Since its foundation in 1917 to record the horrors that were still taking place, the Imperial War Museum has become Britain’s foremost chronicler of the conflicts of the 20th century. Later this year, however, the London museum will get to grips with the 21st century in highly original fashion.
The largest contemporary art exhibition in its history will feature works by Ai Weiwei, Grayson Perry and others in a landmark exploration of art in the “age of terror”.
Torture, drone warfare, changes in security laws, political protest and the response to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are among the various themes examined in Age of Terror: Art since 9/11. More than 40 major international artists will feature in the exhibition which will seek, in the museum’s centenary year, to fulfil the remit of charting how war affects not just combatants but civilian populations.
Ai’s 2010 work, Surveillance Camera, in which the Chinese artist replicated a CCTV camera in marble, is expected to stand at the centre of a section dealing with state control. The Perry work is Dolls at Dungeness, September 11th 2001, which was created by the Turner prize-winning artist in response to the aftermath of the attacks in America. The work depicts war planes flying over the heads of dolls.
Describing the events of September 11 as “seismic”, the museum argues that they were “a turning point in the public perception and understanding of contemporary conflict”.
Gill Webber, executive director for programming, said the exhibition was the second part of the “Conflict Now” theme, which started with a series on Syria and is continuing. It followed audience research which found people distrusted the sources of information they had relied on for news.
“We are not a news organisation and we don’t aspire to be but it was interesting how people were really challenging where they got their news, questioning it and looking for alternatives. They also wanted a physical connection to the story and that is what museums do. We tell stories using objects,” she said.
Webber added: “One of the other reasons to explore these themes through art is that there is no historical perspective yet. While we are very well known for our work on the first and second world wars and the cold war, our curators and historians can use an historical perspective and documents. That doesn’t exist at present, so one way of exploring them is through artists’ representations. Artists are also particularly good at exploring the impact of war on people.”
The exhibition, starting in October, will include a section on torture and the revelations of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by guards at the Abu Ghraib prison during the US occupation of Iraq. It includes Operation Atropos, by the Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco, who teaches at Columbia University in New York.
Her video deals with a training programme preparing soldiers to resist interrogation if they are taken prisoner. It shows the artist and others being subjected to physical and psychological pressure by male interrogators.
Fusco said the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib led her to work on a torture theme and, specifically, the ways that torture was being made to seem less terrible than it actually was.
“I was very concerned when I made it that attempts were being made by the Bush administration to legalise torture. I was also concerned that there had been a massive increase in depictions of state violence and torture in American pop culture after 9/11.
“Scores of TV shows, docu-dramas and films emerged that glamourised torture and rationalised its use. The ends of eradicating terrorism were supposed to justify the means,” she said.
Film features heavily elsewhere in the exhibition, such as in a Weapons section that includes Five Thousand is the Best a film by the Israeli-born artist Omer Fast, which delves into the psychology of the drone operator and the impact of their actions. The section also includes Nature Morte aux grenades by Mona Hatoum, a sculpture in which a hospital table used for storing surgical equipment holds a scattering of multi-coloured objects that resemble both sweets and grenades.
Work by Dexter Dalwood, Jim Ricks, Trevor Paglen, Hans-Peter Feldman and John Keane will also be exhibited, in addition to new pieces that are being commissioned by the .museum.The British artist Nathan Coley’s installation A Place Beyond Belief takes its title from a quote by a commuter on the New York subway after the 9/11 attacks. “My work in the exhibition is more a reflection on living in a time of moral uncertainty,” said Coley.
He added: “I do think it is an interesting step for the Imperial War Museum to be doing this show and perhaps, as a result of seeing it, those who visit the museum and look, for example, at other things in the basement or the Spitfire hanging the atrium space, will look again at traditional interpretations of other wars and the way they have manifested themselves.”