Solo exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery, 25 November 2008 - 24 January 2009.
By Becky Milligan
We’re standing near some low, mud-moulded buildings in the middle of a small village, it’s dusty and a dry heat makes us sweat under our layers of clothes. We peek through the gap in the walls and catch a glimpse of a courtyard where small Afghan girls are all eyes on their teacher, making notes and occasionally giggling. A rare sight.
We have travelled for a day from Jalalabad to witness it, crisscrossing the mountainous region, dashing across the frontlines on uneven bombed-out roads, where the shells of burnt-out tanks lie rotting in ditches. The Taleban were in charge then, before the War on Terror had erupted. Education for girls was severely restricted. After puberty, they were compelled to wear a burka, masking their shape and form.
Working was virtually impossible since all women had to be accompanied by a male relative when outside the home. Also, bizarrely, they were strictly forbidden to wear white shoes. But here, far away from the seat of power in Kabul, the laws were more relaxed. We are journalists and our aim is to interview some schoolchildren and teachers for our news programme. We grab our cameras and start to roll.
To begin with the teachers are reluctant to speak but after a little cajoling and promises of anonymity they agree to be interviewed, talking hesitantly at first, then with ease. Filming is also forbidden; we are travelling incognito as aid-agency workers, recording how women survive in this medieval regime.
After two or three hours we are pleased with the day’s work and relax by a water pump. One of the thin sinewy village boys grabs the lever and with huge effort pushes it up and down, up and down, and water gushes out.
Now in Copenhagen I am in the magnificent, cavernous, former Carlsberg factory where John Kørner’s large canvases hang, each representing one of the sixteen Danish soldiers killed in Afghanistan during the War on Terror. I notice a painting entitled Mikkel and it takes me straight back to that village. Instead of my producer and me sitting by the water pump there is a faceless figure, a Danish soldier, lying beside it, water splashing on to his body. He is limp, exhausted, probably from the loss of blood, redness spills out on to the whiteness of the painting. On one side a grey shape looms threateningly.
‘It reminds me of a village I went to,’ I tell John when he is showing me the paintings.
‘Oh, I am glad, because I painted a pump from my imagination.’
‘He’s going to die isn’t he?‘ I ask him.
‘He is going to die. Yes.‘
I feel a pang of regret and sadness and wonder whether his grieving family have come to see the painting and what they make of it.
I nudge my producer and point towards the hazy horizon. What’s that? A cloud of dust is moving towards us at great speed. All our gear is laid out on the stony ground, villagers have been chatting amiably with us about what we are doing and who we want to talk to, offering us plenty of tea and food. We now all fall silent and watch in horror. A convoy of open-backed, four-wheel-drive Toyota pick-up trucks are nearly upon us. Young Talibs, we now see, are crammed in, a bobbing crowd of black turbans dressed in Shalwar-kameez, Kalashnikovs swinging gaily at their sides.Read more
They pull up and the Taleban area governor steps out. At that moment I nearly vomit right there in front of him, on his shoes. This is very bad news. If they discover women have been talking to us on camera we could be imprisoned but the Afghan women could face a far worse fate – public execution. We start talking to the Governor very slowly and clearly. He is a most elegant looking man, with dark black kohl painted thickly around his astonishingly pale blue eyes and he has the darkest, glossiest, thick hair. We watch him out of the corner of our eyes; he is not looking or speaking to us directly.
But we notice he smiles and brushes his hair back with a gentle stroke of his hand. And we click. This man is vain, very vain, and gradually we understand, through our interpreter that he would like to be on television. He is willing to turn a blind eye if indeed we turn the camera on and conduct a very proper BBC interview and show himthe pictures afterwards. We thank God.
We were the first journalists to report from a Taleban-run Afghanistan, they were overthrown in 2001 and seven years on more than 50,000 foreign troops are in the country fighting an impenetrable war. The US and Britain are planning to increase those numbers. This is one part of the global War on Terror.
John and I are sitting on comfortable chairs surveying his paintings.
What prompted you to paint dead Danish soldiers? I ask him.
His work has almost never strayed into contemporary politics, let alone war, before; this is a new direction for him. Actually, he says, he was just about to embark on an entirely different project but when he read the news reports about the dead soldiers he felt impelled, propelled even, by such a surge of powerfully profound emotion he had to immediately change his plans. Each one of the sixteen paintings he has painted in honour of the lost soldiers is named after a dead soldier. He will paint a new one for every Danish soldier killed in Afghanistan. He admits that it’s a hot potato, but he shrugs.
