Sydney Writers' Festival - Telling Stories: Conflict in Art

25 May 2013

Michael Fried
Renowned critic, Michael Fried.

A photographic journalist, an artist, and an art critic make a well-rounded panel of speakers on this bright and sunny Saturday at the Sydney Writers' Festival.

MCA's senior curator Rachael Kent leads award-winning photographer Ben Lowy, Afghan artist Khadim Ali, and renowned critic Michael Fried, in Telling Stories: Conflict in Art, a discussion on the visual presentation of human trauma.

Mounted above the stage in the Richard Wherret Studio is a projecting screen. The photographs that intersperse the talks are shown here and are larger than life, affecting and powerful.

Lowy begins with his incredibly visceral photos. They are emotive, showing us both the war-torn land of the Middle East, a stereotype we are all familiar with, and the less-known realities of the people. A carousel in the desert, grieving men, and a child on a bicycle. The audience is quiet, respective and reverent.

"I'm making images that tell of the humanity of men to other men," he says into the silence. He is very clear about one thing: he is not an artist. He has a contract with the public to portray a reality, but to call it art, he opines, is problematic both ethically and functionally.

"It's an aesthetic bridge of communication," he says. His photos are emotive, full of feeling and strength. His voice is equally so.

Khadim Ali follows with a history and explanation of his miniature paintings, works that reflect conflict in the Middle East. His paintings are in the Persian tradition, depicting fictional demons. These demons become metaphoric representations for the darker side of war. For him, the conflict represented in his art is all too real.

"I am documenting my own dark history," he says, "Making art is like taking refuge." His incredible backstory, both dangerous and distant to us, has the audience shaking their heads in disbelief.

Michael Fried takes us back to the evolution of the photograph in the 80s to, the making of the tableau as a communicative form of art. He then explores in great detail the concepts behind the work of artist Luke Delahaye.

"I've found this - every time I've seen it - to be extraordinarily gripping," he says as he stands before a particularly graphic photo featuring a mass grave. Certainly, the conflict is quite clear in Delahaye's work. The story he tells is one of confrontation in war. His photos bear witness to direct encounters on the battlefield, and Fried is adamant to explain to us the viewer's role in looking at these photos.

"It's about the relation that you bear to the piece," he says. Standing directly in front of such powerful images, he explains, is an experience unto itself.

Conflict is one of the most commanding thematic overtones we can experience in art. It confronts us, appeals to our emotions, and draws upon the foundation of our humanity. It produces in us a real, emotive response. Whether it is reportage, the click of camera or the perfection of the miniature painting, conflict in art tells a story that needs to be heard. In each their own way, our panel has made this clear. It is now our turn, the viewer's turn, to reflect.

Contact: Kate Mayor

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