The Molesworth Gallery
 

Blaise Smith

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ Browning automatic pistol ~ oil on canvas ~ 20 x 30 inches

 

Weapons,

February 5th - 27th

A signed, limited-edition casebound book has been published by The Molesworth Gallery to coincide with the exhibition. It is available to purchase at a cost of €25.

This exhibition previously ran at The Hunt Museum, Limerick, in October 2008, and at the Iontas Arts Centre, Co. Monaghan, in January 2009.

Blaise

SCOPING THE ENEMY: MILITARY AESTHETICS AND THE ART OF ILLUSION, by Jane Tynan

“Civilisation is hooped together, brought
Under a rule, under the semblance of peace
By manifold illusion;”[1]

oA necessary illusion of our society is to see war as the primary means by which power is exercised, but to put guns and artillery beyond representation. War is normalised, but its tools considered unsightly, as increased technology gives weapons added menace. Designed to behave more like killing-machines than the tools of honourable contest, modern weapons have gained a reputation for ugliness.

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ GPMG - SF (General purpose machine gun - sustained fire) ~ oil on canvas ~ 40 x 40 inches

 

Either cumbersome technology makes them dark and heavy or the disruptive effects of camouflage obscures their form. If images of weapons are rare, the display of guns is confined to dusty museum exhibits, forensic evidence or the scrupulous gaze of weapons inspectors. Following the IRA ceasefire, when they ‘put their weapons beyond use’, sceptics were not content until they saw them with their own eyes.
oIf the search for a visual language of war is tricky, the moral questions it raises are even more perilous. When arming soldiers, weapons gain the status of protective armour for vulnerable bodies, but disembodied they take on the spite of raw killing machines. Indeed, in an era of technological warfare and mass armies, military aesthetics furnish the body with the precision of technology. As part of military spectacle, this body-technology allows weapons to come into their own as visual objects. Historically, standardisation of army clothing followed weapons, and their alignment intensified body power to enhance armed force through mechanised action.[2] However, without the human body the gun represents all the destruction of the death drive.

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ 7.62 tracer round ~ oil on canvas ~ 68 x 36 inches

 

Thus, there was reluctance when designing twentieth century public war memorials to include realistic portrayals of weapons. Officially viewed as problematic they were either transformed or removed. Following the First World War images of servicemen avoided a triumphant attitude, but as George Mosse argues instead used the ‘cult of the fallen’ to shape the public memory of the war, and recuperate an appetite for war among British people.[3] The Royal Artillery Memorial, unveiled in 1925 at Hyde Park Corner in London, was uncharacteristically conceived around war rather than peace.[4] A symbol of preservation of the soldier in combat, the memorial may have been about war but could not afford to be explicit about violence, and instead attention turned to representations of servicemen’s bodies. To symbolically recover lost life, memorialising the war involved a denial of weapons. However, despite the problems posed by images of arms, as Jay Winter argues, most commemorative monuments were not pacifist.[5] Neither were they inflammatory. Instead, after the First World War the question of whether to aestheticise weaponry exercised memorial committees keen to stifle radicalism and reflect the prevailing mood of mourning and loss.
oIf civilian society is ambivalent about weapons, their illusory qualities sustain the compelling contradiction of a peace underpinned by war. Michel Foucault argued that the very order of civilised society is permeated by a perpetual state of battle, which suggests war styles political formations.[6]

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ Bayonet ~ oil on canvas ~ 48 x 16 inches

 

Whether this is a productive social model it is clear that militarism pervades civilian society, apparent in everyday life when we happily carry around tracking devices in the form of mobile phones and smart cards. If the tools of war are excluded from high culture they are a source of fascination for a popular culture that manipulates, disguises or trivialises them. Paradoxically, this reflects discomfort rather than ease with the way army practices penetrate civil society. However, as recent debates on biometric technologies have reminded us, the fruits of military research propel western visual culture. Official forms of social control owe much to army practices, especially the desire for increased surveillance. Whilst it might be the task for artists to question these insidious intrusions, despite itself visual art can barely escape its effects. Artists may be the first to renounce war but military practices are never far from civilian life, and the most effective forms of social management start with control over the field of visual perception. Whilst the role of the image is the link between army and civilian life, the military model of society inspires few artists. Italian Futurists were the bizarre exception when Marinetti declared his love of war in a poem, "War is the World's Only Hygiene"[7] a sentiment which eventually linked the movement with Fascism. However, his recklessness was inspired by the dynamism and transformative potential of war, scarcely deflected by the spectre of mass death. Indeed, in civilian society military culture continues to be a source of fascination and repulsion.

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ Two 81mm drill mortar bombs ~ oil on canvas ~ 29 x 19 inches

 

oHuman perception is entangled with surveillance technologies originating in military practices. The camera emerges historically from new ways of conceptualising the world in the nineteenth century linked to official forms of classification and surveillance.[8] Photographs were used routinely as documentary evidence to prompt health, security and social reforms. If photography tightened forms of social control, it also made voyeurism part of everyday life. As the camera reinvented people socially as observers, they took on a distinctly mobile and kaleidoscopic viewpoint.[9] Further, this mobile inspecting gaze found a key role in military culture. Paul Virilio argues that at the turn of the century military aviation shaped the growth of cinema and aerial reconnaissance tested the ground for moving image technologies.[10] As the best sources of information in the First World War, aerial photography represented a mobile observer who analysed his prey, with the sinister goal to increase the scale of eventual destruction. Indeed, Joanna Bourke argues that technology has distanced men from killing, as the period from the First World War to the Vietnam War saw progressively lower ratios of men on the front line to the total of service personnel involved in the war effort.[11] Mobility and distance has clearly altered the experience of combat and the perception of what constitutes the theatre of war.

oVicarious experience shapes visual entertainments like film, television and the internet, which like military optical devices exploit the distancing effect.

