An exhibition at Tate Modern reveals the horrors of war through its impact on the built and natural environment and objects, rather than on people
In his book The Least of All Possible Evils, Eyal Weizman presents the idea of “forensic architecture”, a method of analysing war crimes through impact on the built environment as opposed to the scars it has left on people. He points out that such evidence is increasingly being called on by international courts, as it is seen as more objective than human testimony.
A similar thinking appears to be behind Conflict, Time, Photography, an exhibition of war photography at Tate Modern, which ends next week. While, Don McCullin’s portrait of a shell-shocked US marine in Vietnam and the abstract image The Day Nobody Died by Broomberg & Chanarin are included, most images focus on the impact of war on inanimate objects and the environment – from photos of nuclear testing sites, to a clock that stopped at the moment the atom bomb hit Nagasaki, to spaces formerly used by the Third Reich (“Harp room: formerly Hitler’s breakfast room”).
This is, perhaps, also a result of the method by which the exhibition is organised. Photos are arranged not by place or the era of conflict, but by how long after an event they were taken – starting with “seconds after” continuing through days, weeks, months, years and then decades after. The focus is then perhaps a symptom of the fact that buildings and objects often retain the physical evidence of conflict long after the people involved have perished or left the scene.
The war in Afghanistan, for example, is portrayed in Simon Norfolk’s series Chronotopia. “The sheer length of war means ruins have a bizarre layering, different moments of destruction lying like sedimentary strata on top of each other,” he says. Meanwhile, Sophie Ristelhueber’s 1992 images of rubble in the desert, taken months after the first Gulf war, are described as “wounds inflicted on the landscape”, which represent the “dual abandonment of men and objects”.
Diana Matars presents photos from her book “Evidence”, images of “spaces where violations took place” in Libya 2012 – of locations where Gaddafi executed and tortured people. Meanwhile, Michael Schmidt’s photos of the Berlin Wall reveal the gaps between buildings in a once-thriving area of Berlin, the development of which was halted after the erection of the wall.
Indre Serpytyte’s photos show models of houses in Lithuania used for torture during Soviet occupation – strikingly ordinary buildings that were eventually returned to their use as family homes.
Some of the most recent photos are Jane and Louise Wilson’s pictures of structures built in northern France by the Germans during the second world war, which are currently subject to debate over whether they should be preserved. In the final room is Agata Madejska’s photograph of a Canadian memorial – a structure that took twice as long to build as the war it was designed to commemorate.
Images: Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo; Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Bruxelles; Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (Tokyo, Japan); Murray Guy, New York; Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery and Photo Gallery International