War Games: Micro Politics and Big Play in Contemporary Art

Entering the Alfred-Pellan room at the Maison des arts de Laval, visitors are confronted with a large mural comprising several sutured panels of rough white concrete. Contrasting with the surface’s mottled texture and the exposed layers of plastic netting that binds the material, meticulously painted gouache figures make up and march about the mural. At first glance it is reminiscent of the topographical maps often included on the inset of storybooks where imagined environments are given cartographic shape as if to reify the fantasy. Economical in both its embellishment and colouration, the image appears almost whimsical from a distance. Rendered in earthy greens and browns, vibrant blues and shimmering gold and silver accents, bell-shaped bodies with elongated appendages and featureless faces are suspended on the surface. Upon closer inspection, however, the image’s apparent whimsy is undone. The figures are revealed, in some cases, to be armed with automatic weapons, in others, to be blindfolded and hanging by their necks. Tiny tanks troll about the space and something like a surveillance tower or fortress bisects the composition.

Sayeh Sarfaraz, Micropolotiques, exhibition view, Maison des arts de Laval, 2014. Courtesy of Guy L'Heureux.

Sayeh Sarfaraz, Micropolitiques, exhibition view, Maison des arts de Laval, 2014. Courtesy of Guy L’Heureux.

The mural is the centerpiece of Iranian artist Sayeh Sarfaraz’s exhibition Micropolitiques, curated by Claire Moeder. The highly specific colour coding employed in the image denotes various political and civilian entities in contemporary Iran and the composition itself refers to ongoing unrest in the area and recent conflicts and uprising throughout the Middle East. While the employment of playful aesthetics in the depiction of war and brutality is easily unsettling, it is precisely this incongruence that makes Sarfaraz’s work, and the exhibition itself, so startling and so successful.

Sayeh Sarfaraz, Micropolotiques, exhibition view, Maison des arts de Laval, 2014. Courtesy of Guy L'Heureux.

Sayeh Sarfaraz, Micropolitiques, exhibition view, Maison des arts de Laval, 2014. Courtesy of Guy L’Heureux.

Politics and play permeate the exhibition in equal measures. Behind and beyond the wall mural, the gallery space has been transformed into a shadowy labyrinth with well-lit niches embedded in the modular architecture. These niches are located at surprising heights that force viewers to stand on their tiptoes and crouch down on their haunches to peer in to the open spaces. Each niche encases a diorama wherein the micro is given its full expression in that most esteemed of artistic media: Lego. An impressively diverse and detailed array of plastic pieces, almost all of which were purchased online, are displayed in ordered configurations. Military scenes and sentry occupy a central role in this constellation: Arab militia stand guard next to carefully arranged firearms; rows and rows of soldiers adorned with the insignia of actual and imagined nations appear to be advancing; ghosts, clowns, knights and anonymous prisoners partake in a bizarre parade of humanity – a parade of human folly and facility. These little pockets of information, these contained intensities, don’t necessarily make up a linear narrative, but rather invite a meandering or even haphazard approach. Some niches are so small and so out of reach that one can only point to them without scaling the walls or lying down on the floor. It’s quickly made apparent that there is no right or wrong way to move through the space.

Sayeh Sarfaraz, Micropolotiques, exhibition view, Maison des arts de Laval, 2014. Courtesy of Guy L'Heureux.

Sayeh Sarfaraz, Micropolitiques, exhibition view, Maison des arts de Laval, 2014. Courtesy of Guy L’Heureux.

The “prison room” forms the physical nucleus of the exhibition. In contrast to the relative darkness of the gallery – save the tiny theatres that punctuate the walls – this small room is lit with institutional neon and the floors are composed of the same material on which the mural is painted. Its colour coded gouache figures repeated on large white blocks that crowd the space as if left in mid-play by a giant child. In contrast to the little Lego compositions, the scale here is inverted—a space of “big play,” as Moeder put it. We’re invited to enter the room, to contend with the giant baby’s toys and exit crawling on hands and knees through an opening in the wall just over half a metre high. Children at the vernissage loved this room. They panted deliriously as they ran around, hiding behind the blocks, crawling out the escape hatch and screaming with delight when any adults deigned to join in their game of hide-and-seek. And they slowed at times to innocently trace the shapes of the painted figures with their fingers, uninhibited by—and likely unaware of—the suffering and brutality implied in the images.  Certainly the soundtrack of children giggling and running barefoot around the space is unnerving when one considers the themes tackled in Sarfaraz’s work, but it is the presence of children – their resilience, their innocence and their imagination – that packs the most political and poignant of punches in Micropolitiques.

We often ask ourselves how art might have the capacity to talk about – and give visual expression to – war without either overly aestheticizing it or sliding into the banality and literalness of merely offering direct visual representation. How might an exhibition offer a means to think about the systems of war rather than merely providing a journalistic presentation of specific events? This is particularly pertinent when the warzone under discussion is so distant – politically, geographically, culturally – from the space in which it is exhibited. Certainly many visitors to the Maison des Arts de Laval will have a direct and personal stake in the issues that have inspired Sarfaraz’s work, but many others will only be able to relate obliquely or ideologically. The risk is that one’s fleeting engagement with the issues remains just that. It is often argued that, inundated with images and information pertaining to distant disasters and atrocities, contemporary audiences are wont to experience a sort of “compassion fatigue” owing in equal parts to the excess of information and the assumed inability of individuals to effect change.

