Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War (Imperial War Museum North, Manchester)

From 12 October 2013 until 23 February 2014, the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester presents the exhibition “Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War”, containing works of more than 40 contemporary artists about war in our time. The IWM’s huge and diverse collection could provide all the more than 70 works that have been made sinde the Gulf War of 1990/91. Among others, Steve McQueen, Frauke Eigen, Paul Seawright, Rasheed Araeen and Willie Doherty take part in this exhibition.

The impressive museum – Daniel Libeskind is responsible for this consequent architecture – was opened in 2002 and belongs to the British Imperial War Museums (IWM). While the IWM in London is a rather “classic” war museum – with countless exhibits on weapons, documents and uniforms, all presented in a national perception -, the IWM North tries a remarkable approach to the social system of war beyond a perception based on technology and history: thus, this museum advances more directly and clearly to the question of mankind’s fascination to war, which we obviously cannot remove from our culture.

This issue leads to the exhibition’s title: How do artists contribute to our perceptions of war and conflict in an age where our understanding is shaped by the media and not the least the internet? To the latter, kennardphillipps’s (Peter Kennard und Cat Picton-Phillipps) work “Photo Op” refers to, this photo composition, well-known through the web, showing the British Prime Minister doing a “selfie” (web slang for a posted self-portrait, quickly made by one’s mobile phone) in front of an apocalyptic landscape.

Steve McQueen, rather known for his films, was commissioned by the IWM in 2003 to work on the Iraq War. The artist was disappointed from filming in Basra, thus, he sought alternative means to respond to the war. His series “Queen and Country” shows stamps with the portraits of fallen soldiers and refers to individual loss, but also to the roles of the state, communities and nationhood.

In 2002, Paul Seawright worked on the Afghanistan War, commissioned by the IWM, too. The photo “Camp Boundary” from his series “Hidden” shows an empty landscape with just a few tents. Mostly, today’s wars are unspectacular, and the battle ground seems to be empty. However, the threat is still there, be it mines or bombs, ambushes or bombing raids.

The “Unapproved Road 2” by Willie Doherty shows an improvised road block. Once the viewer is aware of the location in a border region in Northern Ireland, the perception of this harmless-looking image is profoundly changed. Frauke Eigen travelled in 2000 to Kosovo, shortly after the end of the war there. Witnessing the uncovering of a mass grave, she was struck by the power of personal possession, that now, detached from their former owners, reminded of them. Rasheed Araeen addresses in “White Stallion” the role of the media in the Gulf War, while Taysir Batniji ironically refers to the fragile living conditions in Palestine. “The House of Osama bin Laden” (2003) by Langlands & Bell is an interactive video game installation in which the user can engage in an unsuccessful search for the founder of al-Qaeda who has now been shot.

Further works are from Jack Milroy, Angus Boulton, John Keane, John Timberlake, Trio Sarajevo, Edmund Clark, Kerry Tribe, Yaron Livay, Miroslaw Balka, Ori Gersht and others.


Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War
12 October 2013 – 23 February 2014
Opening: 11 October 2013
Entrance is free of charge, but donations are welcome

Imperial War Museum North
The Quays
Trafford Wharf Road
Manchester M17 1TZ

2 thoughts on “Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War (Imperial War Museum North, Manchester)”

  1. I agree that this is a very important exhibition. Too often dissent against war is excluded by large institutions – even though it reflects the opinions of a large proportion of the public. Catalyst allows artists to express their genuine feelings about issues such as Palestine, Guantanamo Bay and the Iraq War. Such subjects and opinions need to be brought out; this is what democracy is about.

    I’ve written a review which you can read here:

  2. Thank you for this excellent review of a most interesting exhibition. I could not agree more – and that what’s art about: to express feelings and to touch others.

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