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ 155mm artillery shell ~ oil on canvas ~ 20 x 40 inches

 

oAs filmmakers boast, the motion picture is not made but ‘shot.’ The disembodied eye of the camera became an instrument of control, and the battlefield a field of perception, as Paul Virilio agued, “For men at war, the function of the weapon is a function of the eye.”[12] Practices of mapping and camouflage both arose from this link between aviation and cameras at the turn of the twentieth century. Both exploited the field of vision. Reluctant to turn its hard stare back on itself, the military eye is about surveillance, reflected in the design of army equipment, weaponry and uniform. Those holding the gun also control the gaze. Indeed, vision became a problem for soldiers on the wrong end of the smokeless magazine rifle introduced in the 1890s, a small-calibre, long-range, flat trajectory weapon that fired between twenty and thirty shots per minute.

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ Steyr assault rifle ~ oil on canvas ~ 20 x 40 inches

 

Smokeless powder meant the rifleman’s field of vision was no longer obscured by black powder, which formerly betrayed his position to the enemy.[13] Khaki uniform was a similar response to surveillance technologies and tactics of dispersal. [14] Questions of visibility prompted clothing colour changes when Major Hodson who had responsibility for equipping a newly-formed Corps of Guides in India in 1848 chose a uniform of khaki colour which was “most likely to make them invisible in a land of dust".[15]

oThe First World War was for the British a moment of unprecedented development in weaponry as the army were equipped with the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE), followed by the old Long Lee-Enfield and a variety of other weapons including the US import, the Lewis machine gun.[16]

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ Point five heavy machine gun ~ oil on canvas ~ 28 x 80 inches

 

Thereafter, the autonomy of the soldier lessened, as weapons were no longer tools of warfare but part of a whole technology of destruction. Individual actions on the battlefield seemed to matter less than an effective system of ocular devices. Weapons systems, indebted to modes of surveillance, by the Second World War had completely altered the conduct of armed struggle.[17] The sinister concept of a camera-gun is perfectly manifested in the more recent telescopic sight (or scope), which keeps targets in focus to improve aim on long-range shooting.

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ USP handgun ~ oil on canvas ~ 40 x 59 inches

 

Whilst visibility has become central to the design of military material and the operation of modern warfare, weapons themselves are less conspicuous. Designed to see rather than be seen, they analyse and seek out their targets and avoid betraying their position to the enemy. In this way, the battlefield has become a site of struggle for visual knowledge, where power lies in controlling the gaze. Military aesthetics are not necessarily about the beauty of military objects, but their capacity for artifice, evasion and illusion.

Jane Tynan, art historian

 

[1] William Butler Yeats ‘Meru’ (1934) W.B.Yeats: The Poems (London: Random House, 1992) p.339
[2] Waldemar Kaempffert ‘War and Technology’ The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 46, no. 4 (Jan. 1941) p.435
[3] George Mosse Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) p.103

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ Private Noel Ahern ~ oil on canvas ~ 50 x 30 inches

 

[4] Jonathan Black ‘Thanks for the Memory’: War memorials, spectatorship and the trajectories of commemoration 1919-2001’ Matters of Conflict: Material culture, memory and the First World War (London: Routledge, 2004) p.141
[5] Jay Winter Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) p.95
[6] Michel Foucault Society Must Be Defended (New York: Picador, 2003)
[7] F.T. Marinetti ‘War is the World’s Only Hygiene’ full text at URL: http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/war.html [Accessed 21 August 2008]
[8] John Tagg The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 1988)
[9] Jonathan Crary Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1992)
[10] Paul Virilio War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 2000)
[11] Joanna Bourke An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare (London: Granta Books, 1999) p.6
[12] Paul Virilio War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 2000) p.20
[13] Edward M. Spiers The Army and Society 1815-1914 (London: Longman, 1980) p.210
[14] Tim Newark and Jonathan Miller (eds.) Camouflage (London: Thames and Hudson, 2007); Thomas Abler Hinterland Warriors and Military Dress: European Empires and Exotic Uniforms (Oxford: Berg, 1999 ) p.15
[15] Selwyn Hodson-Pressinger Khaki Uniform First Introduction 1848 (Battle Use 1849) & Hodson’s Memorial London: Sandilands Press, 2000, p.5
[16] Gary Sheffield (ed.) War on the Western Front (Oxford: Osprey, 2007) p.105
[17] Anthony Giddens The Nation-State and Violence (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987) p.242

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ MOWAG armoured personnel carrier ~ oil on canvas ~ 24 x 54 inches

 

 

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ GPMG ground role ~ oil on canvas ~ 40 x 118 inches

 

 

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ Platoon section ~ oil on canvas ~ 28 x 88 inches

 

 

McCormack

Blaise Smith ~ Scorpion ~ oil on canvas ~ 28 x 36 inches

 

 

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