the quiet face of resistance

The quiet face of resistance – by Andrew Stephens (The Age A2, Saturday March 3, 2007)

There’s a screaming headline on the front page of one of those uber-socialist newspapers that are sold rowdily by hand in the Bourke Street mall. It says something like “Stop Bush”, “End war now” or “Troops out of Iraq”. It all seems a little abstract here in front of the bustling shoppers, the GPO designer stores and trundling, cheerful trams.

These newspapers drum home a feeling of powerlessness about war and human rights. Like evangelists who zealously pray for limb-restoring miracles, those imperative headlines seem to make impossible demands.

War is not so simple and, at first sight, about as far away from creativity as you could get. Yet paradoxically, it is its complexity – its horror, pathos, violence and tragedy – that has brought about a wealth of edifying art during humanity’s brief, cruel history. Melbourne artist Colin Vickery is continuing that charge with what he describes as a human rights art series.

Many artists would wince to think of war as their muse, as the violently torn carcass on which they feed and create. Yet what enormous volumes of inspired works of literature, painting, photography or music have been born out of desperate wartime situations? Out of adversity, some say, come courageous acts: from deepest darkness is yielded light.

Here in front of me is a digitally produced paint-on-canvas work by Vickery. It’s one of a dozen or so he’s been working on for the past few years. There’s nothing warlike about it; no guns, no planes, no bombs, no soldiers. It simply bears a paragraph of unattributed text, looming large yet pale on a roughly textured background.

It’s called Mission Accomplished and says: “America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and to liberate an oppressed people and that mission has been accomplished.”

We can all guess who made this premature, outlandish claim (it was a couple of years ago) and to whom he was speaking. But the details of who, when or why are not so important because behind that disingenuous verbiage is an image of an enormous, faded X. Is the X a crossing out, a cancelling, or a revision? Or is it perhaps an algebraic X – X as an unknown quantity? Is this X-factor some storming US troops or is it an al-Qaeda sleeper cell?

Whatever, in seeing those presidential words crossed out, I am reminded by Vickery of one of the underpinning precepts of war and its conjoined twin, terrorism: to obliterate what exists (for example, the Saddam regime, militant Islam, democracy or capitalism) and start again.

I look around at Vickery’s other magnetic canvases. They’re at a large framing shop in Hawthorn, propped up in front of all sorts of other bright, pretty prints, ready to make their way to Span Galleries in the city.

Over here, Vickery has rendered a face that is saintly and deathly all at once; over there, I think I can see funereal rows of military epaulettes. And just across the aisle is a collection of torpedo-tinted objects that scares me.

It’s a timely coincidence that the day I am looking at Vickery’s eloquent and calm-yet-disturbing images, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has decided to reduce the number of his troops in Iraq. And even though Vickery’s work makes no reference to that long-suffering nation of 26 million people, the continuing war to “liberate” it hangs heavily above the work like a pall of evil, greasy smoke.

Vickery deftly skirts the didactic, even though one image is of a giant peace symbol; it harks back to some of Vickery’s earlier works, which in the main have also dealt with spiritual matters. But on closer inspection, the surface of the circular peace symbol is painted to resemble something hard, stony, cold. I think of mortuary slabs, headstones, bunkers, broken buildings. Peace at what price?

Looking again at the work called Generals, I see it is made up of rows of decaying, spattered, tarnished shapes that might be the epaulettes from a military jacket, the headstones in a marines’ cemetery, or jigsaw-shaped people. Whatever, there is the scent of death here, the horror of body counts. How many civilians, soldiers, terrorists or freedom-fighters die each day? How many generals or religious leaders bear those body counts on their shoulders?

The image of the militant leader, isolated in his power and decision-making, puts me in mind of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), the novella that inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), one of the most powerful anti-war films born out of the misadventure that was the Vietnam War. I remember Marlon Brando as Kurtz, with his reverberating insight, “The horror…The horror.” That horror is here, in Generals and in another painting, with its simple image of a crumbling, crushed barcode, called Asylum.

Vickery uses quite abstract imagery to bring home a deeply Kurtzian horror, and of our country’s part in it, on an emotional and aesthetic level rather than on a roundly intellectual one.

One of the most famous war paintings of the 20th century was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which Robert Hughes described as “the most powerful invective against violence in modern art”. With its imagery of deeply suffering women, horses and bulls, it was no surprise it had dramatic effects on the civilians of the day, changing their thoughts about politics and power.

In a more popular strain, I think of anti-war cinema – films such as Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997) or Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) – and of the modern catchcry “war on terror”.

One of the largest Vickerys is called Jesus v Technology, which has fractured, vertical ribbons of paint that might be distorted computer coding. Within it is a portrait of a human face, eyes hooded, mouth sad. Is this person in repose, serenely calm or dead? Is it a grieving mother of an Iraqi or a US soldier? A Christ-like figure? An inmate of Abu Ghraib?

Vickery is subtle and cleverly suggestive, leading us gently into a place that is scarred by a world of Kurtz-horror. It’s more a spiritual atmosphere that a bald political pronouncement that seeps out of the creased, mournfully coloured imagery he has carefully composed with his photographer’s eye.

Throughout the exhibition, there are fields of Rothko-rich colour and fragments of congealed, cracked liquid that might be bodily fluids; there are digital numerals in countdown-mode, lethal-targeting cross-hairs and radars, glowing crosses and arching Christ-like torsos. There is the single, pleading and half-hopeful word, Enough.

And there are flaming catherine wheels, whirling brightly, that might be explosions or Bosch-like hellfire or twisted, avenging angels. And I cannot tell if it is heaven or hell, or most frighteningly, our own planet Earth.