Sensing Histories

By Metin Alsanjak

sensing-histories-out-of-conflict-2.jpgFrom the exhibition

Out of Conflict: new audio-visual work from artists Catherine Elwes and Cornford & Cross

On a video monitor, an elderly man’s eye is visible through a cross with two horizontal intersections. He speaks in French, and frequently touches and points at the scar above his right eye. No translation of his words is offered on screen. The English translation is on six wall-mounted panels. Each contains the cross from the video. At the centre of the cross is a video still, the translation surrounding it within the cross.

This is Paul's Story, one half of Scars, the story of war veteran Paul Robineau, as retold, “neither challenged, nor interpreted” and “uninterrupted for as long as the viewer is willing to listen” by video-artist Catherine Elwes. Scars continues Elwes’ series War Stories, tracing how the histories of her father and his generation of veterans touch her own life.

On one level Paul's Story is a war story told by a war hero, about a near-death experience, about surviving, and how war leaves its mark on those who are part of it. However, Paul's Story is framed within the Cross of Lorraine, emblem of both the Resistance and the Free French in England during World War II. Whether or not the audience recognises the symbol, it still has the effect of constricting and narrowing the viewer’s perspective, raising questions about what the subject is telling them. Is this story a fabrication? Is this a history we recognise?

sensing-histories-out-of-conflict-3.jpgFrom the exhibition

The other half of Scars is the photo-sound installation The Six Lives of Erich Ackermann. The audience hears Ackermann’s stories of World War II plane crashes, as recorded in his diaries and here voiced by his son Uwe in both German and English. On the walls are previously unpublished photographs Erich Ackermann took after the crashes. At first glance the images look constructed. The clarity with which they show a history that’s been fictionalised so many times is astonishing. However, as the viewer senses that the photographs can only be real, and the heroism of Ackermann becomes apparent, so they are drawn into listening to his story.

In both works Elwes is encouraging viewers to see her subjects from new perspectives. A person symbolised as a hero is seen in close-up, their scar only visible through the symbol associated with them. The audience becomes aware of the narrowness of their perspective, and the levels of prejudice and bias present in their version of history. Similarly, the audience listens to, and sees pictures from, a story that is genuinely heroic, even though it comes from an ‘enemy’, an ‘other’ voice, challenging the audience to consider how an individual’s memory of the past can affect their perception of history.

“These people said nothing. Their stories are coming out of silence,” says Elwes. “You invent your own past, and they are adapting their past to how they want to be remembered – memory as a constructed story,” she says, seeing her role as, “a listener, and my listening… invites a similar kind of attention in the viewer.”

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Elwes’ work is exhibited with artist-duo Cornford & Cross’ film of a red-arrow jet plane painting the anarchy symbol in the sky. Shot from a camera attached to the plane, the viewer sees the anarchy symbol being created from the pilot’s point of view on a large screen. On a smaller screen there is footage looking straight into the cockpit and the pilot’s face. Both viewpoints are played simultaneously.

Cornford & Cross’ work also plays on perspective, vision and the bringing of new viewpoints to their audience. They deliberately choose not to include any shots from a spectator’s perspective on the ground, because they want to bring people on board the aircraft, to empathise and be part of the process of creating the anarchy symbol.

Their work subverts traditional associations of the military with hierarchy and presents a new way for audiences to engage with and access the beauty and grace of flight. However, Elwes sees her work as providing a different perspective to Cornford & Cross. “They take a macro approach. Mine is much more of a micro approach, and more about listening to an individual,” she says. That said, both are linked by the common theme of the attraction of flying. Ackermann’s description of his love of it anchors the experimental sense of Cornford & Cross’ film.

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In his diary’s prologue, ‘What is the Experience of Flying?’, Ackermann asks, “is it the feeling of pride in being one of the few who can master an expensive, refined, highly technical piece of machinery? Is it the rush of speed? Is it the unknown danger that beckons and makes life and living appear more precious? How wonderful a flight is when you break through a grey-black ceiling of clouds into bright sunshine and those obstructive water-clouds are reduced to a white strip of cotton wool far below.”

Importantly, his words remind us of the frequent commonality of experience for each side in a conflict, of the often shared (yet normally unspoken) understanding beyond and beneath the divisions of war. As Elwes observes, “It is curious how similar Ackermann and Robineau’s stories sound, all this time after events that once put them on opposite sides of a conflict they did not create. The difference between them is that Ackermann started out on the ‘wrong’ side. What they actually did was very similar.”

Out of Conflict is currently at ArtSway in the New Forest, Hampshire, and will show at the Lethaby Gallery, Central St Martin’s, London in 2005.

Metin Alsanjak lives in London and writes on the moving image.