Where have all the soldiers gone? Langlands & Bell at the Imperial War Museum

In October 2002, the Imperial War Museum sent Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell to Afghanistan for a fortnight so that the UK-based artist duo could carry out research for an installation commissioned by the IWM earlier last year and mentioned here at the time. This week, Langlands & Bell presented their work to the public under the title The House of Osama bin Laden.

To which one can only say: what a week to choose! As I left home for the press view, Sky News was broadcasting the first images of smallish crowds on the streets of Baghdad, engaging in ritualised iconoclastic gestures in front of the waiting cameras; my journey back two hours later was enlivened by Evening Standard posters sporting the bald statement ‘BAGHDAD FREED’, and by the time I was home even the BBC had given in, interrupting their normal programming in favour of footage from the centre of the Iraqi capital, virtually all of it focused on a single, historically redolent image: the destruction and mutilation of a statue of Saddam Hussein. But where is Saddam himself? And are these linked tendencies — to personalise international conflicts, and to accord visual imagery such a central role in our rituals of war and peace — not remarkable in their durability? And to what extent do our attitudes towards the war in Iraq depend on events there, and how much do they depend on preconceived ideas and mute instinctive loyalties wrapped up in a thick protective padding of rational ignorance? This, anyway, was the context in which The House of Osama Bid Laden opened, and inevitably that context ends up colouring visitors’ experiences of the installation itself.

Langlands & Bell’s new work for the IWM is superficially quite simple, and hence easily described. On the second floor of the IWM — looking out across the prosaically-titled but literally breathtaking ‘Large Exhibits Area’, which is to say at eye-level with a swooping Spitfire and banking Mustang, iconic hardware recalling good wars gone by — there is a small room, glass-walled on one side, to which the IWM often consigns temporary art exhibitions. Here is where the installation has been placed. On entering, the viewer quickly takes in the various component parts of the installation. To the left, hanging out into the white-walled room, is a series of banners emblazoned with the acronyms of some of the 120-odd non-governmental organisations (NGOs) currently operating in Afghanistan, and a small white object mounted on the wall, half corporate logo and half architectural model; ahead a film is being shown against the wall; to the right is a slideshow depicting various signs, presumably in Afghanistan, advertising the NGOs mentioned above; finally, over the viewer’s right shoulder is what looks like minimalist videogame, but turns out to be The House of Osama Bin Laden itself. Despite their apparently disparate qualities, these works are nevertheless firmly united both tonally — Langlands & Bell are working here with a cool, sharply limited palette of pale blue, navy and white — by the limited subject-matter, centring as it does on logos, signs and repetition, and by a coherent, very Langlands & Bell sort of atmosphere. In other words, this is restrained, distanced stuff, as assertive regarding its own state of detachment as it is regarding its fascination with taxonomy, categorisation and formal elegance.

(Other) Peoples’ Court
Since the only audible part of the installation is the film, and since the film is virtually the first thing one sees, its shifting forms quickly capturing the viewers’ attention, this is what initially dominates the room. Titled Zardad’s Dog, it is made up of edited footage shot by the artists at the trial of Abdullah Shah, an Afghan warlord who was brought before the Afghan Supreme Court in Kabul in October 2002 for crimes including multiple murders, not least those of several of his own wives and children. (The title refers to the fact that Abdullah was apparently the sidekick of an equally unsavoury but more important local warlord.) The short film follows the trial from the prayers intoned at the start of the proceedings, through the prosecutor’s speech, witness statements and the defense’s response, all the way to the verdict, taking in as it does so some incidental actors — the kalashnikov-weilding young guard, for instance, apparently bemused by the filming, or the anxious spectators. Titles in English introduce each portion of the narrative, but the action itself is not subtitled. We watch it as curious but ignorant onlookers, interested, perhaps, but in no way involved.