I just had lots of questions about what Denmark was doing in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and why a country like ours was involved when we never used to take part in wars. For me, for a whole lot of the Danish people, it is something new that we are in the frontline. He sighs. I wanted to wake up all my friends, colleagues and the citizens to this tragedy. Everyone is aware of the war but are we forgetting the important details?
Was there one report which enraged you or— I probe further.
I was pissed off, he bursts out, by the idea that news reporters were there taking part in a process, sending back articles saying this man was killed by a bomb and then the government excused what had happened, in what he later calls, ‘government talk’. He’s sceptical about the reporting, uncertain of what is true and what isn’t. Each journalist has his or her own agenda and personal interest, or maybe they just met someone who told them a story. They have different angles and see differently the way it is.
His comment begs the question: why didn’t John go to Afghanistan then, to witness the carnage firsthand? Would his paintings command more authenticity, more accurately reflect what the Danish soldiers have to endure, how they live and how those who were killed met their death, the utter futility of war, if he had seen it for himself and not relied on reports which he didn’t entirely trust?
I don’t need to be there, I am talking about the results, this is what happens in war. I don’t need to eat the right food and talk to the Danes or the English. Why should I be thereto see dead bodies – to see what?
In my profession, direct knowledge far outweighs secondhand reports and hearsay. So I go on. To witness it?
To witness what? he repeats. The whole point is not to discover something, I am not writing a book or an academic text, that would be a whole other project. This is my project, to try to create an image of a dead soldier, a dead Danish soldier. He says he didn’t want to be privy to insider knowledge. I want to be equal with everyone else, not a step ahead by discovering something they didn’t know.
That was why it was important for him to stay at home, to glean what he could from the newspapers, just like everyone else does around the world. His entire focus is the image, both shocking and poetical, of that dead person in a faraway country, fighting a war to which we are somehow intimately connected. His message is that this is the result of war: a dead person. He didn’t want this focus to be diluted or dulled or misinterpreted or blurred by any extraneous information.
The painting entitled Thorbjørn shows three women watching a man exploding in front of them. You can see the man’s legs sticking out from what is left of his body, an eruption of blood fountains upwards. It’s shocking and disturbing and the three women around him are there to witness to it. I am entranced and wonder what will happen to those women; are they this dying man’s wife or sister or daughter? And it reminds me of a day in Kabul. We had been kept awake all night by the din of crazy barking from the thousands of rabid dogs that roam Kabul at night.
Mid-morning, weary and hungry, we made our way into this once beautiful city now bombed to smithereens, in search of something edible to lift our flagging spirits. The only restaurant in town, a pretty dingy place if my memory serves me correctly, was open for business. But we weren’t prepared for what we were to find outside this busy, bustling, eatery. As we clambered out of the van, a mass of floating, swaying, pale blue burkas encircled us; bony hands outstretched, long fingers with blackened and swollen nails prodding us in desperation.
They were faceless and expressionless, but their body language was easily understood, they were utterly desperate. As Rahimullah guided us to the restaurant some of the women risked lifting their burkas back over their heads. Maybe they thought if we saw the unbearable suffering woven deeply into their faces we would be more generous.
Who are these women? I asked Rahimullah, our interpreter.
Ahh, Becky, they are war widows, they have no money and are not allowed to work, so they beg.
Our appetites vanished. UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) reported this year, 2008, that there were some 50,000 Afghan war widows in Kabul, 65% of whom, it reported, see suicide as the only option to rid them of their misery and desolation.
The impact of John Kørner’s work on a wider audience – people who might not ordinarily take an interest in art, the politicians, journalists, army families, and even schoolchildren – is new to him. He says, ‘I love the idea that the paintings contain more than personal abstraction or ideas, and that I am actually adding something to the political scene. It’s a beautiful feeling that people actually care about the idea. I’m not used to that I guess.’ He believes Denmark was once a country which didn’t fight wars but instead demonstrated against them, such as during the Vietnam and Gulf wars. He tells me there has been little protest against the War on Terror and the only effective way he could communicate his anger was through his art. During my conversation with John, his passion was close to the surface, he seemed very moved when he talked about the soldiers. He is glad his paintings are having an impact.
After a while we sit there in silence, John and I. The paintings are simple and moving and poetic. In one, a soldier is flying across a blue-and-white sky and I suggest to John that he looks quite joyful, apart from the blood that is pouring out of his chest.
I’m a very positive guy, he laughs. It may sound naïve but I really want to express the poetry, spirituality and the tragedy in death and at the same time show how beautiful the world is.
Victoria Miro Gallery
16 Wharf Road
London N1 7RW