Ephemerality, Guns and Graffiti… The Art of War

Afghanistan, Camp Bastion

I haven’t actually seen the art I am going to discuss in person… Some might not even view it as art! Also it is more than likely to be beyond the realms of possibility that any run-of-the-mill civilian might ever see it in person. I was, in fact, inspired to discuss it from seeing Gary Barlow do a brief piece on it during the T.V. show that broadcast his concert in Afghanistan, which was shown recently on the BBC. The mysterious art in question was created by members of the British Army, from one specific regiment whose name I can’t actually remember, and was left as a manner of Graffiti on the inner walls of Camp Bastion. Contributions can be seen by each successive squadron of this particular regiment to have crossed paths with it. To me it seemed rather beautiful, from my limited perspective. Me being laid safely across my living room sofa.

All Graffiti holds special, unique, qualities; qualities that it just can’t share with other forms of Art. For instance, it is democratic; anyone can view it, without entering the elite world of an art gallery, anyone can do it, and it can be placed anywhere the artist wishes (albeit, for the most part, illegally). The art museum or gallery, in my opinion, often alters how a work is perceived by its audience via imposing its own qualities onto said work of art.  The building’s architecture, decor, and most especially the display of the artwork shown inside, all can alter how you view, and understand, a work.

The Guggenheim Museum, New York

Take the Guggenheim museum in New York (seen above), to give just one example; the architecture is so powerful that it could almost stand alone, without any art whatsoever, were it not for the unavoidable fact that architecture requires  an actual use in order to survive. How then can such a remarkable structure not influence the artwork it contains? Graffiti, which is by nature placed outside, gives a very interesting solution, or alternative, to this issue: the artist becomes the curator. The curator and the artist. An exciting prospect, no?

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However, the particular Graffiti that inspired my post, placed on the pop-up walls within Camp Bastion, seems to have multiple layers of complicity hidden within the paint that considerably adds to said unique qualities. I mean, all Graffiti has a sense of ephemerality to it. That is, a sense that it isn’t meant to last forever – it could be painted over, removed, destroyed, added to…  But this Graffiti has some kind of extra tragic element tied to this ephemerality. The artists know it will be destroyed – never was it intended to be taken with them when they left (given their day job it probably doesn’t prey on their minds too much either). But what interests me is when will it be destroyed? That is the key, I think, to my distinct feelings of sadness regarding the eminent removal, or abandonment, awaiting this Graffiti.

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Surely, it is destined to be removed when the War ends? When we leave?Therefore that would tie the destruction of the art with the celebratory aspect of ‘mission complete’ that should come with the pulling out of troops from a war zone. That said, Bush was happy to declare ‘mission complete’ with Iraq despite the sectarian violence continuing, and even increasing, way beyond US and UK troops leaving (an obvious observation as it continues to worsen as we speak). I am not anti-war by any-means – it is just that the depressing destruction of such beautiful artwork becoming an act to celebrate the end of a war almost seems reflective of the actual sadness that lays behind the war ending. After all the war ending means the country is on its own.

Afghanistan will be left, perhaps prematurley, to struggle and strive for peace without the protective nest of Western military aid. Obviously we arn’t pulling the plug completley – some aspects such as military education support will continue. Nevertheless the blindingly obvious fact remains – the “war ending” (should I just say, our troops being removed)  does not necessarily mean that the job is done. Will Afghanistan be stable when those walls come crashing down at Camp Bastion, smashing the multiple artworks to dust? Metaphorically obviously. I don’t think the walls are actually made of a substance that would crumble.

Still. I am left disagreeing with Gary’s view that the final work to be left on the wall seems celebratory. To me it gives a sense of foreboding that I cannot seem to shake.

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Perhaps this ephemerality is simply representative of the distinctive tie we, as humans, have with art; like primitive drawings left behind in caves however many years ago. Sometimes art has its own place and its own time. For example, would it be right to move the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Probably not. Perhaps art such as these pieces of Graffiti are not meant to leave their place of origin – like some sort of magic curse it would crumble if taken away. Crumble under the loss of the sound of gun fire, the smell of blood, and the ultimate feeling of ephemerality that comes with being near to death.

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8 responses to “Ephemerality, Guns and Graffiti… The Art of War

  1. From what I gather the art has been carefully documented, and then destroyed because of the sensitive nature of names it contains.

  2. The unit in question is the Army Air Corps. The Apache Force to be exact. Each Sqn turned their tour into art to remember it. I was there in 2010. Some amazing pieces of art!

  3. The art is Apache force as said above but involves the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (REME) as well as the air corps. One of those pieces left there is from my squadron when we toured in 2012 and this piece has made me realise that I will probably never see it again.

    • Wow, I’m sorry about that; that must be bittersweet. The places where you can display art and how that setting changes it just fascinates me, and when I saw that show I thought how it was just incredible how much the art works intertwine with their setting; each relying on the other. Soldiers create it as an output, a means of expression, thereby turning an operating base for war into something beautiful, out of necessity perhaps. Then that beauty relies on the war to survive. It fascinates me.

  4. Helen, as stated above the artwork here is all from the various Apache Sqns and their support units at Bastion but the ‘T-Wall’ art was common place throughout the base; there are other good examples from the RAF helicopter units in a recent copy of RAF News.
    Sadly many of these bits of wall art were already being removed and replaced by taller pieces of wall (which provided better protection) when I was out there early 2014 but there were discussions during a ministerial visit about returning a couple of the best ones to the UK for display somewhere suitable like the Imperial War Museum, so you may get a chance to see in person just yet!

  5. I was one of the artists who did 4 walls for an RAF helicopter unit. It breaks my heart to find out that they have very recently painted over all of this exceptional and time consuming artwork. Hours of precise work with limited materials destroyed in 2 minutes with white wash and a paint roller. Probably un politically correct to leave our mark?

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