Drawing Connections: Art of War in a Politics of Love
Rebecca Lindum Greene
The year is 2000. I’ve just had the trip of my life: an unexpected gap year following a brain hemorrhage after falling off my skateboard, not long turned 18 and only a month following the completion of A-levels.
I’d have to go through my photos to check – stacks of pre-digital renderings on copy paper – but it’s October, I think, certainly Autumn.
The memory and sensation, as I am stood on the lookout platform over Liquorice Park in Lincoln – a Millennium Grant-funded community development on the South-West-facing Lindum Hill, accompanied by my new friend from the Foundation course at Lincoln Art School – is one of wonder, awe and a little trepidation.
The sun is low in the sky and the light golden. It is clear enough to see about 20 miles in the direction of the River Trent, or A1 where cooling towers punctuate the horizon. A ribbon of water known as the Fosse Dyke flows from Brayford Pool out via West Common, where horses freely roam the long-forgotten racecourse, a last reminder, the Grandstand nestled by the roadside.
Once an Iron Age fort, the history of Lincoln, like most places, is a story of conquest and invasion from a Roman Legionary Fortress to the present day, via agriculture, trade and everything in between. A significant seat in the Church Governance of England, once one of the wealthiest in the country due to the wool trade transported on the waterways, and from where the colour Lincoln green originally came. In the 20th century, it became better known for its contributions to Engineering and Industry: the first UK site to make Tanks at the turn of the last century for WWI, to aerospace and intelligence with numerous RAF Bases in the county around the city.
Towards the end of the ‘90s, the City of Lincoln was developing a new University, amalgamating the City’s Art School, De Montfort University, and Riseholme Horticultural Campus with Hull University. It was this development that I could now see peppering the Brayford Pool and beyond. All under the gaze of Minerva, the then University Logo.
My relationship with Lincoln began in the early 1990s, when I moved at age 11 to Lincoln as a full-time boarder at the former convent school, St. Josephs on Upper Lindum Street. I would spend my entire senior school years at this location. Encouraged in my creativity, I flourished and formed a community that would support me through my adolescence and beyond. Importantly, at the time of my brain haemorrhage, the school and local community showered me with love, encouragement and positivity. This, along with my youth, was instrumental to my significant recovery. Unable to thank each individual for their part in this, I took Lindum in to my name, to honour this community of people that encouraged me.
The Art of War.
Born in a military hospital in a British Consulate in Germany, then growing up a ‘dependent’ of an employee in Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force (RAF) propels you into a particular type of existence. The institutional landscape is no stranger to me. It is a world of order: restraint, routine; resilience. Fitting in, always fitting in. Simply to get on. Compartmentalisation. Compliancy. Coping.
Avoiding trouble. Recently I read a quote; ‘By avoiding conflict, we avoid the possibility of connection.’ Does that apply to conflict on the world stage, I wondered? At what cost?
For the RAF, whilst considered a more ‘gentlemanly’ institution of war, like its predecessors is a product of the technology of its time… The Army – land based, armed combat and projectiles; The Navy – sea based, naval vessels propelled by manpower and wind, steam and then the combustion engine. As flight evolved, the RAF took to the skies and, following lab experiments, developed biological weapons combined with other mechanisms that utilise the air. The path promising further destruction ensued… radar, nuclear, cyber, space. I understand these institutions manage and employ people, but weaponising as a form of defence? For whilst conflict has been a constant throughout our shared histories, now in an increasingly interconnected biosphere? There should be little place for conflict when managing finite resources on a global market?
Apart from my loving family nucleus and the objects which defined home, change was another constant: different walls, in different houses; different streets in different locations; different teachers in different schools; different ‘friends’ in different countries. Non-attachment.
Art, or creativity saved me, and herein lay my tension.
Creativity is my essence. Art, the seed that was sown in my being. My mind’s eye is its resting place and from time to time I am lucky enough to catch a glimmer of it, whether a line inked on paper, a frame caught on camera, a pencil sketch, or simply sounding out the air. Essentially, growing up and living through life experiences, it was my way of making sense of, or coming to terms with, the world. This vision, this perception of the shifting world, this brutally honest way of seeing, had a tragic and deeply felt sincerity. Watching a world in conflict.
I wonder sometimes if this narrative explains my draw to a particular type of artist… Anselm Keifer, Paul Nash, Jonathan Keane, specifically. Notably, Nash, British War Artist of WWI and WWII and a lover of trees; Keifer, German Artist and re-teller of his Nation’s History; Keane, British war artist of the Gulf War and a myriad political subjects and conflicts around the world.
