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Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War

Imperial War Museum North (IWMN) exhibits its very own collection of contemporary art that reveals the role of war in shaping peoples’ lives, personalities and futures through the experiences they have undergone. Bobbie Hook tells us why she thinks going to see this exhibition isn’t just an important thing to do, but a necessary one.

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Something that seems totally relevant in today’s culture is the impact of the media on our own perception of war. It’s graphic and invasive; on our TVs, computers, phones. Images of war are unfortunately commonplace and although they never lose significance, they become impersonal.

The exhibition ‘Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War’ held at the Imperial War Museum North runs from 12th October 2013 to 23rd February 2014. On display are 70 works of art from the IWM collection by 40 artists of various artistic mediums ranging from painting to installation to film. This is the second largest collection of modern British art, but ‘Catalyst’ is the first major exhibition of its kind as all the work has been produced since the First Gulf War.

The most interesting impression of the exhibition is the angle the curators have taken. The art is used to explain that it can fill in the gaps created by war journalism, which are surprisingly huge. It seems obvious but this exhibition couldn’t have been held in a more appropriate building. Designed by Daniel Libeskind and if you’ve seen it on the way to the Trafford Centre, it’s pretty hard to miss. Suitably dramatic and striking before you even reach the artwork, you get the sense of something profound and moving and according to the people at IWMN its striking three ‘shards’ ‘represent conflict on land, in water and in the air’.

The artistic response to conflict in the media age is critical in reminding us that the media is a big influence on our perception of conflict. Afterall, it’s the only way we know what’s happening without being caught in the fray. But we’re removed from personal experience, the people involved have their own account that needs to be shared and is there a greater way than, for instance, making a page of stamps for the individual British servicemen killed in the Iraq War? (Steve McQueen, ‘Queen and Country’,from 2007)? Or presenting a real estate agents’ window of houses destroyed in Gaza in an Israeli attack? (Taysir Batniji, ‘GH0809’, from 2009)?

One notably impressive work is not in fact influenced by contemporary warfare, but is instead an up-to-date reminder of the horror of WWII. This particular piece, ‘Border’ by Darren Almond (1999), is an interactive work made up of two road signs: an entrance sign in front of an exit sign representing ‘Oswiecim’ (Auschwitz). The small space between represents the site of some of the most horrific acts of World War Two. It may be representational but the effect of stepping between the signs truly is spine-chilling. And now the pitch to get you to go: it sounds like a trek, but it’s not, hop on the X50 and you’ll be there in a tick! It’s an adventure getting out of the Oxford Road/Piccadilly routes that we travel every day.

Catalyst is perhaps the most poignant exhibition you will see this year. No conceptual craziness or unmade beds here: what you see is what you get, and what you get is something moving, thought provoking g and entirely unique.