Photography Exhibition | Simon Norfolk
PHOTOGRAPHY EXHIBITION DATES
6 SEPTEMBER – 2 NOVEMBER 2002
In November 2001 British artist Simon Norfolk began a journey through battle-scarred Afghanistan, following the fall of Kabul, with an indiscreet and cumbersome cherrywood plate camera. This remarkable photography exhibition, as Jason Burke commented in The Observer Magazine, ” …reveals a post-apocalyptic landscape devoid of people, but shot through with a surreal and barren beauty.”
European art has long had a fondness for ruin and desolation that has no parallel in other cultures. Since the Renaissance, artists such as Claude Lorraine and Caspar David Friedrich have painted destroyed classical palaces and gothic churches, bathed in a fading golden twilight. These motifs symbolised that the greatest creations of civilisation – the Empires of Rome and Greece or the Catholic Church – even these have no permanence. Eventually, they too would crumble; vanquished by savages and vanishing into the undergrowth.
Afghanistan is unique, utterly unlike any other war-ravaged landscape. In places destroyed in the recent US and British aerial bombardment, the buildings are twisted metal and charred roof timbers (the presence of unexploded bombs deters all but the most destitute scavengers) giving the place a raw, chewed-up appearance.
Mikhail Bakhtin called this kind of landscape a ‘chronotope’: a place that allows movement through space and time simultaneously, a place that displays the ‘layeredness’ of time. The chronotopia of Afghanistan is like a mirror, shattered and thrown into the mud of the past; the shards are glittering fragments, echoing previous civilisations and lost greatness. Here there is a modern concrete teahouse resembling Stonehenge; an FM radio mast like an English maypole; the Pyramids at Giza; the astronomical observatory at Jaipur; the Treasury at Petra; even the votive rock paintings in the caves at Lascaux.
Art historical references may be intriguing, but the destruction of Afghanistan is first and foremost a human tragedy in which millions have lost their lives. The people killed in these attacks leave almost no record – only the forensic traces survive to tell of the carnage. Seeing Afghanistan as a chronotope can reconnect the evidence in the landscape to the story of this human disaster. It points to the archaeological remains that are the only indicators of the appalling suffering that is modern war, a suffering so atrociously suppressed in mainstream media coverage.
This year, Norfolk won the Silver Award from the Association of Photographers and the European Publishing Award for his book of Afghan work published by Dewi Lewis Publishing and available from September 2002.
Norfolk’s work is held in public collections including The British Council, The Houston Museum of Fine Arts, The Weismann Arts Museum, Minneapolis and The Portland Art Museum, as well as in a number of private collections. His work has appeared many times in titles including The Sunday Times Magazine, The Observer, New York Times, South China Morning Post and La Republica’s Magazine.