Exhibition of Requiem and Overworld Journey murals, prints and memorabilia.
“The mural Requiem pays tribute to the victims of war, while also considering the risks of aestheticizing it. John wanted this quote, from Wilfred Owen, to accompany the mural: “All the poet can do today is warn.” The difficulty of course is that anything depicted convincingly will make its subject appear glamorous. The tricky question is: how can a poet’s warning be persuasive but not seductive?
The Requiem mural offers an answer to this: this mural is about how we depict war as much as it is about war itself. John was still concerned with looking: this time not with his own looking but with ours. His warning is against the wrongness of war and against ways of seeing war that might generate new desires for it.
The mural is constructed in 3 layers. The topmost layer depicts photographs, from television or print media, from World Wars 1 and 2, and wars in Vietnam, Korea and Iraq. This paper-thin layer has been blasted open in 5 places to reveal glimpses of iconic art-works from other painters.
These are not shown as paintings, but as posters – reproductions perhaps from the art gallery gift shop, these too peeling away. The images in both layers are entirely faithful to their historical origins: John was careful to record only how society saw itself, and added nothing new. The 3rd layer reveals the imagined faces of those who died in warfare; they appear only as though death-masks engraved on to a stone wall.
This mural employs a very clever strategy: instead of trying to avoid the inevitable aestheticising of war, the mural embraces it and then moves past it. And it does this twice: it reveals two dangerous locations of desire inherent to picturing war and, in acknowledging them, defuses them. The top layer is a site of seduction, a feast of dramatic and heroic images that we get to wallow in for a moment – despite their subject matter they are somehow easy to look at, as though watching television - before they are blasted aside.
The 2nd layer locates compulsion: the paintings offer a glimpse of something deeper than surface appearance. This echoes another quote that John wanted attached to this mural, from Thomas Mann:
All works of art whose function is to express the soul and the emotions are always so ugly as to be beautiful and so beautiful as to be ugly.
Such art comes from an unconscious place and is made compulsively: because the artist cannot stop himself or herself.
Picturing the unconscious is an entrancing and addictive activity, and again we are allowed to linger for a moment. But again we are shifted on, by the partial, cheap and peeling nature of each image, to the final layer, where every face simply warns, warns, warns that a violent death is not the right way to end a life. Every face simply repeats the message: a violent death is not the right way to end a life.”