‘Combat Art’ lays down its arms (pencil, pen, brush, paper) at Taunton’s Market House in its first exhibition of drawings, paintings and photography created by Taunton’s 40 Commando Royal Marines on their last tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Not out of lack of imagination but as somebody whose own drawing/painting experiences are relatively limited to working in the security and isolation of indoors, I find it almost impossible to truly comprehend the reality of how it must feel to be a Marine drawing ‘in the field’ so to speak, whilst serving duty in the unfamiliar and at times, hostile terrain of Afghanistan. Having to be constantly alert, in a state of anxious boredom, doing a job and the uncertainty one day may bring to the next; I can see the impending need and difficulties faced in order to occupy one’s mind, perhaps escape it, process and document the day’s events, express one’s thoughts or simply just doodle.
This was the thinking behind ‘Art Kits’, created by Royal Marine widow Anita St John-Grey whose idea was to supply a compact art kit that could fit into the trouser pocket of Marines from all ranks as a way of therapy, documentation and combating the stress of filling ‘dead time’ whilst on/between operations. 500 bespoke made kits were supplied to Marines whose results can be seen in an exhibition of work (brought into fruition by non profit organisation, Art Kits Ltd. joint managed by curator Tim Martin, artist Jon England and arts educator Stuart Rosamond) at Taunton’s Market House for two weeks.
What I can relate to, and perhaps what is more important in the thinking behind the Combat Art exhibition, is the overriding theme that is the human need to create. The desire to respond, process, document, express, escape (delete as appropriate) one’s surroundings/situation. On a fundamental level, it is a basic human urge to ‘make things’ whether that manifests itself in the form of painting, drawing, carving, photographing, cooking, planting or whatever, so having the facility (and when necessary) equipment to conduct that creative impulse should almost be seen as mandatory. I'm in the opinion that creativity is both important at the time of its impulse to be fulfilled as it is after the event and you’re left with a portrait, a series of marks, a landscape, a doodle, as a way of reflecting and communicating that experience/memory with others. Making it relevant in telling the stories and experiences of 'those who have been there' that this work is shown and continues to be seen long after its initial creation.
In honesty, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed by the quality of the actual work produced in this exhibition with the exception of Marine Thomas Harrison’s portraits (pictured) which are ambitiously big (for oil paintings created outside!) expressively painterly and poignantly haunting. Similarly his landscape paintings (often in muted greens/pinks/greys, assuming from night vision goggles/lack of light) remind me of Philip Guston’s paintings (which is slightly irrelevant, but I get very excited making connections in people’s work to that of other artists I admire and tend to do so out of respect rather than an attempt at denying either artist of a ‘lack of originality’, cough cough). In another room of the exhibition photos by professional photographer Rhys O’Leary provide an additional insightful context into ‘sense of place’ and atmosphere of Afghanistan. I do however, remind myself, that I’m not, ‘as the audience’ really being asked to scrutinise or critique the work, its merits are in the fact that the work exists and that these Art kits have enabled that work to happen and possibly help/improve the experiences of the individuals that created it whilst they were in these quite volatile situations. That and sometimes a ‘shit’ doodle (and I should know, I’m somewhat of a serial doodler, many of which are unashamedly shit) or cartoony sketch, humour; can say as much (if not more) about a person’s state of mind/experiences than a laboured, well thought out ‘masterpiece’.
My personal thoughts of military art in general is I do not share an unquestioned patriotism that everything the military churns out in the way of choirs, calendars and art should be pedestaled in the way it often is, immune to or without criticism or debate. If I were to take my personal and political views out of the equation however, I am a firm believer that great art can come from anywhere/anyone and what individuals have achieved in this exhibition is still remarkable and humbling; what I am saying is that I am not as interested in military as I am interested in the work created by a group of people working in difficult, unusual conditions. I reiterate that what is important is that we acknowledge and allow for these opportunities to happen so people have the time, the means and the choice to create if and when they need to. And so for me, the great success of this exhibition is the kit itself and what it represents in allowing ‘art for all’ even if you don’t for whatever reason use what’s in the art kit, the fact that you’ve been given it/issued it is a recognition of the importance that is placed on art as therapy and art as a force for expression/communication; deservedly so the kit itself also has its own plinth on display as you enter the exhibition downstairs.
Which leaves me wondering, why stop at just the army? Maybe people from all occupations, farmers, doctors, nurses, patients, teachers, politicians, policemen, engineers, cleaners, managers, builders, retailers...would benefit from more access to art in their lives? I am by no means trying to compare any of those roles to the military and what they do (....), but I’d think most people, most people who’ve ever faced challenges and adversities head-on, battled with management or lack-of, been bombarded with essays, been on the front-line of retail/catering at Christmas, fought off the throws of monotony, boredom and depression and dealt with the post-traumatic stress of life in all its minor and major difficulties (I salute you) could also perhaps gain from having/creating a little Art Kit of their own. The results would be stunning (possibly also a little concerning) but having that opportunity to create is what is crucial.
Combat Art: Personal Reflections from Afghanistan, runs at the Market House (West Wing), Taunton, Somerset, from November 9 – 23, Wednesday to Saturday, 11am – 5pm.