– by Kristina Sfreddo
Two of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary artists, Ben Quilty and Shaun Gladwell exhibit together for the first time at the John Curtin Gallery, presenting bodies of work resulting from their time spent in Afghanistan as official war artists.
Commissioned by the Australian War Memorial during different periods throughout the war in Afghanistan – Gladwell in 2009 and Quilty in 2011 – the artists were given the task of recording the experiences of deployed Australian servicemen and women, and creating works which reflect their own personal interpretations of those experiences.
Each artist focuses on very different aspects of the war – Gladwell, utilising videography and photography, analyses the ethics of modern day warfare and the soldier as a machine – automatic in its responses and carefully calculated. Quilty on the other hand takes a more humanistic approach, exploring the trauma these service men and women are left to cope with upon their return home.
Quilty, acclaimed for his highly expressive portraiture, originally intended to work from photographs taken during his time with troops deployed as part of Operation Slipper in Afghanistan and at Al Minhad Airbase in the United Arab Emirates, but found that he was not able to fully capture his subjects’ stories. As a result, Quilty invited his subjects to sit for him in his studio back home in Australia to be painted from life, talking with them about their time at war and life thereafter, and developing connections with them that allowed Quilty to intimately reflect their experiences in his larger than life portraits.
Such reflections are evident in pieces like Trooper Luke Korman, where Quilty captures the absent gaze of his subject, giving the impression that the soldier is trapped somewhere between the past and present, lost in his own personal struggle. In the portrait series Trooper M the contorted, masculine figure reflects the physical prowess of the soldier but highlights the frailty of human existence.
Quilty employs a thick, muddy painting style, which adds to the sense of emotional and mental weight placed upon his subjects. The style ignores the fine details but expresses beautifully so much of the raw emotion and private turmoil that his subjects experience every day since returning home.
We are confronted by the highly personal, honest and very real depictions of post-traumatic stress and the darkness that enshrouds Quilty’s subjects. It is so personal in fact, that it’s almost as if we are seeing something we are not meant to see. That is exactly what Quilty aims to challenge, to bring out into the open the experience of so many returned war veterans. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is very real and very much something that cannot be ignored, but rather should be more widely talked-about, understood and acknowledged.
Throughout the exhibition the subjects who feature in the portraits have written about their experiences working with Quilty, describing the process as therapeutic, with Quilty being able to pour out on canvas the things they felt, but could not express.
Quilty does something special in this exhibition – he allows everyday people an insight and understanding into the incomprehensible struggles lived not only by the individuals in his portraits, but by the hundreds of thousands of others living with PTSD.
As we continue further into the gallery space, we hear the constant droning sound of army planes and choppers, growing louder and then fading but always present and relentless. The sound is coming from Shaun Gladwell’s main exhibition piece – a video projection of two soldiers filming each other in a mirror sequence. Each stalks the other – responding to, monitoring and adapting to the each other’s movements, giving the impression that the camera itself is a weapon or a tool capable of manipulation.
Video installations throughout the exhibition depict the subjects themselves as programmed and “calibrated” through intense military training to allow them to automatically and systematically observe and respond to wartime situations.
Gladwell portrays his subjects as vastly adaptable, highly trained, specialised machines, but he also highlights their vulnerability in the warzone through his series of photographs BPOV (Behind Point of View).
In their exhibitions Gladwell and Quilty present two very contrasting, subjective and insightful interpretations of Afghanistan – Gladwell analyses the soldier as purposeful, programmed and instinctive, while Quilty focuses on the human fallout of war and explores the traumas of life after Afghanistan. We are reminded through the partnered exhibitions of the many interpretations of events throughout history and the importance of recording them so that they are not forgotten and lost over time.
Ben Quilty: after Afghanistan and Shaun Gladwell: Afghanistan
2 August – 14 September 2014
John Curtin Gallery
Monday to Friday 11am-5pm; Saturday & Sunday 1-5pm
Free parking on weekends