Broomberg & Chanarin: Divine Violence
MOSTYN, Llandudno, 19. July - 2. November 2014
Bob Dickinson for Art Monthly
Bertolt Brecht's use of juxtaposition in his plays is better known than the collages he made to illustrate his critique of press photography, but the latter carry a similar jolt. Parts of his War Primer, 1939-55, combining newspaper cuttings with four-line 'photo-epigrams', were shown at Tate Liverpool's 'Art Turning left' last year (Reviews AM373). Influenced by his Protestant mother, Brecht referred to the bible throughout his work, and he started annotating a pocket-sized copy in the 1920s. The artist due Broomberg & Chanarin recently produced their own War Primer 2, 2013, as a sequel to Brecht's original, using images from the internet of the so-called war on terror ('Thatcher: The Legacy' AM367). Subsequently, after examining Brecht's wartime Bible, they published Holy Bible, 2013, the original pages from which are now displayed in this UK premiere.
The initial impression is deceptive: entering the gallery it appears an orderly series of illustrated pages has been carefully framed and hung. Examined closely, however, violence, horror and downright oddness emerge, first from the photographs, and then from the text. The artists uses the King James version, which they read from beginning to end, underlining significant phrases in red. These are matched with photographs, sourced from London-based Archive of Modern Conflict (referenced in Fiona Banner's recent show at PEER, 'Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead'), a collection containing over four million images whose subjects include warfare, but also extend into more esoteric territory. The artists' aims could have resulted in either a literal pictorial update of biblical narrative and teaching or an exercise in kitsch, but an additional element intervened: the writings of contemporary Israeli philosopher Adi Ophir, whose work supplies the installation's title, plus its central idea of God revealing himself through catastrophe.
The work progresses chronologically through the Old and New Testaments. Not everything seems catastrophic, however. Appearances of the phrase 'it came to pass' are marked with images of magic tricks and illusionists. But there's an intentional sense of 'shock and awe'. Numbers 1:25, 'And the LORD came down in a cloud...' produces a photograph of a seated crowd, circa 1940s, staring upwards at a circular smoke trail in the sky. Then there are frightening moments, such as at Deuteronomy 13:1: 'If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams...', illustrated with the photo of someone whose face has been transformed into a skull, making the human intimately connected to the inhuman.
The threat of delivery of death is seen everywhere, bringing out an interpretation of the Bible, influenced by Ophir, as a series of warnings concerning what happens when humans break God's rules. These subsequently have a crucial impact on constructions of political power, persisting to this day. Images from 20th-century wars proliferate. Matthew 21:4 begins, straightforwardly, 'All this was done...' and below we see the photo of a tangle of bodies, with a label in Japanese. It does not matter that the viewer does not know when or where the photograph was taken; the biblical quote emphasises the timeless human agency involved.
Like Brecht, the artists are suspicious of the role played by press photographs in conflict. Frequently, the biblical text feeds into the image, making the viewer notice more about it than was originally intended as part of a newspaper report or a still for a film. One example sees the desolate words from Habbakuk 1:2, 'OH LORD, how long shall I cry...' opposite a large monochrome image of a woman, possibly Vietnamese, lying on the floor, screaming. Just inside the right of the frame, the tip of a pair of shoes is visible; one other person was looking down on her apart from the anonymous photographer and, once noticed, this piece of 'reportage' becomes voyeuristic.
And when laughter erupts, which it does occasionally, it comes from darkness that remains totally human. Most telling, in the context of conflict, is the comment on Psalms 20:13: 'I will send my beloved son...', below which is placed a photo of a young man holding a placard reading WHEN WILL YOU FUCKERS LEARN? and, covering a facing page, an image of another placard hand-painted with the words GAY IS GOOD.
Two of the artists' earlier works, Afterlife, 2009, and The Day Nobody Died, 2008, also mediate on photography and violence, as well as addressing political instability in the Middle East. In all cases, the causes are as much absurd as they are divine.