Donovan Wylie: Vision As Power – Imperial War Museum, London

21st January 2013

To me, a must see exhibition if you’re a fan of Donovan Wylie’s work, which I am.  The Imperial War Museum has taken a small facet of specialised, anti-insurgency warfare and opened a view of it to the public with five series of work by Wylie, all linked, and expressing a Wyliesque point of view about the way military intervention in any conflict, purely military or societal unrest, affects the way we are monitored in those areas by the all-pervading, ever-present, watchers and listeners and the visible references the watched and listened upon have to contend with.

Having spent time in Northern Ireland in the areas Wylie covers in this exhibition during my military service in the early 1970’s, I was immediately interested in his perspective when I first came across his work a couple of years ago.  What interests me most is his non-judgmental approach; he shows it how it is and doesn’t put in any political agenda either for or against the military presence, that’s amply put there by various factions that have viewed these images putting their own spin on things.  The other thing about his work is that there is virtually no human presence in the pictures.  There’s certainly plenty of evidence of human activity, and that’s the point of the images and the installations they depict, power and control.

The first work I saw was his work in Northern Ireland, and that’s what leads off in this exhibition.  The massive watch-towers that were constructed to control the Irish border in South Armagh with their powerful watching, listening, radar and vibration detection systems, along with the intricate and overpowering structure of the Maze Prison where terrorists were interred for many years.  The feeling generated by these images is one of something approaching despair; to be a citizen living within site of one of the watch-towers, knowing that you and your family and friends, your every activity no matter how intimate or personal could be monitored, recorded and acted upon must have been totally oppressive.

The second series is of The Maze Prison, which I knew as Long Kesh when I was stationed there which was designed by a military architect and supposed to be escape proof.  That was obviously wrong as there’s no such thing and a prison break did occur, but on the whole it was mightily effective for the purpose although not necessarily manned by the most convinced of prison staff.

Both sets of images always have a sobering effect on me.  They really do make me feel oppressed, which I think was their intention.  The images are beautifully exposed and show the blandness of colour that would meet the eye of a Maze inmate, but also the breathtaking beauty and vibrant colour of the Armagh countryside.  The watch-tower images were shot from a hovering helicopter which maintained a height above ground as that of the towers themselves, ensuring that the viewers of these images appreciate the all-encompassing view and distances that could be covered by the ‘watchers’.  The images from within Long Kesh show why it was called the Maze, the fences, geometry and lack of living foliage attempted to ensure that anyone without intimate knowledge of the layout, or a map, would find it very difficult to navigate their way out  onto the street.

The watch-towers were all dismantled as part of the Good Friday Agreement, happily for the Irish citizenry and also a blessing for the British military who promptly shipped them to Afghanistan to employ them in a similar role to that of Northern Ireland in the vastness of Afghanistan.

The Canadians developed their own version of the watch systems when they tried to control Kandahar province in Afghanistan, which Wylie gives his attention to in his third series.  A very similar feeling is engendered by the images of these towers to that from those in Northern Ireland, although there is also a sense of futility to it when you recognise the immense difficulty of monitoring such a mountainous terrain with the massive numbers of blind spots that are inherent to the topography.  The two series are clearly linked and Wylie I think is attempting to show that, but also perhaps that what may well have been invaluable in Northern Ireland with its gently rolling countryside is not necessarily as useful in Afghanistan.

Once again the images are beautifully lit and framed and have, what I now recognise as his signature, no or little human presence but signs of massive human activity.

The fourth series is based in Baghdad in the Green Zone, depicting the defensive structures raised to protect the headquarters staff from terrorists.  The obvious linkage here is with the Maze Prison, but to me it seems now bizarre that the terrorists are no longer the prisoners but the supposed  protectors of the citizenry, from whom they’re partitioned by blast walls and bomb proof sidings.

Finally, Wylie was allowed to cover the unmanned, automatic installation on the far north coast of Canada which the government there has seen necessary to put in to monitor and help protect the natural resources of the territory against would-be interlopers arriving via the newly navigable North-West Passage that has become navigable in recent years due to global warming.  There is also the matter of charging would-be users of that waterway for its use whist the ships are in the territorial waters of Canada who see this as their right to charge for passage.  Surprisingly it seems there are a lot of captains and ship owners who try to avoid the tolls!!

Of all the all the series within the exhibition, these could be construed as the most monotonous simply because virtually all there is to see is snow and a single, partially snow-covered, man-made tower.  This doesn’t make for entertainment, but it does show the lengths Wylie will go to for authenticity and documentary purposes.

Overall the exhibition was extremely good from my point of view.  I can see though that non-Wylie fans would find it boring, repetitive and possibly bland.  But as a documentary on the growing use of surveillance in all corners of the world I can’t see anyone arguing that it’s on its way to being a masterpiece of its type.  I’m not sure what I can take away and put into my own practice as this type of work I think is more to do with landscape documentary than anything else, but I certainly admire it and can look at it for quite some time finding new things within the images each time.

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