The sounds that wash over the entire installation are those of Afghan voices, emotive but to many of us presumably unintelligible; the faces commanding our attention with their expressions of blandness or indignation are Afghan faces; the narrative is both an apparently simple tale of that step bridging crime and punishment, and an elegant exposition on the essentially inscrutable, inaccessible nature of other people’s histories, grievances and ways of operating in the present. I make this latter note, incidentally, despite the press release from the IWM, which claims that in the film, ‘justice does battle with evil in scenes that seem to have come straight from Biblical times’. This is simply silly. Whatever else one can say for the Bible, it is admirably forthright on issues of right and wrong. Here, on the other hand — or so it seems to me, at any rate — the rights and wrongs of the situation are much less clear. We can listen to the tone of voice but we can’t understand the words; we can scan the faces but we know virtually nothing about the world in which these people live — the extreme exoticism and alien quality of which the IWM press release incidentally underscores — and thus when the verdict has been delivered, we have no real idea whether this is justice, yet another injustice or something mired in the grey areas in between. So if this fascinating and visually attractive film has any simple ‘point’, then, I’d have said that it was precisely the opposite of that implied by the IWM: the point that although we now pride ourselves on fighting wars in which the ‘enemy’ is condensed into a single bad man (Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein) rather than a people, a faith or an ideology — and hence, wars where the stated aim is not to defeat the opposing forces but somehow to help them — then perhaps we should stop to consider how little we know or actually really care about the people we are setting out to help, and perhaps consider also the great extent to which our ideas about them are informed by sloppiness, laziness and self-interest.

Anybody home?
Some of these concerns also seem to me to surface in the centrepiece of Langlands & Bell’s installation, The House of Osama bin Laden. This interactive digital model is based, amazingly enough, on information gathered by the artists, who actually travelled to a place called Daruntah, located in the mountains west of Jalalabad. Osama lived there from May 1996, when he left Sudan, until September 1997. Now used as a base by a local Pashtun militia, the modest compound stands on an escarpment overlooking a blue lake. Langlands & Bell took both photographs and measurements at the site, and using the software behind Quake, have managed to convert the real place into a virtual environment. Thus with a joystick and a bit of practice, the viewer is free to navigate around the escarpment, explore a building or two and admire the surrounding scenery, which appears tranquil and rather beautiful. But as one hesitantly makes one’s way across broken masonry or through open doorways, the apparent emptiness of the house is more than faintly eerie, even threatening. Should we be here? Is there someone nearby who objects to what we’re doing? And where is the elusive Osama bin Laden, with his strange combination of gentle good looks and a substantial back-catalogue of atrocity? And who are we supposed to be — with whom should be identify ourselves — as we float through the deserted rooms? These questions are, however, left hanging in the air as the blue lake glimmers peacefully in the near distance.

Langlands & Bell have long been preoccupied with architecture, the way in which people used spaces and interact within them, but continue to treat these issues with a sort of detached, distanced curiosity. (A tendency to affectless irony was the one characteristic they obviously shared with their Sensation coevals, while standing aloof both from all that demotic simple-mindedness and from vulgar ugliness.) And indeed, all these characteristics are present in The House of Osama bin Laden. As with so much of Langlands & Bell’s work, the film is cool, intelligent, beautiful to look at and genuinely interesting in a way that much contemporary art is not. Its coolness tends to discourage haste, stridency and easy interpretation. Obviously at some level, the work is ‘about’ the fact that Osama is still at large somewhere, his continued absence leaving a gap at the heart of the rationale behind the conflict in Afghanistan, denying to the United States and its allies what White House spokesmen have recently taken to calling ‘closure’. But quite possibly it is about more than that, too. Whose persona do we adopt when we make our way through the house? Why does the experience feel so anxious? The videogame-type format surely alludes to the digitised character of much modern warfare, perhaps even to the often-unspoken reality of warfare’s toys-for-boys thrills. At the same time, however, the lack of human content, the complete absence of context for our presence there and the sense that it is ‘only’ a game all make their own sorts of points. Sometimes failure to take sides can come to look a little bit like intellectual or moral abdication, those near neighbours to out-and-out nihilism.

