South East England

The Incommensurable Banner

‘The Incommensurable Banner’ is a shocking and disturbing representation of Thomas Hirschhorn’s five year anguish over the media’s coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan war, his sense of distress over the neglect of the loss of innocent civilians in favour of the troops killed at the hands of insurgents. The work comprises of an 18 x 4 metre banner exhibited in Brighton’s Fabrica gallery as part of the Photo Biennial. Scattered with large-scale photographs of the dead, sourced from the Internet and newspapers, the banner represents just a fraction of those lives lost since 2003.

Typical of Hirschhorn’s work, there is a juxtaposition between construction and audience reaction, the nature of the work, in terms of it’s physicality, is understated; lending itself well to the idea of a ‘D.I.Y protest banner’. An amateur approach to an amateur war is a concept that one cannot help but conceive, just one of the many steps taken before one can interact with the work in person. Outside the gallery posters display warnings, that the work and it’s content may not only shock but offend viewers, visually, spurs me on through some fascination, or quest for something tangible, something to humble me. Upon entering the building, a church turned gallery that I am familiar with, I am met by something new, a frosted glass wall put in place to protect me from the reality of what is happening, and then a member of staff recites a disclaimer, a public health warning, informing me of the brutality that I am about to be confronted with. This very elaborate series of warnings instantly confuses me, I am not sure if the process has sensationalised the potential suffering I am about to perceive, or if it has muted my reaction, left me desensitised. It is, however, apparent in my mind that I have been affected, that it has disturbed me, and as the last words of this injunction roll off the volunteers tongue, I sense that this is the end of my sanctuary.

18 meters long and uncomfortably hung within the space, the banner holds apparently different dimensions than those of Western buildings. Filling the length of the church, and then turning a corner, the banner not able to be completely unrolled, this supposedly incidental miss-match only echo’s and reiterates the infinite sense of devastation. Photos detail carnage that the warnings had not prepared me for and I scan the banner as a whole, desperately trying to make sense of what is happening, before a single picture can penetrate me. As I move closer, and into the images, I move from right, to left, from the trailed off corner, to the beginning, hoping to defy the endlessness of the suffering by finding some clean, tangible and quantifiable conclusion to my experience. It is however, all in vain. I am instantly disturbed by what is in front of me. Bodies are torn apart, and then clumsily reconstructed on the sides of roads, faces crumple off and away from shattered skulls, and limbs split themselves, releasing floods of fractured parts. It becomes apparent to me of the chaos and destruction caused daily by the bombs we build, designed seemingly not only to kill, but to ‘mutilate and obliterate any sense of humanity’ of those only separated from us by culture. Suddenly the location and the exhibition are inextricably linked through an unbearable sense of death. Only the memorials once held here at Fabrica, to the dead of past wars, only humiliate further the way in which these people now appear in front of me. I am instantly guilty. And I am instantly alone.

Hirschhorn himself however relates to his work in a far more objective manner; “When people ask who is this, what happened to them, and where, they are actually taking the first steps to distancing themselves from what they are looking at.”, the cynicism of this statement is unfortunately far outweighed by a sense of reality, the idea that by questioning the artefact one is not showing compassion, but employing a three strand equation which will ultimately result in a detachment theory, cannot be undermined. An objective approach to a disturbingly frank piece of imagery only retains some humanity for the victims depicted in incommensurable. “The work is incredibly difficult to look at, but it also has to be seen” states Fabrica co-director Matthew Miller. The empirical approach is, at times, all that separates the experience of this tragedy from the perversion of a public car crash. And dealing with the work methodically, rather than compassionately, is typical of a generation of explicitly political artists, and, I assume, the only way in which one can stomach the reality long enough to construct the work.

Aspects of the work are questionable, from the sources, and the availability of graphic imagery, to the fundamental question of photography itself; how it distances you from suffering whilst pulling you close, right down to the necessity of the work itself. There is however no doubt of the pieces validity; ‘The Incommensurable Banner’ gives a generation of British audiences, whose wars have been fought on foreign terrain, the opportunity to experience the devastation of combat in an environment that is safe and secure. Hirschhorn communicates honestly, and without self-pity. He ‘wants his viewer to be active, not to emulate him’. His work forces the weight of life’s ribs onto ones own, and speaks with a tongue that I envy, and would adopt, if only I weren’t so afraid of making other people afraid.

In conclusion, and with little else to say, I turn to an anonymous quote from a British soldier fighting in Iraq;

‘You don’t have to die to be a hero, and you don’t have to fight to be a man’.