exists between the representation of war by the artist who is at the same time a visual witness of what he represents and the idealised reconstruction of the historical event. The Crimean War was the first to be photographed, but cameras were too slow to capture movement and the newspapers sent artists to the front in order to document the feats of war. Together with this process, some regular armies ended up having an artists' corp which documented its campaigns. This practice has continued, even though still and movie cameras capable of registering the action already existed at the time of the First World War.

As extraordinary as it is unknown, this body of war art generated by immediate experience is very different from the epic easel painting decorating the museum wall. Physical proximity to the horror and deadliness of the battlefield gives these artists a moral authority that is scarcely comparable with that of other artists who explore the same contents without having lived them. The fact that one may be unaware of a major part of the art that has most directly reflected modern warfare leads one to observe that a feature of any war is the anonymity of the majority of its protagonists.

Also included in this section are the technologies of visual testimony from the frontline that dominate contemporary culture: photography, cinema and the TV news report. Regular armies have their own corps of photographers and cameramen, but today the representation of war is mostly in the hands of reporters, who have become our chief mediators. To the conflict between independence and servitude to the media one must add the growing interference of governments and armies, which ever since Vietnam know that public opinion is another battlefront.

No vision of contemporary war can be reduced to the perspective of the combatants, because what defines it is that it is waged at the cost of and against non-combatants, by transgressing the most basic principles of international law. Up until the First World War the mortally dangerous thing was to be at the front. Since then, however, it has gone on to be the civilian population who suffers. And as victims or as hostages, since they have been this in besieged cities and during the Cold War. At the present time approximately seventy-five percent of all war fatalities are civilians. Today the frontline is the city. The concept of urbicide refers us to another facet of the culture of war: a traumatic disturbing of daily life in its every dimension. And it reminds us that war isn't something remote, but comes to call on citizens in their homes.

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4.- Victory and defeat:

Wars don't always end in a clear and decisive manner. The opposite, in fact, since in most contemporary wars it is very difficult, not to say impossible, to pinpoint the definitive ending. By way of contrast, the exhibition underlines some of the cases in which the delimitation is more obvious, in which a surrender or treaty is signed and the end of the war is announced and celebrated. They signal the moment from which to describe the effects that follow a war and they reveal that neither the violence, nor the pain, nor the conflict necessarily end there. The reprisals, the suicides and the exiles, the trials for war crimes and the common graves in which the truth lies buried, the scars that subsist in individuals and peoples register the ongoing nature of the consequences. Victory and defeat aren't definitively opposed categories: at times they are blurred and reversed, and it can happen that both sides declare themselves the victors.

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5.- Memory:

The remembering of wars, of the victories as well as the defeats, is one of the privileged acts of a nation's collective affirmation. Monuments, cemeteries, accounts are constructed and by means of these commemorative processes so is the identity of individuals and of peoples. The objective of thinking about the function of memory is to present a cycle that is complete: the discourse about war inscribed in the collective memory in the shape of monuments and commemorations, and of the history books with which children are educated, used in schools, is an integral part of the system of socialisation that turns war into a constant feature of human culture. Wars often have their origin and justification in earlier wars, and the very possibility of making war stems from this archaic memory.

Oral testimonies:
The contrary of the history book is the oral history of the generally anonymous individual. In oral testimony we find ourselves face to face with a concrete person who has lived a war as most human beings live it, combatants or victims, without their experience extending beyond their immediate surroundings, and often without knowing very well why people are fighting. They speak of a series of conflicts in different places and times, but most of all they personify the unlimited variety of individual experiences of war.

"Only the dead have seen the end of war." George Santayana

This narration about the successive stages of the phenomenon of war, taking in the socialisation of violence, the construction of the enemy, the hostilities, victory and defeat and remembrance, can also be read as an analogy of the ages of man: from the child who plays, to the young man who fights and the family which suffers in the city, to the old folk who reminisce, and finally the grave. In the last analysis the cycle is condensed in a name, of a person or of a place, written in a book or carved in stone, or cast into oblivion.

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Documentaries At War

Film cycle AT WAR at the Filmoteca de Catalunya

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