CULTURE

Images on the ruins of war

War is always an atrocity. For many of us, it may be a distant ordeal, an unwitnessed reality that does not directly threaten our lives. Yet it is still an atrocity whose ramifications seep all over, even there where the war has not been fought. The effects of war and the repercussions of military conflict are themes that have preoccupied the renowned Nigeria-born photographer Simon Norfolk for several years. Yet the images that he has taken from some of the most war-ravaged parts of the world do not immediately strike the viewer as brutal. The «spur of the moment» element and the sensationalism that one often finds in war photography is not an aspect of his work. Norfolk’s photographs in «Et in Arcadia Ego,» which is the title of his solo traveling exhibition currently shown at Cats & Marbles, have a strange, calm beauty about them. (The exhibition is being held in collaboration with the British Council and the Museum of Photography in Thessaloniki and is part of the 13th International Month of Photography annual event which is organized by the Hellenic Center of Photography and began last week. Norfolk’s exhibition is one of the event’s highlights.) In some of Norfolk’s photographs, the ruins of war blend with the landscape into sweeping, abstract shapes. The track of a destroyed Taliban tank at a military base near Jalalabad, for example, resembles a natural formation. At first glance, the picture that isolates the exterior of the building of the Ministry of Planning in Baghdad looks like a repetitive abstract motif, not the shattered windows of a derelict building. In another picture the red pond in the middle of a snowy landscape brings to mind an abstract painting; it is actually the aluminum waste pond at Petkovici near the Karakaj aluminum factory. Like a huge bloodstain, the pond is symbolic of a gaping wound, the wound of people hurt by war. In fact, the bodies of Bosnian men and women that were executed in this area in 1995 were said to have been thrown into that pond. However, Norfolk’s pictures neither aestheticize nor sentimentalize war. Here and there one may find references to the romantic sublime and the images of ruins that so captured the imagination of romantic painters, yet in Norfolk’s pictures one will find a precision, crispness and composure that places the rational above the emotional. Norfolk does not always make brutality immediately apparent and even in the cases where the ruins are clearly discernible, an element so beautiful and soothing as for example, the golden, luminous light eases some of the harshness. But by its beauty alone it also underlines both grief and horror. Norfolk searches for the ruins of war, its vestiges, that which is a reminder of something that has taken place but whose effects have not been erased. His pictures remind us that wars operate insidiously, that although their effects may be hidden – as in many of his pictures – in the end, they creep into our lives. In his statement on the work shown at Cats & Marbles, Norfolk writes that he was astounded to discover that a bustling, commercial road that runs through a neighborhood of London follows an ancient Roman road. Norfolk explains that the road system built by the Romans was their highest military technology, a technology which, centuries later, shaped the urban landscape in that particular area of London. Norfolk, who refers to his photos as «battlefields-landscapes/surfaces created by war,» writes that they are part of a broader project that attempts «to understand how war, and the need to fight war, has formed our world: how so many of the spaces we occupy, the technologies we use, and the ways we understand ourselves, are created by military conflict.» War is much more than what we see on our TV screens, images which the media has chosen to show. Norfolk’s pictures show that war is far closer to us than we realize. It is a devastating yet grounding thought. Norfolk will talk to the public about his work on Monday at Cats & Marbles (12 Fokilidou, Kolonaki), at 4 p.m. Attendance is limited. Call 210.3613.942 for more information. The exhibition will run to October 15. A political artist Simon Norfolk, an acclaimed photographer who has received numerous awards, was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and educated in London, where he studied sociology and philosophy at Oxford and Bristol universities. A political artist, he began his career working for far-left publications that specialized in anti-racist activities. In 1998 he published his book, «For Most of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape and Memory,» about places that have witnessed genocide. His work from the war in Afghanistan in 2001 won the European Publisher’s Award and an award from the Foreign Press Association of America. It traveled the world in more than 20 solo exhibitions while the book was published in five languages. In 2006 Norfolk received a silver award from the Association of Photographers. Recent work includes a project about the aftermath of the war in Bosnia (it was published in 2005) and another about military supercomputers. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and The Guardian Weekend. Norfolk’s work was last shown in Greece at Thessaloniki’s Photosynkyria in 2006 (he was awarded by Photosynkyria in 2002). After Athens, «Et in Arcadia Ego» will travel to the Istanbul Biennale Festival.