Imprint

The artwork comprises of a square of habotai silk in the form of a woman’s scarf, 36 by 36 inches, modelled on the design and materials used by French fashion and luxury goods firm Hermés.  The background colour is white, and the surface pattern a delicate filigree of blue lines. Closer examination shows that these patterns are formed by handwriting in blue ink, which appear to be smudged, aged and altered by use. The text, although enlarged, is almost illegible, but with some effort, can be deciphered to reveal that it is taken from a prisoner’s letter written in a high security prison seeking help from the human rights group Amnesty International. The word Amnesty is misspelled. The letter dates from the 1980 hunger strike in Long Kesh/The Maze prison in Northern Ireland.

 

Armies all over the world rely on dazzling displays of military costumes and weapons to recruit soldiers, but when the fighting ends all that we are left with are the remnants of battle to memorialise the dead and injured. In the museum display they take on a fresh existence as objects of war memory, and as this artwork suggests, often bear the imprint of the body. Left behind to evoke all of the pain of war, clothing can become a touchstone for loss, not least due to the pride and loyalty uniform once engendered in the wearer. Military uniform is an official symbol of patriotic militarism, but also perfectly embodies military discipline. When conflicts end remnants of army clothing become poignant reminders of what has been lost. Such was the significance of army clothing for Vera Brittain, that she described in her First World War memoir the bloodstained khaki uniform sent home after her fiancé’s death as ‘gruesome rags.’ Uniform may create compelling images of militarized display, but army clothing also offers the most immediate and tactile evocation of war memory. 

 

In art and popular culture, army clothing has become part of the spectacle of war. In 1994, a Benetton advert used the bloodstained t-shirt and trousers belonging to Marinko Gagro, a young soldier killed during the war in the former Yugoslavia, to promote fashion clothing. The media focus on issues of tactics and strategy neglects the experience of the body in military conflicts. Most often ignored is the fact that the body at war is dressed. Clothing can be a symbol of power, but as the Benetton advert shows, its grim materiality also reveals how intimate, everyday struggles shape a conflict. Counter-military activities, such as those that formed the armed conflict in Ireland from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, involved clashes over how the body could be controlled and represented. In the prisons, where Republicans staged protests against their categorisation as criminals, resistance to prison clothing marked the beginning of their outright refusal to submit to the disciplines imposed by the institution. By denying the authorities the power to constitute them as civilian prisoners, the ‘Blanketmen’[i] –so called because they wore prison blankets to keep warm- resisted criminal status at the level of their bodies. As the cultural anthropologist Allen Feldman observes, Republican prisoners who would not wear prison uniform also refused to touch it or give their body measurements.[ii] Resistance gave the protest its power, but also made events difficult to represent in any satisfying way. Subsequent images were characterised by loss, leaving the public unable to make sense of it through the conventional visual symbols of protest.

 

Outside the prisons there was a search for a visual system of representation to interpret these events, but aesthetic experience was hardly a concern for the prisoners. The letter H offered a strong image, arising from the design of the high security prison wings - the ‘H Blocks’ – which became shorthand for the struggles going on inside, and what they represented for the conflict. But the protest was not easily visualized, since it was characterised by secrecy, refusal and resistance to official procedures of observation and authority. Due to the circumstances of incarceration, pleasure (aesthetic or otherwise) was far removed from the experience of the hunger strikers, a situation amplified by the ‘dirty protest,’ when prisoners refused to adhere to the usual conventions of body management. What started as resistance to the conformity and comfort of clothing, led to the refusal to wash, to the smearing of excrement on cell walls, and ultimately ended in a series of hunger strikes that saw prisoners turning the violence of refusal on their own bodies.

 

We do not normally associate aesthetics with counter-military action, but making war sensible in aesthetic terms was a pre-occupation for many twentieth-century writers and artists. How can war be represented by visual images without glamorizing killing and destruction? Is there aesthetic value in what participants in war and conflict create to make sense of their experience? In his discussion of the futurist F. T. Marinetti’s celebration of war, Walter Benjamin argues that, under fascism, humankind’s ‘self alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’[iii] Benjamin’s point is not that Marinetti made works of art that celebrated war but that he viewed war itself in aesthetic terms. Nonetheless, his fantasies of military power do not fit with unconventional warfare, such as the prison protests in the 1970s and 1980s and the recent pattern for using suicide bombers in terror attacks. Instead, Marinetti’s celebration of war involves all the trappings of official forms of military display, as Marshall Berman observed in Baudelaire’s vision of modern life: ‘Armies on parade, …play a central role in the pastoral vision of modernity: glittering hardware, gaudy colors, flowing lines, fast and graceful movements, modernity without tears.’[iv] However, there is a difference between the tactics employed by official armies in conventional battle and the guerilla style tactics of asymmetrical warfare. Each form of militarism generates its own distinct aesthetic. Military pageants did not place the suffering body on display: they exhibited the power of ‘glittering hardware’ in an effort to daunt the enemy It was this ‘metallization of the human body,’ and not the reality of the body in crisis, that Marinetti advocated in his celebration of war in the Futurist Manifesto.


