Exhibition review of Observations at Gimpel Fils London May/June 2006 by Martin Herbert, Artforum International October 2006
It's estimated that there are some twenty-five thousand private military personnel currently in Iraq, collectively comprising easily the second-largest fighting force in the country (the largest being of course the US Army). Employed by firms with names like Custer Battles, Global Risk Strategies, and Blackwater USA, they are mostly funded by US tax dollars and handle everything from training local forces to surveillance, weapons procurement, and on-the-ground fighting. But these mercenaries aren't trained in US boot camps. They're drilled in places like the one depicted in Christopher Stewart's photographic series "Kill House," 2005.
Located in the wilds of Arkansas, this desolate structure is used to prepare outsourced soldiers contracted (as a press release for the show puts it) "to clear domestic houses in conflict zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan." If one didn't deduce from its sobriquet what recruits are here conditioned to expect--i.e., red-eyed, Kalashnikov-wielding insurgents lurking around every dark corner--then the scrupulous design of the house makes that plain. Stewart's seven photographs lead us stealthily up darkened flights of stained concrete steps, past smoke-damaged walls, locked doors, and straw-strewn landings, and finally to a bedroom whose only furniture is a rusted metal bed resembling a torture device. The intention is clearly to create a sense of fear and hair-trigger uncertainty.
That such a paranoid ambience is a microcosm of the political Zeitgeist is surely why it interests Stewart, a British artist who for the past half-decade has produced photographs by working his contacts on the fringes of the security industry. But Stewart is not a documentarist. Rather, his photographs are ambiguous tableaux that conceal as much as they reveal, assaying insecurity by couching it in formal terms. His latest suite, with its perpetual play of shadows and light, activates the cinematic imagination: Presented with something approximating a horror movie's spooky old house, we're primed to think in terms of innocents and malefactors, and to feel moderately edgy--while simultaneously receiving cues that this is harmless fiction. At the same time, Stewart encourages a forensic approach to viewing by selectively illuminating physical evidence. We pore over these tightly focused images, impatient for clues. Is that blood on the stairs? Are those bullet holes in the walls?
Both mind-sets--the dehumanized, it's-just-a-movie one and its ratiocinating private-detective counterpart--are encouraged by the building itself, but Stewart's photographs can no more claim impartiality than would the architects of the "kill house," nor do they pretend to. Rather, they're one answer to what photography might be when, as today, we're routinely manipulated into a state of nervous tension by images--on the news, for example--and then confusingly reassured that the fighting isn't real (by the expanding realm of military-themed entertainment dubbed "militainment"). These photographs reflect such paradoxes with steely simplicity.
Also on display was a three-monitor video, Levanter, 2002. Stewart's trio of vantage points--from an intelligence outpost atop the Rock of Gibraltar that monitors attempts at illegal immigration from Africa to mainland Europe--are repeatedly blocked by the Levanter, an annually appearing cloud that particularly obscures the downward view of the harbor wherein cargo ships, those agents of globalism, slowly ply the waves. It's an unforced model of Empire's cloudy thinking in demanding that doors open and close to suit it. If Levanter doesn't compare to "Kill House"--because it doesn't engage our complicity--is still serves notice of a thoughtful, inventive talent nimbly sidestepping the potholes of politicized art.
From the essay Theatres of War by Mark Power, 2007
Christopher Stewart has been photographing international systems of security and surveillance for the past ten years. Through a now extensive network of contacts the ambition of Stewart’s project has burgeoned to ever more mysterious, secretive organizations (often, curiously, carrying out their chilling business in public places - airports, hotels, roads and passageways - “while the public go about their business none the wiser”).
It took months, sometimes years, for Stewart to gain access to some of the places he has photographed. In some cases, with negotiations apparently successfully completed, he would be denied at the last moment; contacts would fail to show up, or he would lose the security personnel he was attempting to shadow. Kill House adds a further, successful chapter to his work, but access to it was something he wasn’t expecting. “It is the surprises encountered out in the world”, he says, “and the ability to use photography to represent them, that ensures the enduring relevance of documentary even when our relationship to this ‘genre’ has become, shall we say, more considered”.
But what exactly is Kill House? Named by the people who use it, it is designed to train private military personnel to flush out domestic homes in a war zone, in particular in Iraq (where a recent estimate suggests some 25,000 of these people are operating) and Afghanistan. It is a place to learn to attack an enemy with ‘extreme prejudice’; a place designed where, as Stewart suggests, “form follows fear rather than function”.
The images which constitute this series were made during his second visit. The first photographs he made there were more literal, more descriptive of the purpose of the place; harsh, flash-lit pictures of figures in the midst of combat: “They show you what you might expect a war zone to look like - lots of smoke and violence”. Stewart rejected them because they gave the viewer too much information and left little to the imagination. Indeed, it is surely more poignant to leave us to speculate on what might happen here in this dystopian arena. In so doing, Stewart’s photographs ‘resonate with so much we know but maybe wish we didn’t’. Close scrutiny of the virtually black photographs reveals - emerging out of the gloom - deep gouges in the hard concrete walls, dark stains on the floor, locked doors, ochre rust and discarded bits of seemingly useless furniture which might, if we didn’t know better, be nothing more than props in a simple stage set.
Kill House is located somewhere on the vast, un-peopled plains of Arkansas, deep in the American mid-West. This much we know, but there remains much we don’t. It is a building of indeterminate size, although Stewart’s photographs do take us on a form of ‘journey’ through the space. Similarly, we don’t know what it looks like on the outside. Presumably it is an innocuous building much like any other, but is it safe in a military camp or is it just out there somewhere, locked but otherwise unprotected, because it has nothing to hide? It is after all only a space, “a structure”, Stewart tells us, “that is potentially nowhere and everywhere at once”.
I have often wondered why Stewart is allowed to see and photograph such things. Are the men and the manoeuvres he shadows really real? Whether or not they are, one can only assume ‘they’ want people to know about this. If just a little is allowed to seep out then it fuels the insecurity we already feel. It reminds us there is a real danger out there. It also warns us – and perhaps even this is part of the agenda – that there are people out there who, in the name of protection, are truly terrifying and whom we mess with at our peril.
This text is an extract from ‘Theatres of War’ written by Mark Power (Magnum Photos member & Professor of Photography, University of Brighton) and was commissioned for the catalogue to accompany the international section of the Krakow Month of Photography that he was invited to curate. The exhibition was held in the Schindler Factory in Krakow in May 2007. The other participants were Lisa Barnard, Luc Delahaye, Luc van Kesteren, and Donovan Wylie. The series of photographic images, ‘Kill House’, was also exhibited as part of two solo exhibitions last year at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool and at Gimpel Fils in London. The work has been featured/reviewed in Art Forum, The Guardian Newspaper, Source Magazine and the Socialist Review.