This past spring marks the sixth anniversary of the Syrian war. The tragedy has involved unfathomable human suffering and social upheaval. Differentiating it from other recent armed conflicts, however, is the destruction of art on a massive scale. To destroy artworks as an assertion of power is not new; kings and generals have perfected this perverse tactic since the dawn of recorded history. Whether because the damage really is more intense this time around or whether we are simply paying closer attention, cultural violence has emerged as a highly visible aspect of the suffering. The fragile peace established in portions of northern Iraq and eastern Syria has allowed archaeologists and conservators to make preliminary assessments of what can be saved and how. Artists, too, are responding; through diverse styles and media they are actively exploring the horizon of affect and meaning that stretches beyond loss and salvage.
London-based painter Piers Secunda is a veteran of devastating political themes. His 2010 show at London’s Zero10 Gallery, “The Earth Draws It,” used a series of crude oil paintings to think about global dependency on the petrochemical industry. In 2009 he embarked on an experiment with bullet hole superimposition, which involved moulds taken from shattered architectural fragments in Afghanistan and Jamaica, and from museum walls in London (The V&A) and Berlin (The Pergamon Museum). The “Shot Works” series reached its full maturity in Secunda’s April 2017 show at Thomas Jaeckel Gallery in New York. That show, “ISIS Bullet Holes Paintings,” brought him squarely into conversation with Syria, the Islamic State, and the tattered remnants of ancient civilizations.
Here, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and Document contributor Fiona Greenland speaks with Secunda about the bullet-hole reliefs in this conversation about loss, renewal, and artistic practice as war documentary.
Fiona Greenland—The medium of paint seems to be very important to you. Your shot “reliefs” are actually layers of hardened industrial paint. What are the affordances of paint, and how do you draw out its textures?
Piers Secunda—I started working on crude experiments to transform acrylic paint into objects in 1996, and then with the help of Golden Artist’s Colors in New York [starting] in 1999. Over time we developed a blended acrylic that worked in moulds, because my aim at that moment was to relieve the paint of the restraints of the traditional applied surface and “take it for a walk.” As soon as you dispose of the canvas the paint becomes a sculptural material, so casting it was natural step. We achieved this after a year and a half, but in due course I found out about the industrial floor paint which I now use, and shifted to it straight away. The reason for the change was largely because its structural capacities were so much greater. Acrylic has its own wonderful qualities which I still enjoy but the floor paint allowed me to build structures fast and then smash, tear, drill, cut, and carve into them. The material was new to me, and exactly what I had been looking for. There seem to be very few limits to what can be done with this paint.
Fiona—On one hand you are continuing a long tradition in western art of using paint to capture human experiences. On the other, your work is quite different to the two-dimensional, paint-on-canvas medium. Who were your influences?
Piers—Artists are affected by different approaches and personalities as their work develops, and when I first read an in-depth text about Lucio Fontana’s work in my grandmother’s house in my early twenties, it was a revelation to me. He was developing his ideas at the start of the atomic age, when fusion had both the capacity to destroy a city and everything within it, or provide electricity for half a country. Fontana’s opening of the picture plane through cutting and stabbing encouraged his viewers to consider the painting surface as a sculptural plane. But of equal importance, it also highlighted the fact that the ‘matter’ of space and air—which existed in and around the holes and cuts—was not nothing, as many people had assumed before the atomic age. The space was filled with tangible, real things; atoms and molecular structures which could be turned into anything through the relevant processes. I deal with the materiality of paint in everything I do, largely because I had found my way there on my own. But Fontana’s ideas feed more directly into the aim to take painting somewhere else, than any other artist I have encountered so far.
Fiona—You’ve been working with bullet hole casting for almost ten years. What have you learned about this technique, and how have your works changed in that time?
Piers—The first “Shot Works” were produced by soldiers shooting sheets of paint on a Chinese Army (PLA) firing range in 2009. By a long and convoluted lie told over an hour, soldiers were encouraged to shoot hardened paint sheets for me. Initially, I had been concerned that the Chinese version of my industrial paint, which had qualities peculiar to me, would shatter into fragments. But the results were startling. The paint broke away on the back of the sheets, around the bullet holes, to produce beautiful flower like shatters. They were remarkable in part because their flower-like forms appeared to deny the violence of their making. Within hours I had decided that this small group of works was an avenue worth investigating further. The majority of the subsequent works have been made with moulds of bullet damage. For this I use alginate, the material that dentists use to mould your teeth. It’s a quick, clean, and highly effective process. I just need to make sure someone can tell me what happened and confirm who made the bullet holes. All of the groups of works within this ongoing “Shot Works” series look different. This is quite conscious, as I don’t want the Taliban works to look like the PLA works and so forth. Each is made with a different intention for the finished work, and so they look very separate from each other as a result. They started out in 2009 as free-form pours of paint, and have slowly become far more complex structures, with multiple panels forming a single work. As my ability to control the paint in different ways has developed, the works have become more sophisticated.
Fiona—That discussion takes us to the specifics of your recent shows. Tell me about the concept of “Bullet Holes Paintings.”
