16 September 2014

War meets art

In the early years of the Danish Armed Forces’ participation in the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) coalition in Afghanistan, the Danish population mainly learned about the war through the military’s public communication and mass media news reports. However, as the war in Afghanistan continued, art became an increasingly important and vibrant medium for educating the Danish population about war and in particular its human costs, and for stimulating critical reflection and debate. Veterans began to publish their personal accounts of being soldiers in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan or of being veterans at home. Some wrote in a documentary style full of military facts and jargon, while others resorted to a more personal style. Gradually, the modern Danish soldier or veteran was also appropriated by non-military authors, who incorporated them in their stories as one of their characters or built whole plots around them, often circulating around themes like violence, trauma and love. A similar development took place on the screen. Painters also felt inspired or provoked by Danish military presence in international peace operations to put war on canvas. While John Körner and Simone Aaberg Kærn both wanted to stir a public debate about war and Denmark’s new status as a warring nation with their portraits of dead and wounded soldiers, Mathilde Fenger took a more less critical stance and instead aimed to revive the traditional battle painting genre. The theater world seemed more hesitant to engage with the war-theme, but especially one theater, GROB, has staged several plays, which approach war from different angles. One play, Let Opklaring [Light Reconnaissance], tells the story of a group of Danish soldiers’ one month besiegement in Musa Quala, while Home, sweet home addresses the inescapable fact that some soldiers return with severe psychological traumas, and thus bring back war to their families, friends and Danish society.

Over this summer alone (2013), we experienced three new and quite different art performances that illustrate the diversity, dynamics and potentials of war-art as an input into the ongoing process of coming to terms with war in Denmark.

"Contact. A War Ballet", The Royal Danish Theater. "In Afghanistan they shoot with water pistols", GROB Theater. "The true story", The National Museum of Denmark’s Open Air Museum. Foto: Birgitte Refslund Sørensen ©

"Contact. A War Ballet", The Royal Danish Theater. "In Afghanistan they shoot with water pistols", GROB Theater. "The true story", The National Museum of Denmark’s Open Air Museum. Foto: Birgitte Refslund Sørensen ©

I Føling. En krigsballet [Contact. A War Ballet] (Instructor: Christian Lollike). I Føling is performed by professional dancers from the ballet ensemble (Corpus) and three injured veterans. Soldiers and ballet dancers both belong to professions with hard physical training and discipline at its core, and a fit body and a strong mind is integral to their professional identities. This is creatively and effectively used in the ballet, where bodies are both objects of attention and a means to communicate about war and its short- and long-term human costs. The precariousness of life and the embodiment of experience and memory is bluntly stated in the beginning, when the amputated veterans remove their prostheses and expose their maimed bodies. However, the multiple interactions and reconfigurations of the veterans’ and dancers’ bodies throughout the performance add many interesting layers to this initial statement. To get a taste of the ballet, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtgJRKcGn3I and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-MVBOc1T1U.

I Afghanistan skyder man med vandpistoler [In Afghanistan they shoot with water pistols| is a collage of snapshots, depicting four young soldier wives’ life, while their men are on mission in Afghanistan. With humor and irony, this play addresses a range of issues and emotions that soldiers’ partners have to deal with, and which are often overlooked or silenced in contemporary accounts of Denmark’s military engagements: militarization of everyday life e.g. through an expectation of wives’ proficiency in military lingo; transformation of the personal self into a public person constantly subjected to others’ judgmental views; frustrations over a sex-life put on stand-by or turned virtual; obsession with and regulation of everyday life by the mobile phone as the ultimate ‘life line’; draining and upsetting waves of contradictory emotions that raise fundamental moral questions about right/wrong, good/bad and acceptable/unacceptable in the interface between military and civilian worlds. The women’s stories reveal the essence of the term homefront. ‘Home’ is not simply a safe place, far removed from war and its atrocities. ‘Home’ is also a home-front, where battles between soldier and partner; between soldiers’ wives and their relatives, friends and other acquaintances; among soldiers’ wives; and not least within the wives, are constantly fought. War, in other words, is not only brought home by the soldiers with their embodied experiences, war is also present here in the bodies and everyday lives of those who are close to soldiers. And war does not only transform soldiers, it also transforms their families.

Den sande historie [The True Story] (Manuscript: Erling Jepsen). 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the Danish defeat to a Prussian-Austrian army in Dybbøl, 1864, which is widely celebrated, because it is not only seen as a defeat, but also commonly believed to have paved the way for the modern homogeneous Danish nation-state. While the setting and main plot of Den sande historie refers back to 1864, the play raises several general questions through its innumerable dislocations and connections across time and space. One such question concerns knowledge and truth itself. How can we know and understand war, and who has the authority to define truth and why? In the play, the main character  - a young enthusiastic guide from the museum in Dybbøl, who transforms into the soldier, whose life he is narrating to museum visitors – initially insists on the value of flesh-witnessing and thus confuses the historic soldier’s experiences and his own reenactment of the past. His stories, however, are constantly interrupted and challenged by the young female museum inspector from Copenhagen, sitting among the audience, who claims authority and truth on the basis of ‘hard facts and evidence’. Rejecting her interventions, he concludes that “virkelighed er det som virker” [Reality is that which works], because stories (and truths) need an audience, who engages, and their engagement may be, and often is, motivated by other things that ‘facts’. At the end, the play addresses the related question of how to determine and evaluate the outcome of a war. From what perspective was the defeat in 1864 actually the national victory it is commonly claimed to be? Once again, the Copenhagen-perspective is challenged, when it is suggested that the real tragedy was the re-unification of the lost southern territories with the rest of Denmark, as that transformed the region from an appreciated hinterland to Hamburg into an ignored and scorned fringe of Denmark. The questions about knowledge and truth that this play raises are of eternal relevance, and they are pertinent today, when various versions of the war in Afghanistan compete for attention and authority, and the exit of the Danish troops demands some kind of conclusion.

The engagement of Danish artists and the use of art to create awareness, stimulate debate and reflections on war continue at many levels: 1864, TV drama series and full movie (Instructor: Ole Bornedal). The project is the hitherto most expensive Danish TV production. The TV series premieres is scheduled for September 27, 2014. Krig og kunst [War and Art], installation (Benjamin Yeh Olsen and Trine Panum). In this grassroots project, which will be launched in connection with the annual flag-flying day for deployed personnel (September 5), soldiers, veterans, soldier families, artists and politicians collaborate to create art, using soldiers helmets, in order to raise more awareness about Danish soldiers and veterans, and their families. Most of the art products will eventually be auctioned to raise funds for humanitarian projects.