Put out more flags
During their time in Afghanistan, Langlands & Bell were clearly very struck by the number of NGOs that had been set up there — approximately 120 NGOs and UN agencies, plus 160 local Afghan NGOs in Kabul alone. Having previously done some very lyrical, abstracted work based on the three-letter acronyms that form the international flight controllers’ code for the names of airports, it was perhaps a natural progression to wish to work with NGO-based acronyms in a similar manner. It’s a typically intelligent, allusive sort of concern. Acronyms are, after all, abstract signs encoding a bewildering yet richly recognisable series of realities, which takes them well within the ambit of conceptual art. Here banners, as ancient and central a feature of warfare as could possibly exist, represent not regiments at arms, but rather the massed ranks of professional peacemakers — the aid agency staffers, the well-intentioned volunteers, the career expat adventurers escaping something at home, the UN bureaucrats, the locals in pursuit of foreign money and domestic patronage, the whole weird panoply of human life that makes up NGOs — all conveniently abstracted into three or four letters, and laid out for our formal appreciation. Meanwhile the slideshow of NGO signs is, intentionally or not, occasionally humorous in a bleak sort of way, as every possible form of interest group and identity briefly inhabits the screen, all strangely similar — and all, for some reason, strangely redolent of futility. Probably a few of these organisations will do some real good, but probably many will simply fritter away money while the funding agencies turn a blind eye, realising that there is little they can do about it and deriving a vague sense of satisfaction from the money they disburse, until everyone loses interest and the aid bandwagon moves on elsewhere. Or is that too cynical? Langlands & Bell, anyway, stand aloof from direct comment. Whatever else their art is about, it has absolutely no place for indignation, taking sides, pronouncing one way or the other. Like the foreign journalists and aid workers amongst whom the pair apparently spent much of their time in Kabul, perhaps they believe that as artists, there is something to be said for being impartial — to observe, document, do their job and leave it at that.

Arma virumque cano
But of course when it comes to art, ‘impartiality’ is as committed, partial and limiting a stance as any other. In art as in life, silences can be as eloquent as what is actually said. The absence of Osama from his virtual house is, clearly, the most striking thing about it. By the same token, however, there are other silences and absences which perhaps deserve mention, not because they signal defects in Langlands & Bell’s treatment of the IWM commission, but because they reflect something very real and very significant in contemporary attitudes towards war and peace.

So what’s missing? Well, for one thing, there are no military forces at all depicted in this exhibition. This is an IWM commission showing war without the troops, the combat, the military actions. The justice shown is civil justice. The banners, arrayed like regimental flags in a military chapel, denote aspirations to heal, not harm. The slideshow — a format familiar from military briefings — speaks a language of well-intentioned reconstruction, while The House of Osama bin Laden feels, with its joystick controls and digitised environs, like a videogame — but a neutered videogame from which the weapons, enemy and killing are strangely absent. Even the colours are cool, calming and un-martial — the paler blue that of the UN, the white that of peace-campaign ribbons or of surrender.

Now, the obvious riposte to this is that in keeping with much mainstream thought on the relationship between art and warfare, Langlands & Bell were given a very open commission. Unlike ‘war artists’ of the past, they were not expected to provide a ‘realistic’ account of what war looks like or feels like, largely because that role has now passed over into the ambit of journalism. Nor, perhaps, could they have been expected to have a very intense, personal response to the Afghan conflict. The two artists arrived there, as mentioned, in October 2003, long after Kabul had fallen, which is to say after many of UK’s forces had already left and after the US presence had been scaled down substantially. Osama’s inconvenient vanishing-act was still fresh in everyone’s mind, the USAF continued to bomb various targets, soldiers and civilians continued to kill and be killed, but at a somewhat reduced rate. This had been a war without powerful images, easily ignored or forgotten, and by October 2002, in any event, the Afghan conflict had already begun to be overshadowed by the prospects of Gulf War II. Still, Langlands and Bell apparently visited the American airbase at Bagram as well as other US and UK military bases. It is hard to imagine that they did not spend time amongst US and UK troops. Perhaps they even took time to speak with them about their experiences, to observe the conditions under which they were living, or to find out how these men felt about the job they had been sent to do. But if they did, there is no sign of it in their work, and it is hard not to read that sort of silence as a lack of interest, or perhaps something stronger than that. Indeed, the more one considers the editorial decisions Langlands & Bell must have made in putting together this installation, the more richly significant their silences seem.

