New Model Armies
Fortnight, December 2001/January 2002
For generations raised on video arcade images of smart bombs and war as computer games played in Kosovo, Iraq and now Afghanistan the scenes portrayed in Claudio Hils’ Red Land-Blue Land must have an almost cosey, homespun and even innocent quality. Not strictly war photography Hils’ work shows military training areas in Northern Germany-the Red Land-Blue Land of the title-where British soldiers have prepared for real and potential wars since 1945. Of particular local interest are the recreated towns and streets of the North of Ireland revealing both the ‘official’ image of the conflict and the squaddies’ expectations of what they might encounter here. As a social historian my interest lies in what is revealed about attitudes towards conflict and the changing patterns of [ re-] presentation of the ‘enemy’ by the state and its armed forces.
Hils’ photographs document a blurring of fantasy and reality-a military magic realism, reflecting an ideological landscape beneath film-set recreations of streets, houses, pubs and chippies, populated with targets and mannequins variously labelled ‘caring mother’, ‘friendly old man’ and ‘terrorist’. In this environment of imagined and shadowy enemies, familiarity and assumed traits of ordinariness and naturalness take on a surreal and suspect quality. It is the pictures of the mannequins that we are drawn to. These carefully represented figures placed in familiar street scenes and interiors give us an unsettling and yet comical glimpse of how civilians appeared from the other side of a British Army gun-sight.
Soldiers have always attempted to de-humanize and demonize the enemy; commanders and propagandists attempt to control the thoughts and responses of the squaddy and shape their perception of the ‘reality’of war. Hils’ work clearly shows this process of identification and construction of both the physical and ideological context for conflict in the North.
It is in the small detail that a more sinister element emerges. There is an almost loving attention to accurate representation which gives the mannequins their human character but is reminiscent of the primitive tradition of making effigies as a form of ritual magic destruction of one's enemies. A mannequin representing a dodgy geezer in a chip shop has a plaster where he has cut himself shaving. The chip shop is accurately recreated with a price list and drink cans echoes of home for the working class soldiers of Britain’s industrial cities who served in the North. Enemy women, familiar yet strange, look dangerous, sexually charged with provocative poses and large, exaggerated breasts, fascinating and repulsive, the pornographic fantasy figures of young soldiers. The dogs, like their owners, are savage and wild. Everything is shot up and battered. We are reminded of the Parachute Regiment’s barrack-room ritualized depiction of teenage joy riders riddled with bullets. The ethos of the training ground becomes the black humour of the mess room.
Traditionally creating an effigy confers power and control over the de-humanized subject. In the context of a war in your own backyard where the enemy is your mirror image, complexities arise. Who do you shoot and whom do you protect? In representing their ‘subjects’ in this way the squaddies who created these figures not only show us how they [ambiguously] viewed the population, but how that perception could shape the everyday exercise of power, both in the recreated Irish streets in Northern Germany and the actual streets of the North of Ireland.
It would be easy to see Hils’ work as an exercise in nostalgia, a peace process retrospective of the way things were. But in the context of a new, global war against an unseen terrorist enemy Hils’ images provide disturbing representations of normality against the background of a state of emergency. It is also a reminder that where the military perception of reality was once quite separate and distinct from everyday life, it now connects more clearly to a wider society beyond the drill square.
Current political-military discourse reflects general feelings of unease and desires to break down complex conflicts into simplified representations of good and evil, just at the very time when we are less certain than ever what these definitions actually mean.
In the wake of September 11th as the lines between real and imagined enemies are blurring, Hils’ backward glance is also in many ways a look forward to a future where the battle –lines between enemy and non-enemy are intensely imagined and yet ambiguously defined.
Kevin Bean is a post-graduate research student at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool undertaking research in to contemporary Republicanism.
Claudio Hils’ Red Land-Blue Land exhibition continued at Belfast Exposed, King Street, Belfast until December 20th