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Sara Matthews essay

Catalogue essay

You Can’t Talk about the War without Talking about the Weather

by Sara Matthews

…the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried 1

Until I read Tim O’Brien’s fictional account of the violences, reveries, regrets and memories of a company of American soldiers in Vietnam, I did not understand what it meant to tell a story about war. And yet what I read and re-read between those pages was not, in fact, a story about war but about the impossibility of telling a story about war even as the story presses up to be told. Stories, he suggests, console us from the fractures of memory. Against the fallibilities of being human, stories somehow persist. It might seem a strange departure to begin an essay about visual imagery with ruminations on imaginative literature, but the narrative force of the photographic work that we encounter in Embedded makes this an easy parallel.

With their respective projects, War Sand and Inshallah, Donald Weber and Dima Gavrysh carried with them their cameras and their visions and their lingering childhood insistences to two very different geographic locations – the beaches of Normandy and the plateaus of south western Afghanistan – both places deeply embedded in stories of war. While there can never be one true story of their experiences there, Weber and Gavrysh weave the sensory together with the mythic to provide a series of visual narratives that narrow the distance between the space of the gallery and the geography of war. Their photographs do not document but instead reflect on the imaginative possibilities of knowing by offering a series of visual hints: the way that light throws itself against the clouds along a rainy shore (Omaha Beach, Sector Charlie. October 4, 2013, 6:38pm. 17°C, 88% RELH, Wind, WSW, 8 Knots, VIS: poor, Thunderstorm) or the abstract contours of glass spidered by impact (Clark). Within each quiet visual moment lies a memory or perhaps a prediction about the ferocity of life and death in war that is gestured to again in the careful titling of the work. The strong aesthetic urge of the images along with the narrative suggestion of the text takes the viewer from emotion to thought and back again. “What stories can do”, writes O’Brien, “is make things present” (172). They do this by rendering the feeling of an imaginative scene. What the photographs in Embedded do is to bring this dreaming to life, not as a literal representation, but rather as a way to make present one’s own story of what war is, or might be, or might never have been.

Curator Claire Sykes selection of the title Embedded as an elemental aspect of each artist’s work is an apt point of departure for exploring this narrative impulse. A common association with the term might be the practice of matching journalists to military units for the purposes of armed conflict reporting. It was under these kinds of conditions that Dima Gavrysh was able to capture his striking images in Afghanistan. But there are other interpretations of the word that bring us to a closer understanding of what is at stake in crafting a visual relation to war. How does one come to notice, for instance, one’s deeply embedded ways of thinking about or seeing war? Can the activity of public looking help exceed these habitual frames? Furthermore, what gets left out of or lingers just beyond the frame, not only in terms of the photographic frame but also the frames of memory, experience and power within which it becomes possible to see or to not see? Weber and Gavrysh come at these questions from different vantage points with regard to their images as well as the methods they chose to produce them. Indeed, the practice of what is broadly labeled “documentary photography” is itself embedded within particular art historical and media discourses that encompass everything from the photographer’s aesthetic training to the ways in which images are taken up, circulated and discussed.

As a move against these pressures, or perhaps to find movement within them, Weber and Gavrysh adapted imaging technologies – Gavrysh’s use of a cell phone camera and Weber’s turn to microscopic photography – that stirred new connections within their imaginative worlds. In my conversations with the artists I was interested to learn how these process-based explorations lent an intuitive turn to their work, which then brought about new insights and modes of narrative encounter. The ensuing images eavesdrop on those interior conversations, inviting the viewer to think and to see alongside them. With War Sand and Inshallah, we encounter elements that, on the surface of things, we might not have seen before. In Weber’s Juno Beach, Sample #073 (Shrapnel Fragment), Sector Nan Green, for instance, we see the fantastical contours and vibrant hues of shrapnel transformed by the tumble of silica and seawater, embedded on a sandy shore. In Gavrysh’s David, the prone posture of a sleeping soldier discloses a dream-world vulnerability, a suggestive counterpoint to the mythic narrative of the soldier’s impenetrability.

