June 3rd, 2000
Ready, aim, misfire
By Adrian Searle
The Royal Armouries’ art exhibition has plenty of guns but little power, writes Adrian Searle
The Royal Armouries has an image problem. It is difficult to have a museum of weapons, of arms and armour, without it appearing to glorify war and death. There are plenty of people who revel in the hardware, who get a kick out of all this stuff. I find the place grim and chilling.
For the past couple of years the Royal Armouries has been collecting and commissioning art as a corrective to this Boy’s Own world of militaria, and an exhibition of the aquisitions, Warning Shots, opens today. The typography of the title – italics and caps-may be forced, the bullet-point issues clunking (“Popular Culture violence as portrayed by the mass media”; and “The impact of real or imagined violence on innocence and the child) but the message is clear enough. Violence is bad.
The exhibition is a roll-call of modern manners and stratagems. In a nasty little video Chicago artist Tony Tasset gets himself shot in the chest again and again. He stands against a white wall and a shot rings out; he is thrown back and slides bloodily down the wall, smearing the whiplash cascades of red which have erupted around him. Called Squib the work utilizes movie techniques to simulate getting wacked, rubbed out, ventilated by a gun. It is unpleasant, but you watch all the same, over and over, to spot the mechanics of the stunt. This is a made-for -TV death.
Across the gallery hangs a big colour photograph by Israeli artist Ori Gersht, a real shot of a wall in Bosnia. It is a pretty picture of an ochre painted wall in slanting sunshine, a spiral staircase climbing to a door in the middle of the picture. It is travel brochure stuff, except that the wall is pocked with bullet holes, picked-out in the raking light. Nothing is actually happening, but there’s menace here all the same.
The catalogue (overdesigned, mendacious and uncertain how to pitch itself) talks about scars on the landscape bearing witness to psychological damage. It is difficult to disagree, or to escape the clichés. There’s a hand-wringing element to all this, as though the artists were being used as sticking-plasters.
The late Andrea Fisher’s photograph – taken from a media photograph of a dead girl on the ground in Bosnia, is cropped to show a bit of her head, her hand clutching a purse, her hairband among the fallen leaves on the pavement. A real hairband, just like the girl’s, sits on a plinth nearby. This, I think, is about the only instance where the trace of a victim appears in the whole museum. It is the more telling for its utter ordinariness.
Originally, Christine Borland’s installation The Quickening, The lightening, The Crowning was intended to be placed inside the Armouries’ permanent displays. tier museum cabinets, filled with a selection of guns handed in after the massacre at Dunblane, and leather-covered babies’ skulls and maternal pelvises (used as demonstration models in hospital training,), with a soundtrack that mixes foetal heartbeats and gunshots, would have been fitted seamlessly among all the other weaponry and with the Robert Hardy commentaries that waft through the halls. It is a brave commission but it would have been waver to insinuate it among the other displays. That would give the gun-club visitors something to think about.
Somewhere along the line, Warning Shots tries to cover too many bases, and pays lip service to too many issues. Faisal Abdu’allah’s big photo-screenprints of a scary, gun-toting kid dressed in gangster-rap uniform don’t really tell us anything much except that you don’t want to meet this guy. Where’s the deconstruction, I ask, where’s the critique?
Finally, future wars. Up in the collection is a speculative display of the weapons of the future, including a life-sized space cadet with a giant laser weapon, with a spoof label telling us about some war in a distant part of the galaxy. Gary Perkins has picked up the idea in his miniature, push-button activated model of a scene from The War of the Worlds. Toy tanks and cars are under attack from crustaceous Martian war machines in a little smoke-filled box on trestles. Push the buttons and laser guns hash, while sound effects from toy space-guns movies enliven the scene. On a little monitor, you can watch the events as though seated in a car stranded in the battle. The kids will love it.
But Orson Welles’s panic-inducing 1938 radio version of HG Wells’s story is still unbeatable. Welles managed to close the gap between the real and the fictional, and inadvertently tapped into real fears. Somehow, very little here has much actual affect. That’s the trouble with this show, and perhaps with most art: it is cordoned-off cauterised; it has had the firing pin removed.