A few weeks ago, an email came from Exit Art announcing an exhibition entitled "Love / War / Sex." The image of a condom wrapped over the head of a blue colored missile came with it, as well as a poetic text by Papo Colo that included the following lines:
War images are so common they make us immune to death
To declare war is not only an act of barbarism but a result of civilization
These artworks are a chapter in the history of art that tell war stories
The history of American art since World War II is not rich in images of war. As the saying goes, Mark Rothko pulled down the blinds, Barnett Newman closed the drapes and Ad Reinhart shut out the light on those memories.
Though flippant, this description is not without a dollop of truth. World War II did not yield a panoply of visual horrors in paint over here. Sure, there were paintings with titles borrowed from mythology that connoted violence, rape and war in the 1940s. But in the 1950s a page was turned and, in tune with the separation of church and state, American artists separated art from politics. Philip Guston alone, responding to the Vietnam war, turned from abstraction to expressionist allegories inspired by war in 1970.
It was thus a surprise to learn that an exhibition on the theme of war was being organized in New York City. Exit Art was once again playing the alternative-space role of pioneer, not only by using war as a theme but by proposing that war, love and sex are inseparable.
The show includes works by nine contemporary artists, most of them not American, who tackle the subject via video, sculpture, wall painting and wallpaper. Guerra de la Paz, an artist known for her cloth dolls, uses this medium in The Kiss to present the image of two soldiers, their bodies entwined in an embrace, presumably erotic rather than martial. In Jakob Boeskov’s video War Wizard, soldiers dance and cavort, Jesus Christ and Bin Laden appear in turn, tormenting a child trying to go to sleep. Tessa Hughes-Freeland’s video Watch Out mixes together footage from a 1950s educational film on the importance of team athletics with period nudie images, as if both were conspiring to indoctrinate young men for the military. Nick Waplington’s postcard-sized photographs of life at home and at war demonstrate a youthful obsession with sex in both places. Fawad Khan sees sex even in the chaos of a car bombing that he renders in red paint on a white wall.
There are two pieces about love as distinguished from sex. One is the video work Betty + Johnny by Ellen Lake. She takes us back to World War II and tells the love story of a young couple, and of their daughter who never knew her father, who was killed in the war. The other one is This is an introduction tape by Margot Herster, a video showing families of detainees in Iraq or Afghanistan filmed together as they send a loving message to Guantanamo saying "trust your lawyers." The most disturbing piece is by Rebecca Loyche, a three-channel video installation where a weapons specialist demonstrates, with professional detachment, different ways of killing. In terms of art, it is also the most accomplished work.
What "Love / Art / Sex" successfully subverts is the traditional association of war with courage and patriotism, a link that governments, especially fascist ones, exploit in order to maintain the consensus that keeps them in power. It offers instead the soldier’s side of things, a far more complex and erotically charged point of view, since soldiers are by definition thrown with other soldiers when war strikes in a distant place. Soldiers become part of a unique social group about which little is known. Interesting in this respect is the catalogue of an exhibition recently held in Paris entitled "Amours guerres et sexualite 1914-1945," which aims to lift a veil on the behavior of that social group.
Leafing through the texts for the French show, one begins to feel that war tends to radicalize, not to say enervate, the sexual impulse. For example, letters between soldiers and their wives or fiancées at home become sexually more explicit. Feelings of power over the enemy increasingly translate into rape of enemy men, women and even children. And, over time, homosexual practices, even though officially condemned, especially when they involve an officer and an enlisted man, "benefit from a tacit tolerance if they remain discreet and non habitual."
On these subjects, the images in the Exit Art show are less specific than those found in the postcards, photos and other telltale signs of sexual behavior on view in the French show. That exhibition also included erotic creations made by soldiers during moments of respite, a corkscrew with a female body carved into the wooden handle, a naked female body drawn on the surface of a gun casing.
Unlike the Exit Art exhibition, the French show was not about art with a war theme. Rather, its images were chosen to illustrate the theme of love and sexuality among soldiers in wartime and to show how war affected the behavior of soldiers of different nationalities on both sides of the conflict. What prompted the show at Exit Art, according to Papo Colo, who organized it along with Jeannette Ingberman, was only one example of that behavior, the sexual abuse of prisoners by a group of Americans at Abu Ghraib prison. It is too bad that the two shows could not be seen in the same space as they complement each other well.
The actual artworks in "Love / War / Sex" are almost overwhelmed by the installation, which includes magazine texts about war enlarged to mural size and covering the walls, as well as cannon and other military hardware installed in the galleries, with guns pointing aggressively upwards. Presented as "readymades," the military paraphernalia reinforces the overall thesis proposed by the curators -- the idea that war induces a perverse mix of feelings, including love and sexual desire.
One should not forget that the conceptual relationship between Eros and Thanatos noted by Freud has mostly been used to sell war. War and the idea of war are two different things, as soldiers will tell you. Small wonder that among the artists who fought in the trenches of World War I, few aside from the crazy Futurists came out loving war and depicting it in other than hideously raw images.
After reading in Vanity Fair magazine Sebastian Junger’s report of the daily life of a platoon of American soldiers stationed in a place of strategic importance, the Korengal Valley at the Pakistan / Afghanistan border, under constant fire from Taliban fighters, I wonder how the survivors -- if there are any -- will remember this war.
"Love / War / Sex," Dec. 1, 2007-Jan. 26, 2008, at Exit Art, 475 Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018.
"Amours Guerres et Sexualite 1914-1945," Sept. 22-Dec. 31, 2007, at Le Musée de l’Armée, Paris
MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).