Image: Philip Carr
The Incommensurable Banner (2007) was a challenging and controversial attempt by one of Europe’s leading artists to confront the unseen human toll of the wars being waged in our name.
For the last five years the Swiss-born artist, Thomas Hirschhorn, has been haunted by the absence of the dead in the coverage of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Not unlike Picasso’s Guernica, the banner is a cry for a recognition of the infinite, incommensurable pain suffered by those whose deaths have been ignored or gone unwitnessed.
In the wars of the last few years we have set out to destroy the enemy. And when I say destroy I mean really destroy them, destroy their bodies, everything. The suicide bomber destroys his or her own body in the act of destroying other bodies. It is not just about killing, it’s about destroying. Modern weapons also are designed to completely wreck and rape the human body… We know this but at the same time we want to protect ourselves from it… Because what you see (when you look at the banner) is that you are next. This is a human body like you that has been destroyed.
Thomas Hirschhorn in conversation with Fiachra Gibbons,
Brighton Photo Biennial
Brighton Photo Biennial presented its third edition entitled Memory of Fire: the War of Images and Images of War curated by Julian Stallabrass, that ran for six weeks from Friday 3 October to Sunday 16 November 2008.
Thomas Hirschhorn is one of the foremost artists of his generation. His work is characterised by makeshift constructions, built from cheap and readily available materials including cardboard and masking tape, and a willingness to set up the spaces and facilities in which such constructions can be debated, along with the courage to make work about deeply contentious political issues.
In recent years, Hirschhorn has engaged with the ‘war on terror’ head on, making many works that draw on the photography of the conflict, and in particular the terrible pictures that circulate online and are printed in magazines devoted to bizarre and disgusting spectacles, of bodies torn apart by modern munitions. For the Biennial, he showed an 18-metre long banner, The Incommensurable Banner, of the worst of these photographs. Hirschhorn shows us what is excluded from the mainstream mass media, and asks us to reflect on the politics of that exclusion. His images confront, not merely killing, but the extreme mutilation of bodies by cluster bombs, 20mm canon shells, hollow-point ammunition, and indeed the entire, lengthy evolution of the means to tear flesh apart most efficiently. The bodies depicted, sometimes reduced to no more than an abstract smear, are traces of what were once people with histories, memories, families and friends. Their reduction to mere pulp is the most extreme exercise of political power, and one wielded daily by our governments in the occupied nations.
Naomi Klein, in her recent book, The Shock Doctrine, writes that the torture centres of the Latin American dictatorships were often situated in city centres where people could hear the cries of the imprisoned. Far from being secret, they were placed to terrify the rest of the populace, through the whispered transmission of fears that could never be broadcast or published. These images also circulate underground, and daily we hear their insistent whispering. To blot it out would be inhuman, and to broadcast it the only, if brutal, alternative.
Curator – Brighton Photo Biennial 2008