Friendly fire
Yet perhaps these silences should not surprise us, or at any rate, should surprise us a good deal less than much of what is going on around us even as I write. Whatever one thinks of the present Gulf War, there is plenty that is odd about it. And by ‘odd’, I don’t simply mean the paradox whereby although a clear majority in both the US and UK supports war with Iraq, it is more or less impossible to find a single actor, musician, artist, critic or all-purpose intellectual, and not easy to find a single middle-class person, who hasn’t adopted a vociferous and self-congratulatory anti-war stance, although that’s all odd enough. Rather, I mean a general public inclination to identify with not with what used to be called ‘our’ troops, but with journalists and aid-workers at best, or at worst, what used to be called ‘the enemy’.

Perhaps this sounds overstated. Clearly, plenty of media attention has focused on conventional wartime topics such as the day-to-day activities of US and UK troops, the type of weapons they use, the circumstances under which they operate, the nature of the combat in which they engage, and so on. In time-honoured fashion, indeed, some weird alchemy of danger, proximity and perhaps even admiration has led some journalists to identify rather obviously with the troops with whom they have been embedded. There have been the conventionally aestheticised imagery — terrible, of course, but at the same time self-evidently beautiful — of military firepower, the fetishistic treatment of technology and the Saving Private Jessica tales of daring-do. Subliminally, there has been the sense of occasion created by those interrupted programming schedules and the non-stop procession newsworthy events. Some newspapers have been assiduous in remembering servicemen’s parents, wives, children and friends. The return of flag-draped coffins to UK airfields has generally been treated with a mixture of respect and sadness.

Yet it is hard to deny that all this conventionally ‘patriotic’ behaviour is only counterpoint to the main theme of public response, which could hardly be more different.

Stop and think, for a moment, which two images seem to you most likely to survive as emblems of the present war. Well, for my money, both are human faces, the faces of non-combatants, and indeed Iraqi faces — the face of Ali Ishmaeel Abbas, a twelve-year old Iraqi boy who was orphaned and lost both his arms in a coalition bombing raid, and the face of Mohammed al-Sahhaf, Saddam’s Information Minister. The one represents a sanitised and acceptable image of human tragedy; the other the humorous potential of our generalised cynicism about official information and reporting more generally. But cynicism here cuts two ways. It is worth noting that were Ali not young, or attractive in a feminised pre-adolescent way, or if he were not in an easily-accessible hospital, or if his wounds were either too ugly (e.g. Simon Weston-type facial disfigurement) or alternatively not ugly enough (missing limbs make more impact than e.g. a bad chest wound covered with a bandage), then the cult of sentimental tokenism that has built up around him would have had to find another focus. It is also worth noting that for all their foolishness, al-Sahhaf’s pronouncements differed so little, either in terms of sentiment or in their level of accuracy, from the unanimous chorus of anti-war, anti-American comment from the Anglo-American Great and the Good, that what was funny about Mohammed al-Sahhaf was, if anything, a matter of tone — his ability to deliver his lines in something other than that grating and habitual note of pained moral superiority and self-righteousness beloved of our own liberal elites.

