Review: David Levinthal at Stellan Holm


Exhibition Reviews


The images coming from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were dominated from a combination of what was carefully staged and controlled, what emerged in an uncontrolled fashion, and of what a new generation of photojournalists, working under the toughest of circumstances, produced. There was the commander-in-chief posing in a uniform and proclaiming “MIssion Accomplished”, there were the gruesome images from Abu Ghraib, Tim Hetherington’s award-winning photo, the controversy about a photo of a fatally wounded US soldier, plus a lot more. None of these images have entered the world of David Levinthal’s I.E.D.: War in Afghanistan and Iraq, which was on view at Stellan Holm recently: The artist is still playing with dolls (click on the image above for a larger view).

I suppose technically speaking the model figures Levinthal used for this body of work are not really dolls. But they’re toys, and with his use of these toys Levinthal not only managed to skirt around the uses of images in these two on-going wars, he also doesn’t question or investigate what the existence of such toys actually means. Why are they being produced? Who buys these? What do people use them for (other than creating large-scale photographs for art galleries)?

Of course, you could argue that all these questions are just too much. Can’t an artist produce some art without having to talk about the big issues? Well, sure. Here’s the problem, though: art work explicitly produced to talk about these two wars has to be confronted with such questions; and I don’t think I.E.D.: War in Afghanistan and Iraq holds up very well.

For me, this is a big problem especially since the press release of the show contains the following:

“However, these photographs do not simply recreate scenes from a foreign war. Instead they bring a new perspective to the discourse about war, how it is broadcast in real time and how it relates to American society as a whole. Without interjecting his own prejudgments, David Levinthal asks the viewer to reconsider their own perceptions of reality.
No, this body of work doesn’t do anything outlined here. It completely ignores the different kinds of images mentioned above, and the different kinds of policies put in place to try to control the war imagery.

And why is it so important to mention that Levinthal was not “interjecting his own prejudgments”? What is art without prejudgments? Aren’t people smart enough to come to their own conclusions, regardless of what the “prejudgment” might be like? Of course, I can only talk for myself, but dear artists, please prejudge - I’ll be perfectly able to navigate my way around!

Or are we to believe that seeing I.E.D.: War in Afghanistan and Iraq is akin to watching some “fair and balanced” TV program, where we are (supposedly) presented with the facts and only the facts, so we can make up our own minds? Seriously? Is that how art is supposed to work?

Make no mistake, we do sorely need a “a new perspective to the discourse about war, how it is broadcast in real time and how it relates to American society as a whole.” But I.E.D.: War in Afghanistan and Iraq offers a very old perspective, a perspective that is oblivious of snapshots taken by military personal and/or civilians, oblivious to shamelessly staged photos, oblivious to all the other various new types of images and/or discussions of imagery we have witnessed over the past years, and, most importantly, oblivious to the huge changes in our own thinking and understanding of images.

Without such a new perspective, I.E.D.: War in Afghanistan and Iraq doesn’t offer anything beyond what the toy soldiers used to produce these images have to offer: A very simplified and almost childish image of two wars.

Further reading: DLK’s review