Things are seldom what they seem
skim milk masquerades as cream
(William S. Gilbert)
Published on 5 April 2012
George Gittoes is an Australian-born unofficial war artist who uses fine art, film and performance to enrich and improve the lives of those most affected by the attrocities of war.
Gittoes was a founding artist of The Yellow House, Sydney, a pioneer in the 1970’s in mediums of holography, art and technology, photography as art, performance art, environmental theatre and experimental film.
With a global rather than regional vision, Gittoes has set up mobile studios and created works in the US, Central America, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Somalia, the Middle East, Western Sahara, Sinai, Mozambique, South Africa, Rwanda, Congo, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Bougainville, China, Tibet, Thailand, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Timor, Russia, Yemen and Iraq – often in the worst of times, when those regions were experiencing conflict and upheaval.
George Gittoes (Copyright George Gittoes)
Nicholas Forrest, editor of Artinfo Australia, recently caught up with Gittoes to find out more about his current projects in Afghanistan. In part two of this two part interview, Gittoes reveals startling details of his artistic activities in Afghanistan and explains the method behind the madness.
Part one of the interview can be viewed here
What is the most exciting experience you have had while in Afghanistan?
I have seen about 3 shows at the Rubin Museum of Buddhist art in New York, and always enjoyed them but the one I liked most was 'The Demonic Divine' - I bought the catalogue and it seemed to help explain a lot of my images. I had a similar experience at Nechung Monastry in Tibet which has Buddhist murals resembling Dante's Hell. It explained well that these monsters are actually there to frighten away evil and misfortune and combat violence etc - while they seem to personify it they are its opposite.
I have found myself drawn to the Buddhist caves on the other side of the Kabul river for many years. Now they seem to want to use me as a vehicle for explaining what has happened to Buddhism in Afghanistan. They are very mysterious and people find them scary. The locals say they do not know anything about them but have told their children that the people who lived in them were snake worshippers and evil. It could be dangerous to show too much interest in them as that side of the river is very pro Taliban and fundamentalist in the extreme.
We attracted onlookers when we were filming the Damas there and while we were having a lunch break I saw them taking large smooth rocks and using them like hammers to knock pieces from the inside walls. Even though there is nothing left they feel compelled to go on destroying. Everywhere there are niches (carved recesses in the rock) where Buddha statues once stood. I have a beautiful old brass and silver Buddha which I purchased here many years ago from an antique dealer in Chicken Street. We used it in the film and it seemed to come alight like a light bulb switched onto power for the first time after a very long black out. Islam was a much more aggressive religion and what it has done to Buddhism here has a lot to do with why there has been ceaseless war.
It is like our ‘Love City’ project is waking the Buddhas of the Caves and we are dealing with a spirit which has been dormant in this place for a long, long time.
When people ask me what has been my most memorable experience in Afghanistan I would have to say the Buddhist Caves. I have done a drawing called 'War Apotheosis' and it is a twisted levitating figure with a Nazi style helmet and horns floating over the Afghan landscape, its body in an obscene parody of a seated meditating Buddha. What I was trying to say in the drawing, and the drawing says it better than words can, is that with the destruction of the peaceful religion and practices of Buddhism in Afghanistan came the rise of a war and violence culture, repressive of creativity and the spirit of women. It seems to me Afghanistan will never know peace until they can acknowledge their Buddhist past and integrate its compassion and feminine side back into the Afghan psyche.
What effects does the participation in art projects have on people in places such as Afghanistan?
Afghans love decoration and in this dusty, colourless environment they decorate everything with colourful patterns and shapes. They also love music, poetry and dance and this goes back to Bactria - thousands of years. The Taliban came into these communities with a policy of wiping out all art and joy. Their dogma explained that all the arts ere evil because they distracted from prayer and the contemplation on Allah - God. Creativity has been repressed here so long it is bursting out like an overfull dam that is ready to break its walls. The YH (Yellow House) is unleashing some of this energy and sending out a message that there is no need to fear art or music or films, and that they are a celebration of life and Allah-God, and not something negative. This makes us targets and working with this group of artists must feel like what it was to be a resistance fighter in France or Holland during the Nazi occupation.
What projects do you have planned for the future?
I would like to stay with the development of the YH (Yellow House) for another 3 years and produce most of my own films and paintings from here. I find this culture enriching and very exciting. It may even be possible to use the YH (Yellow House) as a base to create a big internationally distributed feature film based on a script I am developing. But this could just be dreaming. What is real is that we have nearly finished shooting our documentary, ‘Love City’, and I will be going to Norway next month to complete the editing and post production.
