The Home Front images, taken over a four year period (2009-12), reflect on ‘the perennial seductiveness of war’ analysed by Susan Sontag(I), but as experienced on the home front, rather than in the conflict zone. Through its focus on air shows, the work aims to inspire reflection on the normalization of war in our culture – on how militarization is ‘woven into the fabric of civic culture’(II).
Air shows are a ‘fun day out’ for the family. On the ground, tank rides are on offer and armed forces’ recruitment drives afford children an opportunity to indulge in their fascination with guns. There are elements of fantasy and the carnivalesque here and a clear ‘disconnect’ between this ‘play’, and the actual effect of weapons. At air shows seductive civilian aircraft displays are interwoven with military; nostalgia for World War II is evoked by the presence of ‘war birds’ such as the Avro Lancaster bomber, followed by ‘shock and awe’ displays by contemporary fighter jets such as the Tornado, recently deployed in Libya and Afghanistan. As Robin Anderson writes in her book A Century of Media, A Century of War… “ World War II has become the frame of reference that confers legimitacy to war (Intro, p. xxii)”.
In The Home Front photographs the beach and the landscape become uneasy, surreal spaces, temporarily ‘militarized’ by the fleeting presence and roar of fighter jets: the sky is ‘anything but reassuring’ as discussed by Pyrs Gruffyd(III) in his discussion of the loss of innocence of the sky following WWII. The context of an air show can differ radically: it may be merely entertainment for one, but can evoke fear and terrifying memories for another. One of the inspirations for The Home Front was the experience of Luarda, a four-year old Kosovar girl photographed in a Macedonian refugee camp for my earlier publication No Place Like Home: Echoes from Kosovo. After being airlifted to the UK, Luarda was traumatised by her first experience of the Red Arrows flying over her new home, the town of Southport, Merseyside. ‘Luarda was terrified’, said her mother, Shqipe. ‘She pointed up at the planes and cried out “NATO! UCK!” We had to explain to the local people that we were from Kosova’. (No Place Like Home: Echoes from Kosovo, Midnight Editions, 2001). There were several personal contexts such as this which inspired The Home Front, although the most compelling reason to focus on the military culture of air shows was as a critical background to the wars in which the UK government has been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The framework of The Home Front furthers my own engagement with war and the visual, as the theme of conflict seems to have pervaded all my projects since the mid 1990s: I, too, have been compelled by war. There are parallel links between the disruption by state violence into the domestic spaces of Homes and Gardens: Documenting the Invisible, and in The Home Front the disruption of tranquillity and beauty by another form of violence, the display of military power by the state. There is much more to reflect on – but the work is only just out there, and it always takes a while for different thoughts to kick in as I get a bit of distance from the whole project…
On a more pragmatic note, the exhibition and the publication have different emphases, although they are closely related. The Home Front body of work comprises 48 images. Of these, 36 have been selected for the Impressions Gallery solo exhibition and a further 6 for the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art group show ‘We Are the Company in Which you Keep’ as part of The Social.
The book – 38 images – is not a catalogue of the exhibition, although it relates closely to the show. It includes a more extended sequence of landscape/’disrupted’ seascape images and has a different emphasis. The foreword, essay, captions and notes all provide an important context to the staging of war as entertainment. In the gallery the images are contextualized by a caption list available to visitors, and by an introductory text panel. The large discrete spaces of the Impressions gallery exhibition, with its capacity for large scale images and their attendant detail, includes a additional section on the more overt ‘marketing of war’: images from the DSEi arms fair, and from the trade days at the huge Farnborough and Le Bourget air shows, which continue the theme of the staging of war.