Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Bart Michiels - The Course of History

(Cannae 216BC, Paulus' Death, 2004)

I mentioned Bart Michiels the other day in a post about Pictures of stuff that isn't there anymore but I only included a couple of pictures.

(Monte Cassino 1944, Monastery Hill, 2004)

I've been looking through his stuff a bit more since then and I must say I really quite like it. As much as anything, the scope of his project - from Thermopylae to Hastings to The Hindenburg Line to Monte Cassino.

"The Course of History. It is the lesson we never learn. When we and our elected leaders repeat the mistakes of the past, we will stay on the course of conflict. Or is warfare a natural component of our civilization, a necessary evil imbedded in our genes doomed to be repeated endlessly?

At the dawn of the new millennium I had lived for more than a decade in the US since leaving Belgium and I wanted to reconnect with my European roots. What experience was so European and not American? For centuries, from Caesar’s legions to the armies of the Nazis, my native country saw war with all its faces : invasion, occupation, terror, chaos, hunger, atrocities, destruction and collapse (of industries). After two world wars, those experiences have shaped what Europe thinks today, still affecting the generations and civilian life in modern Europe.

(Gallipoli 1915, Suvla Bay, 2005)

The photographs in The Course Of History are landscapes of the worst killing fields of Europe, of battles that were turning points in our history, defining our future. My approach to the subject comes from the loss of innocence in nature and the dichotomy of it : beauty and evil. Though they all have a violent history in common, our perception of these landscapes can be peaceful and serene. So, is our sense of place associated with memory and the understanding of the landscape fraught with misreading?

With little or no evidence of battle left on the land, I tried bringing back reference to it by finding happenstance traces and features on the land that refer metaphorically to combat, such as holes dug in the sand by children at Omaha Beach (Easy Red), or tractor tracks cleaving through a field of crops like tanks once did (Verdun, Le Mort Homme). In ‘Cannae’, the ground is strewn with small rocks that refer to the numerous dead (48,000!) in the largest single day defeat in the history of Rome.

(Hastings 1066, Fyrdmen, 2005)

During the long battle of Passchendaele, a battlefield not far from where I grew up, British and German soldiers died in horrible conditions, drowning in the muddy clay fields of Flanders (‘Passchendaele, Tyne Cot’). At Waterloo, I found in a grass field a patch that was flattened. It was also the very spot where Napoleon’s elite troops and cavalry fell on the ridge, sealing the fate of the emperor."

(Passchendaele 1917, Tyne Cot #1, 2005)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A fascinating set of pictures. The contrast between these empty, serene rural scenes and the knowledge of the horrors that took place there is consistently impressive.

However I am also a little troubled by them in that they seem to reflect a fizzling out of western culture, of a passivity and resignation that's been going on for a long time (since about 1900?). The current state of affairs is a 'have your cake and eat it' one. We are able to wallow in the decline of western culture and the seeming distant irrelevance of these bloody battles that were fought out long ago, while at the same time enjoying the cushioning, by means of global capitalism and US military might, from the reality of struggle and conflict.