If low-level conflict offers few opportunities to present a robust and triumphant military body, how then can counter-military activities be aestheticized? The hunger strikes were an inversion of conventional warfare when fighters turned violence on their own bodies. Again, Feldman found that the protests resulted in the failure of the prison regime to physically imprint the Blanket-men, which in turn led the authorities to seek access and control over the interior of their bodies: ‘The prison regime turned to new arenas of regulation that extended the logic of compulsory visibility from the surface to the interior of the prisoner’s body.’[v] Prisoners were strip-searched and their orifices were closely examined. This was where messages were concealed, such as the letter to Amnesty International written in tiny letters on a scrap of paper, wrapped in plastic and smuggled out of the prison inside the body of a Blanketman. Artists who try to interpret and depict unconventional warfare face the difficult task of representing refusal, absence and loss. The hunger strikes fail to summon up an aesthetic form for heroic symbolism. Prisoners in the high security prisons left behind only blankets, letters written on scraps of paper, and their own bodily destruction.

By incorporating the smudged text of a prison letter into the pattern of a silk scarf, such as those produced by Hermés, this artwork explores the aesthetics of pleasure and luxury. It also asks whether some body experiences are so extraordinary that they cannot bear any kind of artistic intervention. The Parisian fashion firm Hermés, with their proud tradition of luxury and quality, are the antithesis of what the prisoners in the H Blocks experienced. Hermés sells prestige and status to their customers through the luxurious feel of silk on their skin. The pain of hunger in a squalid concrete prison cell is far removed from the sensual pleasures associated with fashioning the body. Nonetheless, the work invites us to consider how clothing can embody even the most extreme social transactions. If each form of militarism generates a distinct aesthetic, then the writings of the H Block prisoners evoke the crisis of bodies that sought to resist the disciplines of the prison. In the process, their bodies took on an ambiguous, formless quality, of which their use of the prison blanket became emblematic. Its cloaking effects undermined the visibility of the body so critical to the smooth working of the prison. The critical role of the blanket demonstrates its symbolic and material force in the conflict, and how clothing and dress work as embodied practices, even in the most extreme settings. Their refusal to become part of the military pageant meant that the prisoners’ protest created alternative images of war, where bodies celebrated their deviance while evading the watchful eye of authority.

 

In the history of design, much has been made of the motivations of ‘conspicuous consumption.’[vi] However, less conspicuous forms of consumption are clearly at work when bodies refuse the designs of institutional power. Such was the experience of prisoners, whose protest showed an awareness of the more sinister role of design to ‘make’ bodies available to the regulation, management and control of the authorities. Their repudiation of comfort and completion gave way to a broken and disjointed narrative of material culture, borne out of their resistance to the designs the state had on them. Counter-military struggles create their own untidy forms of material culture, such as the delicate drawings and letters written by conscientious objectors in pencil on toilet paper, smuggled from British jails in the early twentieth century. The fragile, fugitive condition of these objects bear witness to the circumstances in which they were created and the social transactions they narrate. These objects were not designed for enthusiastic mass consumption but are the result of the messy business of war and conflict. Made with the most basic of materials, and discreet enough to be hidden, these modest things could hardly be described as the heroic objects of military struggle. Instead these remnants, remains, and ‘gruesome rags’ bear the imprint of bodies in crisis.






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[i] Blanket men refer to those Republican prisoners who participated in a five-year protest held in the Maze prison (also known as ‘Long Kesh’) in Northern Ireland. Their status as political prisoners had begun to be phased out in 1976 so that they would be required to wear prison uniforms. The basis of their protest was that the prisoners refused to accept criminal status, which led to their refusal to wear the prison uniform.

[ii] Feldman, A., Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1991, p.156.

[iii] Benjamin, W. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations, London: Pimlico, 1999, p. 235.

[iv] Berman, M., All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Verso, London, 1983, 1983, p.137.

[v] Feldman, A., Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1991, p. 173.

[vi] The term ‘conspicuous consumption’ is attributed to the sociologist Thornstein Veblen and explains patterns of consumption used to display status rather than to meet basic human needs.

 


















© The Author and Tadhg McGrath 2011