Mention war photography to just about anyone and they’ll immediately think of corpse-strewn battlefields, roadside executions and bombed out cities peopled by the remnants of a staring shell-shocked populous. As early as the 1850s, when photographers first braved these theatres, the camera has been a potent means of capturing the nightmare of conflagration. For Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, one of Australia’s better-known artistic duos, their role as official war artists has given rise to images that, at first glance, show a decidedly more prosaic side to military endeavour. Beneath their benign appearance, however, this expansive and detailed survey contains a no less disturbing sensibility.
Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
Afghan National Army Perimeter Post with Chair, Tarin Kowt Base, Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan
111.5 x 151.5 cm
digital colour photograph
courtesy the artist & Arc One Gallery, Melbourne
Their exhibition The Approaching Storm: Paintings and Photographs at Arc One Gallery, Melbourne, featured large-scale prints and a grid of numerous smaller images. Taking as their subject the vast military bases supporting conflicts from Iraq to Afghanistan, the photographs read like location shots for a nascent feature film. Attention to detail is all-important here. Impromptu dwellings, lonely sentinels, the occasional military vehicle – all combine to convey the sense that life in camp is about as boring as it gets. And yet, if you’re inclined to study a while longer and to look beyond the Spartan environs, a sense of unease emerges. This is especially apparent in works such as Twin Towers, Military Installation, Iraq 2007, which documents a plywood effigy of New York’s twin towers framed by a hand painted background, set in the grounds of a military base. Such an image combines the strange, the banal and the incongruous in equal measure. Afghan National Army Perimeter Post with Chair, Tarin Kowt Base, Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan 2007-8 shows a lonely outpost made from shipping containers and the like, a setting not dissimilar to those of the feature film Mad Max, such is the desolation it evokes.
Whilst the works are scenes of militaria, their second subject is the landscape in which these bases are located. Places such as these can be forbidding but, for those who visit, the desert wastes have a wondrous beauty and a tendency to get under the skin. Approaching Sandstorm, View from Watchtower at Base Perimeter, Military Installation, Southern Iraq 2007-8, one of the exhibition’s more dramatic pieces, captures the faintest hint of an approaching desert storm and with it the awe inspired by the landscape. Here the environment plays proxy for the impending destruction that is war, a metaphor of inescapable, even biblical dimensions.
Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
121.9 x 121.9 cm
oil on linen
courtesy the artists & Arc One Gallery, Melbourne
Brown and Green are best known for their paintings, but by presenting their photographic material they extend an important part of their painting practice; that is the relationship between the photographic and the painted scene. Of the latter, Baghdad 2009 is a striking expansion of their photographic project. It shares with many of their photographs an approach that eschews the emphatic, allowing space for multiple readings to occur. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that few of these photographs lingered in the mind; however, where a sense of the iconic was missing, a presentiment of the pending destruction was present everywhere and in this their engagement with the medium is compelling.
Lyndell Brown / Charles Green
The Approaching Storm: Paintings and Photographs
5 May - 30 May 2009
Arc One Gallery, Melbourne