Sitting in the Religious Education classroom of a former convent building, aged 11, I came across Anselm Keifer’s work The High Priestess, 1985/89. A profoundly moving experience; I can still feel the sensations, and picture where I sat in the room. The stone-walled entrance to the classroom marked by the engravings of a century of ghosts long gone. More souls still resounded in the heavy lead tomes pictured in the book concealed within the Bible study pages. A short time later I read Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When? Every page of it a written experience of Keifer’s visual work.
At the age of 14, I studied Savernake by Paul Nash for my GCSE; that sombre woodland walk that curves in to the unseen distance always feels like home to me. The pull of nature, or Old Wow to quote Sam Lee’s exquisite phrase is the other resource that brought me great comfort from an early age. Whether gathering Autumn leaves to give to my pre-school teacher; hanging out in woods as a teenager to be amongst trees and watch wildlife, immediate and perpetuated months following my brain haemorrhage, or now as a balm in the time that has elapsed following the terrorist attack on London Bridge fused with the unworldly hours of lockdown.
Aged 17 in 1998 – BOOM! – John Keane entered my world. Assaulted visually by his paintings describing The Troubles in a riot of colour, for example The Other Cheek..?; violence, anguish, and pain shouted at me from the canvas suspended at the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Inspired and captivated, Keane’s book Conflict of Interests resonated with me. A trip to visit family in Northern Ireland didn’t come without its own troubles. Armed military personnel, along with the state of fear; punctuated with Amber to Red warnings for heightened alert, searching vehicles for bombs every time we left and re-entered a military base, irrespective of which country. Needless to say, Keane’s visual, political commentary, work and practice spoke deeply to me and he became the subject of my A-level personal study.
A week after visiting the exhibition, the Northern Ireland Peace treaty violated, Omagh and its people wept.
On the day I began writing this piece, I had visited two exhibitions at Hastings Contemporary. At the gallery, I encountered the work of Quentin Blake, in the exhibition ‘We Live In Worrying Times’ the title and works in the collection are inspired by the conversation he’d had with a Taxi Driver some years previously. Including the central mural, which Blake describes as his Guernica, taking inspiration from Picasso’s anti-war work and the taxi driver, his piece is an ‘outcry against the global disaster of the near future.’ Displaced figures wandering barren landscapes, empty, but for the drones and desolation of war.
The second exhibition curated by James Russell, Seaside Modern: Art and Life on the Beach, is brighter in terms of engagement. It reflects on the marketing material of early 20th century holidaying Britain, when this destination was emerging from the weakening social constraints of the Victorian era to the more open engagement of the ‘70s. It contained works by modern British artists: Laura Knight, Eileen Agar, LS Lowry, and Paul Nash, among others.
The draw to the beach was strong for so many artists and people in general, like now especially, during the global pandemic. But like those visiting in the ‘20s, the people lucky enough to access one, what is the pull? To see this great force lapping placidly at the shore?
Could it have been a desire to view expansive horizons offering endless opportunity, contrasting sharply with the confines of oppression, of war? Or, as we have experienced, of lockdown? Certainly, in the UK, the national response to the silent predator has been postured some hundred years later in a very similar way. ’Martial Language has been used throughout the epidemic. We are at “war” with the virus,’ as Laura Dodsworth said in her recent article for The Spectator, ‘The War on Breathing’.
As this theatre of war plays out, in many parts of the world natural disasters are ravaging the land and razing settlements to the ground, and tens of thousands of people are being evacuated. As are the characters in Blake’s Mural, or featured in Finding Fanon, the series of three films by artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy. Displaced by the Conditions of Our Time.
The time has come for us to respond together, as one. ‘It is imperative to remain less interested in who or what we imagine ourselves to be than in what we can do for one another, both in today’s emergency conditions and in the grimmer circumstances that surely await us,’ writes Paul Gilroy.
Associated with another beach, or coast, named after the fishing village of West Cornwall, is the St. Ives School of Artists. Certainly, those of its earlier years – Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, Naum Gabo – had lived during WWI. Along with David Jones whose direct experience of war is captured as the epic poem In Parenthesis, and significantly, the extraordinary talent of Henri Gaudier Brzeska who died aged 23 in WWI, these Artists form a significant proportion of the collection found at the House and Gallery of Kettle’s Yard. Jim Ede, the founder of Kettle’s Yard, was himself gassed during his service in WWI.
In Kettle’s Yard, there is no doubt Ede has created a Sanctuary – I believe as a result of, and as a balm to, the gnawing tensions we have come to understand as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Like many before me, I experienced some of my most profound art therapy there, especially in the wake of the terrorist attack.
Studies following the SARS epidemic in China demonstrated an increase in related PTSD. In addition to the countless lives lost, there will be great trauma related to the pandemic, in addition to that already experienced by countless people whose anxieties have been amplified by conflict, violence and climate catastrophe.
