Its been two years since my last show in Sydney, come down on Thursday the 8th Aug from 6-8pm to check out my new body of work.
Show is open from the 1st-16th
Before Afghanistan: Layers of Art and War
A Short Essay on the Works of Luke Cornish (ELK)
By James Arvanitakis
In times of war and violence, one of the questions frequently asked is, ‘what is the point of art?’ Philosophers have argued that by linking art to conflict or tragedy, we are being disrespectful to those who have suffered, died and remain scarred and brutalised by events. In 1949, philosopher Theodore Adorno, wrote:
The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.
There is much to respect about the work of Adorno, but when it comes to art and war, he could not have been more mistaken, for it is during times of conflict and war that art is most valuable. In the midst of destructive forces and turmoil, beauty is most appreciated, the stories of ordinary lives that art documents never more vital, and the mirror artists place in front of us essential.
This we learnt from Pablo Picasso. After the mass bombing of Barcelona by the Nazis, Picasso painted arguably his most beautiful and memorable piece. Guernica stands in the foyer of the United Nations building, acting as a reminder to the many diplomats who walk past it of what happens when politics fails.
Picasso stated that a ’Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war’. According to Professor James Thomson, from Manchester University’s In Place of War project, Picasso was arguing that art is an intervention in the war itself.
The power of this intervention can cross time: Picasso’s work was removed from the foyer of the UN when the Bush administration announced its intention to invade Iraq. The painting, it was agreed, was too embarrassing for a world power intent on destruction through ‘precision bombings’.
What art does here is reflect back to us both the best and the darkest elements of society: the failings that lead to conflict; the brutality of what is done; the loss and displacement. But art also celebrates the resilience of communities, the empathy that transcends cultures, and the reconciliation that has been achieved when all hope seems to have disappeared.
Art and war have always been intertwined, from the Ancient Greek tragedies to the protest music of the 1960s and 70s, from Goya’s Disasters of War to George Gittoes’ moving pieces of death and loss in Rwanda. Each work is an intervention into a conflict, reminding us of our shared humanity as well as our shared responsibility and culpability. These pieces, be they music, performance, photography, poetry or paintings, make us stop, reflect and wonder. After seeing them, we may never be the same.
It is from this tradition that we can understand the work of Luke Cornish. Inspired by a cross-section of artists from Banksy to Gittoes, Luke’s latest exhibition, titled Before Afghanistan, is also an intervention in conflict.
The works portray anonymous soldiers who simultaneously look robust and fragile – as reflected in Luke’s choice of materials of reverse stencil on glass. They are contradictory figures, standing there as guardians and protectors, while looking ominous and intimidating. The works do not judge, but make us stop and stare and contemplate.
Like the various layers that Luke uses to develop his works, he also captures the different levels of the soldier, from scared, aggressive and well-armed, to exposed and vulnerable. The figures are foreign yet familiar, powerful yet mournful.
Luke places these figures behind thick glass, where they can seem even further removed. Combined with the fact that we cannot see their faces, this confirms their distance from our everyday experience. But somehow this does not diminish the empathy the images provoke.
These contradictory feelings and emotions should not surprise us when it comes to Luke’s work. Like the emotions that he brings out, the works defy simple categorisation: is he a stencil artist or a ‘painter’? Should his stencils exist along the walls in the messy streets of Sydney, Melbourne or other big cities, or on the sanctified walls of art galleries? Are the works a tribute to Australia’s combat soldiers or are they a statement against war?
Ultimately, we do not have to choose: because Luke crosses these boundaries and the works are all those things – these are the complex layers he provides us. In fact, the same piece could comfortably sit in the National Gallery, the National War Museum or in one of Melbourne’s small lanes, something few artists can claim.
Luke confirms the role of the artist in society. These works do not flinch from the contradictions of war, or of life. He avoids tributes or criticisms, judgements or celebrations. But he demands of us a moment to consider what is happening in distant places. Places which yearn for peace, places the soldiers wish to leave, to return home.
This is art at its best, because it refuses to be defined and, in the words of Pablo Picasso, it serves the purpose of ”washing the dust of daily life off our souls”.
Professor James Arvanitakis
University of Western Sydney