Piers—The intention behind “Shot Works” is to capture the texture of violent geopolitics using the paint as a type of net, whether the placement of the holes is chosen by someone shooting, or arranged by myself, using moulds. For a long time I have felt that the most significant thing an artist could do was to make a record or a statement about the time they are living through. To this end, in 2008 I started to seek ways to apply texture to the works I was making, to bring the “noise” of the world into what had been an abstract painting practice up to that point. In the following year, the PLA shot works were made and the Taliban works followed in 2011. The works were at the edge of what I could produce at the time. For a while I was uncertain of them as paintings and although they were being exhibited and sold, I questioned their worth as works of art. Encouragement can come from unexpected places, and I pushed forward in part from the encouragement of Sardar Ahmad Khan, a man who ran a press agency in Kabul and was key in setting up the Taliban project for me. He told me many times to continue making those works because “No one is coming to Kabul to see it, so if you aren’t taking it to them, they will never know what it looks like.” His simple assertion rang true, especially so after I learned that he had been shot dead, along with his wife and children (one survived but with severe brain damage) at a mass shooting at the Serena Hotel in Kabul a few years ago. Learning about this awful shooting hardened my resolve to continue making the works. Once ISIS started tearing up the Middle East, destroying cultural sites and plundering on an industrial scale with military equipment, I felt that it was too big an issue not to address in a new group of works. The devastation brought to bear by ISIS was too big to ignore, or not to record.
The devastation brought to bear by ISIS was too big to ignore, or not to record.
Fiona—You have said that although your works tackle political themes, they are not political statements per se. I like the way you put it in an earlier interview: you have a desire to “capture the texture of geopolitics in paint.” But with something like ISIS, in which the cruelty and suffering is beyond comprehension, I wonder whether it was difficult not to make an overt political statement. It seems to me there is no point in remaining neutral about them.
Piers—The “Shot Works” certainly do record political subject matter. The intention is to make a forensic quality record of the damage, then it’s down to the viewer to decide how they feel about what they are encountering. Everyone brings their own complex emotions to that situation, so a range of responses result. Of course it’s hard not to make an overt political statement about the horrors wrought by ISIS, but the works record, on a forensic level, the largest scale destruction of culture that the Middle East has probably ever seen. I certainly understand the feeling that there may be no point in attempting to avoid a political statement, but I have always felt that the most compelling images (moving and still) are often the ones taken to record. They enable the viewer to form their own opinion, in part because they only observe human behavior and don’t attempt to tell you what you should think about it. We all have a moral compass and our reactions engage that, and inform us what we feel. Records often carry the greatest weight in the long term because they are based on observation and are impartial.
Fiona—These ISIS bullet hole reliefs have been compared to the “Guernica,” itself a powerful artistic record of the horrors of war. That comparison, it seems to me, is not just to do with the shared topical theme of violence. What parallels do you see?
Piers—Picasso’s legendary portrayal of the bombing of Guernica, is the most revered anti-war painting of the 20th century. It was the culmination of a substantial series of paintings and drawings which portray the agony of war. Both bodies of works do set out to memorialise tragic stories about the destruction of life and cultures. I have to hope that unlike “Guernica,” the “ISIS Bullet Hole Paintings” do not portend far worse to come. The ISIS works do often have an effect on people who take the time to understand what they are, and I believe there is a lot of value in the responses. Everyone who sees the works feels something a little different. A wide variety of reactions have been sent my way. At the New York exhibition we had people burst into tears and need comforting. That’s a new experience for me. I had read years ago that people would write to Picasso to express their amazement at their own sense of distress on viewing “Guernica.” Art is one of the few forms of expression able to conjure such reactions. Over time I have received a small handful of emails from people who found themselves face to face with the Taliban works and either couldn’t get the images out of their minds or were left feeling unsettled by them. So far this hasn’t happened with the ISIS works, but they have only been shown a few times to date, and mostly to an art audience.
Fiona—You have worked closely with conservators and restorers, and I see a strong element of conservation sensibility in your bullet-hole reliefs. The idea that comes to mind is radical conservation, and I use “radical” in its original sense, as getting to the root—to the essence—of something. Here you’ve made moulds, poured paint, and cast bullet holes to conserve the experience of war. Was this an intention as you began this series?
Piers—Inadvertently, this process of record taking has created a conserved or preserved snapshot of a moment in time. That much was intentional from the outset with these works. Sometimes I think of the multi-paneled works as individual frames from a film reel. Single frames of the breaking down of the sculpture to rubble. In some ways the conservation of the damage is an inevitable effect of the process. The same way that dental records are made with the same moulding alginate but a different aim to become a forensic record, so the moulds of the war damage have achieved something similar. The Victoria and Albert Museum were very worried about the process I intended to use when I asked to mould the blitz damage on the exterior walls on Exhibition Road. Ironically the Pergamon Museum said yes first, approving a process which a sculpture conservator had devised to prevent the moulding material from adhering to the stone. When the moulding was being done, a conservator at the Pergamon told me that the façade I was moulding from would be disassembled and fully restored. The scarification which I moulded is now gone forever. A year later the V&A made a similar announcement relating to the wall I moulded there as well. So I have preserved the “Blitz” and “Battle of Berlin” damage from those museum walls in a new form for future use.
Fiona—One hundred years from now, when historians are conducting archival study of the Syrian war, how would you like them to “read” your “Bullet Hole Paintings” into the story?
Piers—If someone somewhere in 100 years is even aware that these works existed, perhaps they may consider that they form an effective response to a vast and historically significant swathe of cultural erasure. Whether they will be poignant enough to be acknowledged in any way is anyone’s guess. But for them to live on as a document of that type would be great.