The human cost of war can never be measured but there is perhaps no
more important time than this to contemplate the tragic legacies of war.
In this context, it may seem futile in the anonymous face of
internationally sanctioned carnage for contemporary artists to examine the
idea of why or how humans still want to kill one another.
So what can artists offer society in times like these? The arena of
late 20th century left-wing political activism is often the last place to
find cutting-edge contemporary artists' creative contributions. Art
historians could blame Trotsky's steady disillusion of revolutionary
Russian artists' political role as the beginning of the progressive left's
impatience with today's artists. Trotsky's annihilation of the Russian
avant-guarde stripped Soviet artistic expression of its rightful
international identity for many decades. This left revolutionary Russia's
creative community, who'd once been poised at the edge of 20th century
cultural leadership, stranded in an intellectual backwater of repressive
stage-managed cultural priorities.
Despite this historical disillusionment, a group of high-profile
Victorian artists including Australia's representative at the upcoming
Venice Biennale, Patricia
Piccinini, announced they would shroud their sculptures currently
installed on the edge of the Yarra in protest against the threatened war
with Iraq. Risking condemnation for orchestrating the possibility of
contemporary art's irrelevance to more immediate political agendas, these
professional contrarians nevertheless plan to symbolise their resistance
to war by concealing their publicly funded artworks from view. For many
hard-working anti-war activists, a few middle-class artists' gestures of
protest are about as interesting as paying the printer's bill for last
month's campaign posters.
The urgency of political momentum surrounding the many legitimate
causes for protest in today's world, often tramples the enduring social
value of contemporary visual thinkers' subtle contributions to our lives.
Today's artists absorb and creatively reflect issues affecting society at
a different pace from mainstream intellectual commentators. But are
contemporary artists equipped with the philosophical drivers needed to
plumb the depths of moral indignation required to propel more than the
visual retrieval of alienated social and cultural identities they're
primarily focused on these days? Should we expect contemporary artists to
confront social and political iniquities more directly through their work?
Artists of the Russian avante-guard pierced ancient geometric
volumes in search of alternative uses for conventional forms; painted
trains in jubilant abstracted propaganda motifs and erected symbolic
rickety towers to advance their perceptions of revolutionary freedom. When
compelled to illustrate the finer points of revolutionary Soviet
achievements, many of these creative idealists failed honourably at
servicing socialist realism's heavy-handed literalism.
So, do artists have anything to tell us about war today? Tasmanian
artist Adam Cuthbert's sculptural installation 1% of Waterloo
currently installed at CAST Hobart couldn't be better planned as a
sophisticated reflection on one of history's bloodiest battlefields.
Cuthbert's glimpse of the battle of Waterloo is from La Belle Alliance
below La Haye Sainte where a quintessential moment of military history is
converted into a diminutive epic made almost entirely of plasticine.
Hundreds of small hand-made models of soldiers, weapons and horses line up
in classic military formation on the artist's mock contoured battlefield
installed at knee height above the gallery floor. Several ruined
plasticine buildings add to 1% of Waterloo's fusion of the intimate
scale of childhood model-making with the obsessive strategies of a
replayed military campaign. Perfectly scaled plasticine soldiers and
military equipment have a lumpy realism about them, suggesting years of
patient moulding to form these identities of one of history's many
dramatic theatres of war.
Adam Cuthbert's beautiful installation is whimsical yet pleasingly
obsessive. Minute cannons, rifles and bloody limbs are intricately moulded
as are the many casualties strewn and trampled on the battle floor. Bloody
patches of red plasticine issue from wounded infantrymen while horses
sprawl dismembered as the atrocities continue around them. 1% of
Waterloo is one of the most ambitious works of art to be presented in
Hobart for years.
Beyond admiring Cuthbert's formidable achievement in modelling his
duelling armies of hundreds of soldiers, livestock and armaments so
precisely, 1% of Waterloo performs another important function in
today's world by converting the idea of warfare into an intimate but
highly sinister game. The message here is that history has an
extraordinary way of repeating itself. Replace Cuthbert's 18th century
weaponry with mouse-driven missile software, daub camouflage colours onto
international military uniforms and turn mud and cholera into dust and
dysentery and ask ourselves, what exactly is so different this time
around? Fortunately, 1% of Waterloo resists theoretical posturing
by simply reminding us of the inevitabilities of armed conflict, although
the life-sized model of a symbolic head hanging over the scenario lurches
towards a slightly more tyrannical form of artistic literalism. Even so,
Adam Cuthbert's gigantic toy battle brings war's ghastly legacies just
that little bit closer.
Have I answered my own questions? Does the physical revelation of an
artist's private obsession with drama of an historic military campaign add
anything to the urgency of the anti-war protest movement? Adam Cuthbert's
fanatical playtime fantasy of Napoleon's shattered ranks of maimed and
mutilated infantrymen is one of the most potent symbols of war's
incredible devastation I've ever seen.
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