Fear raises our levels of cortisol, which is detrimental to our health, especially if it is released over prolonged periods of time. ‘This can manifest along with other trauma-related illness, in ways such as substance addiction and dependency, anger, frustration and violence. Following in the footsteps of experts in the field such as Gabor Maté, Bessel van Der Kolk, Ruth Buczynski, Pat Ogden and Peter Levine, many practitioners are coming to learn and share somatic healing as a way to counter these effects. Working with Qi, or Prana, is a keystone in Eastern Philosophy, and health, breathing practices are fundamental to this – not just for maintaining physical well-being, but for mental health too.
In his 29th July, Politics of Love post What is love? (And what does art have to say about it?) Philip McKibbin presents a considered case, making insightful observations and piecing together a fundamental understanding and appreciation of the meaning of love, in a truly universal sense. Quoting from Hu Fang’s science fiction exploration ‘Dear Navigator’, McKibbin draws on the passage, ‘What makes humans human is precisely that, as the part of nature that is full of sympathy, they mutually complete the other things that exist in this world.’
In response, reflecting on this passage, my personal experiences of trauma and the research I have done around it, I wish to supplement the word ‘sympathy’ with ‘symphony’ in this quote. For that is, I believe, what we are all being called to do… If we are to orchestrate the best possible outcome for the planet and all that lives in this biosphere we call home, it is essential that we each play our part to the best of our ability, working collectively and creating collaboratively.
Our life force, Qi, or Prana, is effectively the energy each of us possesses. All things possess energy, whether dormant in carbon, or active in life. We consume energy to move, we absorb energy from the sun, we inhale oxygen on the breath to process energy, and to my understanding of a metaphysical reality we also pass energy to one another, in both positive and negative forms. This symbiosis of energy within ourselves and our environments nourishes or depletes us. It enables us to heal and grow, so it is essential that what we experience and share is good for us, to sustain positive physical and mental health.
This energy flows around our bodies through our cells, whether they be the cells that construct our bones, or our blood stream; our organs and nervous system; our muscles and ligaments, or fundamentally our inter-connective tissue, known as fascia. For several decades physiotherapists and holistic practitioners recognise and work in this field. In cases of trauma, whether as a result of an accident, mental or physical abuse, and invasive surgery, the fascia can get damaged, retain memory of the event, and be altogether blocked. We are now also coming to understand through epigenetics research, trauma gets passed down through generations.
For good health, it is essential that we address our personal and collective trauma, to maintain the healthy flow of energy in our fascia, so that we may share positively with others as I have benefitted in the community following my brain haemorrhage in Lincoln and more recently in Cambridge following the terrorist attack. Many practices are shown to aid with this (such as qigong, acupuncture, yoga, and craniosacral therapy), but deep breathing, with a slow exhale, is shown to be beneficial. As we inhale the breath, it enters our lungs and permeates through our bodies, and in releasing slowly we help to balance the parasympathetic nervous system, or our emotional response.
In the pursuit of progress, humanity has achieved exceptional things, including technologies that have enabled us helpful and fulfilling connections during lockdown. Truly, the future is now. But as greed and hubris have come to the fore, populations governed through fear and war have depleted our most essential resource, the planet. Perhaps in this pursuit we have compounded the trauma of populations whilst traumatising the planet. The tipping point forecast several years hence is approaching. The planet, our mother Earth, is also struggling for breath.
The word ‘spirit’ is taken from the Latin word ‘spiritus’, meaning to breathe. Residing in the spirit is where we need to be. Whilst it may have religious connotations for many, whatever you consider it to be, if, as, McKibbin suggests ‘we determine to understand the spiritual not as gods or as God, but as love, we may be closer not only to appreciating it, but also to understanding why it has confounded so many.’
Expressing both artistic and poetic license, we may now come to realise this, and recognise the instrument of our being. Playing in harmony as one, we move from the Art of War to the Art of Love.
‘Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfil them, for it alone takes them by what is deepest in themselves.’ – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
During the 5th century B.C., the philosopher Empedocles proposed that all matter in the universe was composed of different combinations of four original substances and two moving forces: fire, air, water and earth; whilst the moving forces are love and strife.
In the 21st century we may have refined and distilled this understanding, fundamentally however, very little has changed.
‘Some time ago, a wise man said ‘love thy friends, love thy foes,
plant the seed then watch it grow.’
And then this man bent down with a bowl
to wash people’s feet, both beleaguered and the bold.
As he knelt down before them, with each one spent time
He spoke of this truth, and repeated the line
‘Love one another as I have loved you’
Go forth together and speak of this truth…
If we really believed what this man had to say
Then no Church, Mosque of Temple Should get in the Way.’
Rebecca Lindum Greene is Honorary Artist in Residence at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, Founder & Artistic Facilitator of Drawing Connections …at the Edges, and is Support Visitor Assistant at Kettle’s Yard.
Sign up for the e-newsletter