Ireland’s decade of centenaries is marked by an almost palpable anxiety about how best to observe, commemorate and do justice to our own fraught and bloody recent history. From this perspective, two exhibitions in London held at the end of 2015, offered compelling yet almost antithetical approaches to conflict, trauma and memory – one lyrically poignant, the other, aggressively mundane and more explicitly bitter.
Susan Philipsz’s War Damaged Musical Instruments is comprised of recordings of fourteen British and German wind instruments retrieved from battlefields over the last two hundred years, including several from the First World War. Forming part of the 14-18 NOW arts programme to commemorate the First World War centenary, the work has a particular resonance with the history of Tate Britain, as part of the site was originally a military hospital that treated soldiers injured in the First World War. The notes recorded are taken from ‘The Last Post’, the military bugle call that signalled to soldiers that it was safe to return to base – it is also commonly used in military funerals and remembrance services. The instruments are mostly ruined – crushed, punctured, surviving only in fragments – so the sounds they produce vary from barely audible wheezes to deep yet wavering resonances. The notes issue from simple white megaphones mounted high on the pillars in the Duveen Galleries. Despite its immateriality the work has a profoundly sculptural presence, plotting the architecture of the space, but also leaching out of its site and seeping into the surrounding galleries, so that, as you move through different rooms – British art of the 1950s, or the Turner Rooms – the sound follows you, insistent and inescapable.
Philipsz’s work raises ghosts that are almost beguilingly tragic, literally echoing to us across history. The plangent, faltering notes are deeply human in their vulnerability and evoke a pathos which the explanatory literature (that reveals the battlefield at which each instrument was recovered) amplifies. One of the instruments, for example, is a bugle found near the body of a fourteen year old drummer killed at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, another is an alto sax recovered from the Alte Münz bunker in Berlin in 1945. As brass and woodwind instruments are so closely tied to the corporeal, relying on breath for sound, the resulting sound-scape eloquently summons the idea of damaged bodies, evoking trauma but, crucially, without confronting us with graphic, manipulative imagery. The work is elegiac and undoubtedly moving. However, in its immateriality, and the fact that it deals with death almost beyond the reach of memory, it is made beautiful in a way that is perhaps troubling. The concept of carrying musical instruments into battle seems both tinged with romance and gallantry and also unimaginably distant. There is an argument to be made that by accepting and relegating these events to history, that such disturbing events are distanced from reality by virtue of being easily classified as ‘the past’.
This is the case put forward by Fabio Mauri’s show, Oscuramento: The Wars of Fabio Mauri, in Hauser and Wirth, Saville Row. This is work that stems from personal experience. Mauri, born in Rome in 1926 and who died in 2009, was an artist, writer, playwright, critic, publisher and professor at the Art Academy of L’Aquila, who came of age in the context of Fascist Italy and Europe during the Second World War. The events he witnessed first-hand and through the media left him with lasting psychological damage and severe psychiatric problems, and his artistic practice evolved predominantly as a means of resolving his personal trauma. Mauri’s work creates a vastly different atmosphere to Philipsz’s sound piece – it is at once relentlessly humdrum and claustrophobically ominous. The entrance to this huge Savile Row space has been transformed into an air raid shelter with sandbags, extinguishers and a table stacked with dirty coffee cups. The affect is of startling present-ness and immediacy; the smell of coffee lingering as if those taking shelter have only just left. Close by, another table covered with a cotton cloth and positioned next to a standard lamp, was neatly laid with hats. Tavolo cappelli ufficiali (Picnic o Il buon soldato) (Table with Officer’s Hats [Picnic or The Good Soldier]) (1998) again mixes a strange homely domesticity – the orderly arrangement, and the ordinary furniture – with the faintly absurd grandeur of the military dress: an opulently tasselled fez, a pristinely white panama hat, others stiffly peaked and bristling with insignia. Picnic o Il Buon Soldato comprises many of these found object assemblages. Mauri stacks or mounts on steel plate various mundane accoutrements of everyday life that move like a sliding scale from the domestic to the military – pillars of stacked wicker picnic baskets, shovels, blankets, enamel lamps, compasses and gas-masks. The objects were selected by Mauri for their very ubiquity, arguing that their familiarity allows us to connect with history in a more visceral way – ‘history with a small h’ perhaps – so that huge, incomprehensibly traumatic events become, somehow, easy to grasp.
In the centre of this huge space is a life size waxwork tableau of the Italian war cabinet. Oscuramento – Il Gran Consiglio (Darkening – The Grand Council) (1975) is imposing but also unsettlingly kitsch, as if lifted wholesale from a small town history museum. The dusty mannequins in full military dress are slightly ridiculous, the bodies a little too small for the heads, the wax faces deeply ruddy as if wearing too much makeup. The tableau is a reconstruction of the last session of the Gran Consiglio del Fascismo (Grand Council of Fascism) that took place on 24th July 1943, which sanctioned the arrest of Benito Mussolini. Mussolini is represented here, along with the highest ranking members of the fascist council, although not all of figures are actual portraits of real historical figures. What’s striking is the banality and claustrophobia of the scene – its smallness and ordinariness, despite the swagger of the uniforms and the stertorous hectoring of the piped oration. Hannah Arendt’s observation of the ‘banality of evil’ obtains powerfully here – the military glamour is tawdry, the players small and unconvincing.
Oscuramento brings Italy’s fascist past back as a readymade, and we are forced to confront how ordinary the everyday cultural life of totalitarianism can appear. In contrast, Phillipz’s sound piece has potent affective force, which impacted on this viewer at least in a profoundly somatic way and created a powerful emotional charge. Brian Massumi argues that ‘affect’ acts as a spur to critical reflection and deeper engagement. However, Mauri’s explicit address to our critical faculties, presenting us with the ways in which fascism as imbricated into everyday life, asks us to engage with a different, and perhaps a more lastingly troubling set of intellectual problems. Mauri’s gesture is one of demystification, whereas Philipsz’s haunting installation is almost romantic in its melancholy, essentially aestheticising the war dead it commemorates. Oscuramento offers no such gentle consolation.
The Wars of Fabio Mauri was on view 11 December 2015 – 6 February 2016. War Damaged Musical Instruments was on view 21 November 2015 – 3 April 2016.