viewing tragedy at london’s imperial war museum

The missles at the front entrance of IWM.
The missles at the front entrance of IWM.

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, VII, 1940.

It’s devouring him, the melancholy of continuation, eating him away from inside and burrowing into flesh from without. Saliva is stripped from his teeth-fronts and tongue, clinging to the edges of his lips before being pulled free and flying into the night. Lit only with unrelenting, unfiltered bulb light, the wrinkles around his lips and the paper thin sagging skin underneath his eyes become crevasses. He’s fighting for every step, every breath, but once he gets there it’s gone, and soon he is too.

First, I’ve now been to the Imperial War Museum three times and the longest I’ve ever been able to stay was when forced to for class. It sends me to tears, which almost never happens, and I’m emotionally worn out after an hour into it. Amid the sounds of the bunkers going around me and the glass cases memorializing men who had given their lives, I got lost the weird, dark labyrinth that is the basement of IWM and cried the first time I went. The second time, trying to brave because I believed it to be worth it, I got so uncomfortably sad and sweaty looking at all the tanks and the images of men who’d fought that I had to sit down outside. No reprieve there, with the imposing facade and giant missile marking the entrance. I pretty soon after called it a day and left for home. This visit, I felt both more worn out and more invigorated than usual, simply because we viewed collections which were more academic, more beautiful, and more subtle than the straightforward educational exhibits downstairs.

Photo from WHAM: War History Heritage Art and Memory Research Network
Photo from WHAM: War History Heritage Art and Memory Research Network

We first visited the exhibit about Don McCullin’s war photography. McCullin, now 75, grew up in England during the Blitz, marked as a youth with the trauma of war. The exhibit was a  retrospective of McCullin’s photographs through Berlin, Vietnam, Cambodia, the UK, Biafra, Cyprus, Bangladesh, and the Middle East. It included excerpts from magazines he worked for and his own notes. Especially here, I appreciated the structure and flow of this exhibit. With it’s sharply angular walls and evenly spaced photography interspersed with text, the destruction and trauma of these images were reduced to bite-sized pieces. With this structure, viewers could look at each of the conflicts individually, aided by historical and contextual information.

In small bits, I first consumed the horrors of conflicts in the East, children abandoned in the street and US Marines shellshocked into oblivion. I was able to hide in a corner while the faces of children and water-wanting mothers in Biafra stared desperately, defiantly, accusingly. And when McCullin ventured into portraiture of a lighter shade, I did too, sympathetic for his attempts to add levity, and aware of the futility of such a wish. Here, I appreciated the starkness and unwillingness to shy away.

Still, the ethics of war and documentary photography are a hazy gray. I can’t evaluate whether or not it’s right for McCullin to take those pictures, see such terrible tragedies, and not act. I feel instinctively that I could not watch as he does. Photographing, though, is its own kind of action.

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Later in the museum, I found my way to a set of stunning films.

Ori Gersht’s remarkable films This Storm is What We Call Progress and Will You Dance For Me? deal with two figures in Jewish history, tied to both conflict and place. The unrelenting attention on these two figures, an actor playing cynic and writer Walter Benjamin, and female Holocaust survivor, draws the viewer in. The pain evident on both of their faces begs us to watch, urges us to look away. In these pseudo-documentaries, the emphasis is on decaying triumphs and the loss of future. I was seduced by these films, enthralled and enraptured both by their aesthetic and the depth of their melancholy. These films depict the survivor’s struggle, post-trauma, to continue surviving.

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“For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

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Laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl

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