Over the many years I have been working in and witnessing war zones I have been working on 3 linked novels with the overall title of ‘Night Vision’. I hope to see these getting published in the next year. Two of them are proofed and finished ready to be shown to a publisher. Perhaps there will be time to do this while in Norway.
When I eventually get back to Australia I want to go out into the outback and do a series of landscapes. I have been dreaming of these landscape paintings as I get homesick for the beauty of Australia. This will be a time to repair myself from all the wars and recharge the batteries. I am planning to rent a 4 tonne truck to carry about 14 large canvases in like a mobile studio. I will stop at my favourite places in outback NSW and the NT and Kimberly and pitch a tent and paint with the stretcher frames leaning up against a tree. For me to be painting Australia again is the closest thing I can imagine to be like being in Paradise.
George Gittoes at work (Copyright George Gittoes)
How do you maintain a level of sanity while working in such volatile environments?
This sanity question always comes up and tells me more about the society which finds it necessary to ask it than anything else. I am a very sane and fulfilled person. There is tremendous satisfaction in what I do and every day I see the positive improvements made to the world around me by my efforts. Yes, I have seen a lot of death and violence as do doctors working in emergency wards at hospitals, but they generally remain sane and I am sure they feel happy in themselves due to the contribution they are making to others.
What is your opinion on the war in Afghanistan?
The war in Afghanistan has been grossly mismanaged as with foolish incidents like the recent burning of Korans by US military people at Bagram air base. It seems to me that technological advantage has been seen as the way to win, but the only way to succeed here is to make friends with people. Afghans are very friendly and welcome guests, but not guests who destroy their villages with unmanned Predator missiles and night raids by special-forces teams using helicopters and little or no sensitivity to the culture of the people in the houses they break into.
I believe there is a much better way to approach conflict resolution, but the military are too set in old ways to consider the actual things that would work. There was a great opportunity to succeed in rebuilding Afghanistan in a way which would benefit its people and guarantee no more terrorist threats would be exported from here, but this opportunity has been missed. It is very sad and I am very, very worried about the future and fear a civil war could destroy all that our group has tried to achieve over the last few years.
How would you describe who you are, what you do and why you do it?
The answer to your question is simple: I am an artist, I make art and for me there is no other option. I am one of those artists who have no alternative. It would be terrible to be able to do something else. If I was like that I would be torn apart by indecision. I am a bit peculiar because for most true artists the difficult road they tread is one of financial insecurity and risk taking within their creative medium. My art takes me to uncomfortable, frontline places where my life is at constant risk, like where I am now in Jalalabad.
Many artists have a hard time when they are young and developing their talent and gaining a reputation, but once they become successful they start enjoying luxuries and comfort and their art loses its sting. For me, any discomfort is preferable no longer seeing sparks shooting from the marks made by brush or pen. When I was in Norway last year I got my first big comfortable studio in years. It was great, with skylights, a music system and everything I needed, but the work I did was crap and remained unresolved so I took the canvases off the stretchers and never exhibited them. What I am doing now, here in Jalalabad, is flowing out of me like it is preordained and although I cannot look at it objectively yet, it feels good.
The question of what I think I am doing is unanswerable because I do not really understand what I am doing myself. I have always followed my intuitions and they have led me to produce art that is an insider’s witnessing of war. My art does not stop with paint and canvas but extends to social networking with the creation of this Yellow House as a good example. Making this place work has been a bigger and more creative task than the paintings I have done here. I am never an observer but always get my hands dirty trying to fix the problems, like a resistance fighter, but using media tools instead of weapons. My film work enables me to reach a much bigger audience than I could with painting and, frankly, I would find it hard to justify the risk if I was only focusing on exhibitions in galleries with their limited audiences.
The original Yellow House was inspired by Vincent's letters. These Van Gogh letters were always as much an inspiration as the paintings. From an early age they made me appreciate that an artist’s life has to be as pure a creation as anything that goes on the canvas. My life story and art are inseparable and should be read together as one. For this reason I have kept working on a series of novels called ‘Night Vision’. Virtually every painting, photo and film I have made could be used as illustrations to these books. Hopefully, some day, there will be a way to publish them where it can all be linked and absorbed as a single item. Any collection which ends up with a Gittoes has a piece of this life. The Yellow House Jalalabad will have a limited existence and whatever paintings and drawings survive will be precious relics from it just as with the works that survived the original Yellow House I did in Kings Cross with Martin Sharp and Brett Whiteley.
For more information on Gittoes and his work visit http://www.gittoes.com/
Also see on this website Make Films and Circuses Not War: Q&A with Australian War Artist George Gittoes Part 1
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