With its multi-layered metaphor of construction and play and its mobilizing of a confident interplay between highly ordered arrangements and an utter lack of didacticism, Micropolitiques proposes an alternative. The exhibition pamphlet provides a cursory explanation of contemporary Iranian politics, by pointing out the various factions alluded to in the mural and dioramas. Viewers are therefore given the search terms necessary to further research the situation and its specificity. But, beyond the particular, the composition and choreography of the exhibition as a whole offers a rumination on war in general, rather than necessarily a war. It does so by invoking the language of children. It does so by mixing politics with play. It is the most condemnable fact of war that is made palpable in the show: war is an adult’s game, but children are its common casualties.

Sayeh Sarfaraz, Micropolotiques, exhibition view, Maison des arts de Laval, 2014. Courtesy of Guy L'Heureux.

Sayeh Sarfaraz, Micropolitiques, exhibition view, Maison des arts de Laval, 2014. Courtesy of Guy L’Heureux.

In Micropolitiques, we are reminded of the fact that while adults may call the shots and determine the fates of millions, children live our wars as well. And it is this that is so expertly expressed in the exhibition by the way that all viewers are asked to imaginatively animate the scenes deployed in the dioramas and even in the structure of the space. We’re asked to call up our own memories of childhood fascination with miniatures and exercise our often-underused capacities for play. And we’re asked to do so amidst the awareness of atrocities taking place all around us. We are asked to actively engage with – engage in the acts of – a child’s experience of war.

Violence is only obliquely invoked in the exhibition. There are no gory images and we noted only three instances of direct human casualty: at the centre of a circular floor installation at the back of the gallery, a Lego man with a bloodied chest lies on his back, surrounded by little plastic poppies and armed soldiers; a small diorama depicts a pair of Lego figures impaled by semi-automatic weapons standing next to tiny reproductions of newspapers; and the mural includes hanging bodies strung up like paper dolls fallen victim to mass execution. These images don’t necessarily evoke an emotional response, but present the matter-of-fact impertinence of children’s games and stories, given tangible form with the presumed innocence of toys. Here play is called upon as a means of absorbing and giving meaning to the often irrational and terrifying events and atmospheres of reality. Those from which we hope to protect our children, but at the hands of which so many suffer.

Adrian Paci, Albanian Stories, 1997, Video, 7'08'', Courtesy Kaufmann Repetto, Milano, e Galleria Peter Kilchmann, Zurigo © Adrian Paci 2013

Adrian Paci, Albanian Stories, 1997, Video, 7’08”, Courtesy Kaufmann Repetto, Milano, e Galleria Peter Kilchmann, Zurigo © Adrian Paci 2013

If we agree that the spaces of children’s play, art installations and war zones can all be understood as spaces of exception to varying degrees of intensity, then it is the disturbing fact of their overlapping that gives Mircopolitiques its potency. The sentiment at work in Sarfaraz’s installations and Moeder’s remarkable curatorial execution is mirrored in a piece currently on view at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal as part of Adrian Paci: Lives in Transit, curated by Marta Gill and Marie Fraser. The illusion of childhood innocence and childhood in general, and the conflict between different systems of understanding or recognition, is repeated throughout the show – with varying degrees of success – but is perhaps best encapsulated in Paci’s 1997 Albanian Stories. The work consists of the artist’s spontaneous video documentation of his three-year-old daughter regaling her dolls with a fairy tale that combines fantasy and reality and reveals the way that the events of the Albanian Rebellion pervade her psyche. With the camera trained on this toddler’s face, she spins a story about a cat, a cow, a rooster and a pig whose friendship plays out amidst the advancement of “dark forces” and rumours of coming “international forces,” and whose adventures are augmented by the pop-pop-pop of machine guns and “upside-down fires” that fall from the sky.

Adrian Paci, Albanian Stories, 1997, Video, 7'08'', Courtesy Kaufmann Repetto, Milano, e Galleria Peter Kilchmann, Zurigo © Adrian Paci 2013

Adrian Paci, Albanian Stories, 1997, Video, 7’08”, Courtesy Kaufmann Repetto, Milano, e Galleria Peter Kilchmann, Zurigo © Adrian Paci 2013

Her eyes widen as she mimics the firing of weapons and she giggles as she recounts what the cat said to the cow. Her story is searing and endearing and eye-opening. Through play and imagination, she renders the conflict absurd while also making sense of it. She simultaneously keeps the terror of living in a war-torn country at a certain distance and demonstrates just how close it is. She exhibits a remarkable capacity to employ play in order to psychologically survive life amid pervasive political instability and fear. And the fact that she even needs to do so – that so many children need to do so – is arguably the most disturbing reality of war.

As we sat on a bench in the Maison des arts de Laval and watched children, absorbed in feverish play, pull off their winter boots and tear around the exhibition space, delighting in the display of toys, we were struck by both the continuity and incongruence of these children’s actions and the little girl’s tale in Albanian Stories. We got caught up in play with a baby so small that it was still engrossed with the wonders that were its own feet and for whom sitting up was still a precarious balancing act. And we simply couldn’t reconcile the risks that are taken with such innocent lives and bodies when adults engage in the games of war. Which is more childish, more irresponsible, more irrational: the world as seen by a child or the world as it is being destroyed by adults, at the expense of children? It is the raising of this single and essential question that makes Micropolitiques – and, equally, Albanian Stories – so successful and, ultimately, so important.

Both Micropolitiques and Adrian Paci: Lives in Transit are on display until April 27, 2014.

Reilley Bishop-Stall and Natalie Zayne Bussey

© Passenger Art, 2014

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