Canadian Art (Fall 2010)
Wind spirals over the Mojave Desert. The mountains in the distance look like the backdrop of a vast, lifeless stage. A toy soldier crawls commando style down a paved highway. A cargo train rolls by without end.
These are the beautiful, sinister opening shots of Emanuel Licha’s two-channel video, Mirages (2010). Cut and we enter Fort Irwin, a US military training centre that replicates an Iraqi town. Thanks to a team of Hollywood experts, not only the buildings are replicated but also, allegedly, the fear and chaos of war. 2000 actors inhabit this “box” (as the army calls it), playing their “culturally correct” roles: Jeff Wall-esque amputees and otherwise wounded soldiers receive their practice first-aid, a bleating goat is pulled on a line, car explosions go off randomly, snipers in ghutras are hunted down, laundry hangs to dry and the muezzin calls for prayer – all within a fiction that extends 1000 square miles.
“It can’t be better than the real thing, but it’s very close,” states a production crew member. Being in a real war would be better? The cultural thirst for immersive experience is not satiated by VR, IMAX and video games. Spectacle is premised on distance when what is asked for now is full sensory infliction. But at what point does the wilful suspension of disbelief turn into unconscious deception? This faux town includes a viewing platform for training journalists in the construction of war imagery. There is also a faux hotel with a window the proportions of a movie screen. Licha reveals these privileged, highly photogenic viewpoints as fodder for faux engagement. His camera pans flat, static images of the perches as if grazing for a way through to the other side of their military (and commercial) deployment.
The viewpoint of Mirages is also controlled by a plywood structure: the video is seen through a picture-window sized aperture like that in Fort Irwin. This mis-en-abyme prevents Licha’s work from slipping into the posture of critique. Instead, he questions the possibility of ever decorticating reality from the layers of mediatization and positions himself as complicit with the proliferation of the photogenic. As curator Stephen Horne states, “Contemporary art, the military/corporate sphere and terrorism are all using the same media.” Licha’s viewing apparatus emphasizes what the video addresses: producing the right image is a source of control.
So why photogenic? For palatable consumption, for persuasive rhetoric, for the lure of beauty as a way to sell unimaginable pain. Only the goat’s cry cuts through the mirage. Reminiscent of Picasso’s sculptures and drawings that comment on the Korean War, this obstinate vulnerable goat might even suggest a moral stance.