Gerald Laing’s War Art is finally being exhibited in London. He spoke to Anindya Bhattacharyya about the show.
This year has seen the often apolitical art scene in Britain burst into life with critiques of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan – most notably Mark Wallinger’s Turner prize nominated State Britain installation.
The latest exhibition to address this theme is Gerald Laing’s War Art, a collection of extraordinary paintings that attack the war, the horrors associated with it and the venality of the politicians who unleashed the slaughter.
Despite Laing’s stature as a successful artist with a career spanning decades, War Art is showing at StolenSpace, a relatively small commercial gallery in east London.
‘The hardest place to show these paintings has been London,’ says Laing. ‘It’s been very hard to find a space here. I’m not quite sure why there’s been so much resistance.
‘The establishment galleries say, ‘How interesting – we’ll pass it on to our curators.’ These are the ones who claim loudly that they’re dealing with ‘cutting edge’ art. But they’re not really – the amount of dissent that’s allowed is very strictly controlled.
‘With the commercial galleries, a phrase I heard from one of the major ones was, ‘We can’t bite the hand that feeds us.’ Another from one of the smaller commercial galleries in the West End of London: ‘We don’t want to be controversial’.’
War Art sees Laing return after several decades to the Pop Art style of painting he helped to pioneer in the 1960s. This decision was prompted in part by the similarities between Iraq today and the Vietnam war back then.
‘When I started out I was completely enthralled with the US,’ he says. ‘Having come from post-war Britain – Newcastle, which was an extremely depressed city when I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s – the American Dream looked great, it looked like the future.
‘But then we had the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the sudden realisation of what life in America was really like – so I dropped it all and went into sculpture throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
‘It was only four years ago, when I started being totally exercised by this war, that I came back to Pop Art. I started trying to produce a sculpture about the war, but then I thought, what’s happening now is so associated with how I started out, let’s go back to that Pop Art approach – but treat the images in a different way.’
The paintings that comprise War Art are extraordinarily dense, full of multi-layered references to images and events. The torture photographs from Abu Ghraib are mixed with religious iconography, references to advertising and classic 1960s Pop Art works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
Running through the work is a fascination with the power of images. ‘The images I painted in the 1960s were not taken from objective reality,’ he says.
‘They were iconic, idealised images such as those found in newspapers. My best known painting from back then is of Brigitte Bardot – it’s taken from a newspaper photo. I never actually met Brigitte Bardot.’
This iconic aspect of images opens up the possibility of using them to comment on and remember wars and other political events, he adds.
‘Somebody said to me, ‘Art doesn’t make any difference.’ I replied that it doesn’t make any difference immediately – but it commemorates. It nails things down so that there’s no escape from it, and of course that becomes a moral stance.
‘You wouldn’t know anything about Guernica if it weren’t for Picasso, or the Peninsular War if it weren’t for Goya, or anything particular about the Weimar Republic – what was happening to the veterans, say – if it weren’t for paintings by Otto Dix and George Grosz.’
The use of imagery from Abu Ghraib is particularly striking – and damning. ‘We were supposed to be going in there to help the population – and then we created situations like that,’ says Laing.
‘It was totally counterproductive and appalling. I didn’t believe the war would work anyway, but to go and do something like that – I couldn’t believe it.’
Laing depicts the horrors of Iraq interspersed with brand names, drawing out the connections between war and commerce. He notes how the culture of privatisation has swept through Britain in the past decade, taking in railways, schools – and even the army itself.
‘I know what the philosophy is, that private industry looks after the pennies better, or something like that. That’s what they say – but it’s absolute codswallop. The way General Michael Jackson destroyed the county regiment system, it was almost as though he was preparing the army for privatisation.
‘You know what that means? It means we have mercenaries fighting our battles. And you know what mercenaries do? They go to the person who pays them the most, and if they’re losing they run away.’
Resistance movements such as the Viet Cong and those in Iraq today have quite different motivations to the mercenaries, he notes, which makes them hard to beat.
‘There’s a chronic nature to this kind of violence, to the thugs running the world. They’re doing it again and again – Iraq, Vietnam and also the First World War where I lost my grandfather, an uncle and two great uncles – none of whose bodies were ever recovered.
‘It’s quite amazing how weak spirited, how pusillanimous people in positions of power are, how absolutely prepared they are to tailor their views to their own advantage. It’s shameful.’
Despite his anger and despair at the relentless return of war, Laing is optimistic about the ability of people to discover the truth and resist the drive to militarism.
‘When I was young we had very little information about war and what we had was pure propaganda – Boy’s Own stories. Then there was a long period of apathy, with people saying they’re not going to vote because it doesn’t make any difference.
‘But now you’ve got young artists and other people too who are saying something about the war and who will resist it. You couldn’t get 20,000 people to join the Royal Fusiliers and send them off to the Somme now – they wouldn’t go. That’s one of the greatest and most cheering things for a man of my age!’