Not that it matters, but I suppose that I ought to add, for what it is worth, I did find al-Sahhaf rather eye-catching if obviously a fully paid-up bad guy, and it ought to go without saying that I hope that young Ali manages to survive the terrible experiences he has undergone. But that’s neither here nor there. What matters for our purposes is not the reality of life and death for these two individuals, but rather what the high pitch of our fascination with them says about ours attitude towards war.

We have reached a moment in time where daring to suggest that both Ali and al-Sahhaf are, in some sense, ‘the enemy’, and that it might actually be appropriate to show more interest and sympathy for our own troops than for those bent on killing them, is considered bizarre, callous and tragically lacking in a sense of humour, if not actually morally culpable. The only praise we offer our armed forces is backhanded in the extreme — for instance, concurrently attributing to the Iraqis all the moral agency and intellectual effectiveness of kittens, while expecting our troops to be omnicompetent, infinitely self-sacrificing and armed with unfailingly good luck. Or to put it another way, if incubators are looted from hospitals, or if Iraqis chose to drive women-and-children-laden lorries at full speed into well-marked military checkpoints in a climate of suicide bombing, or if oil-fields are protected, or if they are not protected … well, it’s obviously the fault of our troops, ripe for denunciation by the media, representatives of NGOs and the bulk of what passes for our intelligentsia. Of course it is good and proper that we expect a good deal of our armed forces, but it might make a refreshing change to expect something of the Iraqis occasionally, and to stop to praise what’s gone right as well as to learn from what could be done better.

Hors de combat
What’s my point? Simply that in Britain today, the level of civilian identification with the armed forces — at least, as reflected in the media — is apparently so minimal that our sympathy tends to ebb away elsewhere — not least, towards the very men and women who worked, and perhaps still hope, for the extermination what used to be considered, however sentimentally, ‘our boys’. It’s a strange development, painful for at least some of us to contemplate, and almost impossible to explain. Perhaps, too, I have my own bad reasons for fearing it. Having raised some of these issues the other day in the presence of an old friend, he gently reminded me that my views on these matters were inevitably coloured by having grown up in a patriotic American family in the bad late days of the Vietnam War; while I am sure my friend was right about this, I am equally sure that war, with its unusual level of frankness regarding issues of life and death, touches us all, even non-combatants, at deeper and less conscious levels than we know, and thus that none of us is exempt from being blinkered or blinded in odd ways by our own individual experiences of good wars and bad wars and much else besides. So while it seems natural to me that an account of war might include a soldier or two, it may well seem better to Langlands & Bell to stand back from the whole unintelligible, unsympathetic ‘soldier’ thing altogether, and to turn instead to the worlds of the NGOs and foreign journalists, to a rhetoric of detachment and objectivity and not getting their hands dirty, of steering clear of allegiance to something at which most of their artworld colleagues would doubtless sneer — in other words, worlds where they may well, as normal mainstream self-respecting British artists, feel much more at home.

It is perhaps, then, no surprise that Langlands & Bell chose to portray a vision of war in which there is no ‘us’ versus ‘them’, no men in uniform, no fighting and dying — just an empty house, a trial we can’t really understand, and the abstracted acronyms of distant and distancing benevolence. What else, really, could anyone expect? The view of war that is given is, in a completely unselfconscious way, as if no alternative were possible, a civilian’s view of war. It is not the war that emerges from the conversations of men who have seen combat. There is no fear, exhilaration, exhaustion, loud noises, bright flashes, camaraderie, grief or quiet satisfaction at a job well done. Instead it’s arch, detached, perhaps faintly critical, but in general just critically disengaged. I don’t blame Langlands & Bell for that, or indeed the IWM who commissioned the work. They are reflecting a reality in all these things, which is no small achievement, and in some sense reflects well on them as artists. I do, however, worry more than a little about the reality itself.
The House of Osama bin Laden will be at the Imperial War Museum from 10 April – 26 May 2003. Admission, both to the museum and to the exhibition, is free; further information regarding IWM exhibits and events can be found on the museum’s excellent website.


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