In the echoing space of Karantina’s Running Horse Gallery, there is a canvas bag. Affixed to it is a label that reads, “Kandahar: nomadic furniture line for belligerents.”
Inside the bag is a fully functional folding chair, made of two AK-47 assault rifles and a canvas sling. A reclining soldier – supporting himself on his heavy gun, as opposed to the exhausting alternative – can disassemble the chair and be ready to fire in the space of a few seconds.
This installation complements a series of nine photographs to comprise “Theater of War,” a solo exhibition by French artist Emeric Lhuisset. The photographer, who lectures on contemporary art and geopolitics in Paris and New York, is at once a historian, a war photographer and an artist. All three disciplines conflate with one another in this exhibition.
The 29-year-old photographer takes staged photographs of real conflicts, traveling to war zones and living among the combatants. Though he is uniquely placed to do so, Lhuisset is not interested in working as a war correspondent in the traditional sense. Rather he explores what an image of war really is, interrogating whether a photo that purports to be “real” can ever really communicate the “truth.”
Once a scene has been composed and isolated within the frame of a photograph, isn’t it already staged? With everything beyond the frame of a particular image absent, Lhuisset seems to imply, the remaining image is as arranged and artificial as a theatre play.
The photographs in “Theater of War” combine Lhuisset’s extensive knowledge of the history of war photography with a contemporary reflection on the changing nature of the intention of such images and their impact on the viewer. Beneath the surface beauty of each image lies a serious question as to the role of a photographer in the context of conflict.
For “Theater of War” Lhuisset traveled to a secret training camp for Iranian-Kurdish peshmerga on the Iran-Iraq border. He photographed the group in posed tableaux, each based on French works dating from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
The 19th-century conflict is particularly interesting, Lhuisset said at the artist talk he gave at the gallery, because it marked a turning point in French artists’ depictions of warfare. Unable to paint inspiring, patriotic images of heroic victory, artists were faced with the prospect of depicting defeat.
As a result, paintings of the dead – commonplace until 1870, and indeed a favourite of artists, then and now – became a taboo in public art, one that endures in war photography a century and a half later.
In his photos, Lhuisset arranges groups of young Kurdish soldiers into tableaux from such famous paintings as Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville’s 1873 work “Les dernières cartouches” (The Last Cartridges) and Edouard Detaille’s “Paul et André Déroulède à Sedan,” from 1907.
The photo based on Detaille’s painting mimics the artist’s composition almost exactly. In the center a tall soldier with a serious expression and an impressive moustache holds the wilting body of a slain younger soldier – a strong echo of Michelangelo’s “Pieta” – the heat of battle forgotten in the face of the reality of death.
The fighting continues behind them, with three soldiers firing at unseen enemies. Lhuisset has even included the spare gun, as if dropped from the hands of the fallen soldier, lying on the grass to the left of the frame.
There the similarities end.
Instead of black military jackets with red piping, the Kurdish fighters wear khaki overalls and muddy white trainers. The fighter on the left is not a young Frenchman, but an Iranian girl, her dark hair pulled back with a pink scrunchy, her left wrist bound by a bright green wristwatch.
It is in the contrast between the two images that the strength and the subtlety of Lhuisset’s work lies. His photographs demonstrate the universality of conflict as well as its conventions of depiction: Foreign soldiers in another country, fighting a different battle over a century later, reiterate strangers in a different places, simply by their deployment within the frame.
At the same time they retain a sense of individuality and of their own time, reminding the viewer that, although in the context of the photo they are playing at war, they are in fact engaged in a very real conflict.
Though Lhuisset’s photos are frankly staged, they provoke the onlooker to wonder about the manipulative craft that shaped the original paintings, the composition designed to evoke a specific emotion in the onlooker. What’s true of a 19th-century painter is equally evident in the work of contemporary photojournalists.
Exhibiting these photos in Beirut adds yet another layer to an already deeply complex show, due to the country’s troubled past and the ongoing risk of instability.
At the end of Lhuisset’s artist talk, one local viewer expressed disquiet. “For someone who has lived through a real war,” she told him, “it is disturbing to see such aesthetically pleasing images of war.”
The artist’s calm response seems to encapsulate the spirit of his work. “But,” ” he asked, “is it really war?”
Emeric Lhuisset’s “Theater of War” is up at the Running Horse Contemporary Art Space in Karantina until Jan. 10. The gallery will be closed for Christmas from Dec. 22 to Jan. 6. For more information please see www.therunninghorseart.com .
By India Stoughton