Another of Gavrysh’s images, Concussion Dust, embeds the viewer in the action of a scene that would be ordinary only to those on the hot edge of combat: one can almost feel and taste the dirt and grit in one’s eyes and mouth, a palpable sensation that brings embodiment and emotion to the piece. And yet the grainy, black and white, square-trimmed photograph is the opposite of journalistic realism. Along these same lines, one of the companion pieces to Inshallah, entitled Salerno (not mounted in this show), exemplifies the artist’s use of metaphor to express the elemental, methodical and unrelenting aspects of conflict. Taken while Gavrysh was stationed at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan, the five-minute video captures the steady splatter of rain against a concrete blast wall built to protect soldiers from enemy fire. In contrast to the permanent scars left by shrapnel, water droplets glance against the porous cement surface only to vaporize. When installed in a darkened gallery setting, the projection collapses the viewer’s perception of time and space, a fitting trope to describe the dynamics of trauma that characterize the many decades of conflict in this region.

By posing questions about how war and conflict can be visually represented, the artworks in War Sand and in Inshallah turn the viewer back upon their own archive of deeply embedded experience to inquire how one’s internal conflicts shape what becomes possible to see. Just as memories are an aspect of unconscious life, so too are one’s ways of knowing oneself in relation to one’s social and political worlds. The stories that we craft in order to apprehend such worlds carry the traces of childhood imprints, fantasies and wishes. “Stories”, writes O’Brien, “are for joining the past to the future” (172). As such, stories must reach towards a future that is impossibly unknown even as their telling may be all we have to go on, especially in the face of social devastation, loss and suffering. The urge to narrate a present that connects to the past, then, is part of a strategy of how we come to understand ourselves as fully human, even as war threatens that sense of humanity.

In the course of our conversations regarding their respective work, Weber and Gavrysh each shared accounts in which they called upon childhood motifs to make sense of their current projects. Speaking with Gavrysh via Skype to Kiev, the city in which he grew up, Gavrysh talks about his childhood fascination with the military, shaped in part by stories he had heard from family friends who, in the context of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, had been drafted for combat. Gavrysh describes the impulse behind Inshallah, a project that explores his intimate connection to both the Soviet and the American wars in Afghanistan, as drawing “on my childhood fantasies that romanticize the military and intertwine with my past and present personal conflicts”. Similarly, in my exchange with Weber, I discover that one of the inspirations for War Sand was a recollection of a story he had encountered twenty or thirty years earlier. The story involves British commandos – frogmen – in the Second World War whose task was to swim out the beaches of Normandy and retrieve soil samples for testing in support of the Allied invasion (see historical image). Fast forward to the present where Weber does his own sampling of the sand, returning the products of his photographic explorations to the viewer who then adds another layer to the narrative. “This”, he tells me, “is what happens with history. Things build upon it and our perspective changes”.

One last story: this one is called, “You Can’t Talk About the War Without Talking about the Weather”. It’s not my story but rather one that I heard from Weber, who recounts to me this amazing connection between the weather and the D-Day landing. It almost didn’t happen, he relates, as it was all very dependent on tides and weather. If the tides or weather weren’t right they would not be able to go, as was the case for the originally planned date of the invasion, which then of course had to be changed in favour of the date we all know about – June 6, 1944. And that is history. But still the perspective changes, as he shows us with Sword Beach, Sector Queen. May 17, 2013, 6:16pm. 10°C, 87% RELH, Wind, NE, 8 Knots. VIS: Fair, Overcast Clouds, Rain. These beaches, once the sites of death and mayhem but also the promise of hope from peril, are now the sites of summer homes and windsurfing, as well as our efforts to remember. “A true war story”, writes O’Brien,

…is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude, whatsoever. There is no virtue … and in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow.1

1. Tim O’Brien. 1990. The Things They Carried. Boston, New York: Mariner Books.

Sara Matthews, April 2014
©Sara Matthews. All Rights Reserved.


Sara Matthews is Assistant Professor of Culture and Conflict in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her interdisciplinary work brings aesthetic and cultural theory to the study of violence and the dynamics of social conflict. Her current research considers how contemporary Canadian War Artists are responding to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. In addition to her academic work, Sara curates aesthetic projects that archive visual encounters with legacies of war and social trauma. Her critical writing has appeared in articles for PUBLIC, FUSE Magazine, as a blog for Gallery TPW R&D, and in exhibition essays for the Art Gallery of Bishops University and YYZ.