Behold Man, Ape with Guns: Reflections on Modern Warfare in the Sculpture of James Horan

Accompanying text for the touring exhibition Behold Man: Apes with Guns, a solo show of stone sculpture by James Horan, Pearse Museum, Rathfarnham, Dublin, 9 May – 19 July 2015

(All photos courtesy of Ben)

This series of sculptures by James Horan (five in Carrara and Kilkenny marble and a sixth in Zimbabwean opal and Kilkenny marble (the latter after which this exhibition is named), is the product of sustained, earnest reflection on contemporary wars and their impact on masculinity but also the manner in which the desensitizing power of media and technology confronts individual agency. The group as a whole dwells on the innocence and the loss of that innocence through acts of war, as well as the malleability of ordinary, sometimes ignorant, human beings in the hands of the powerful.

Each piece centres on an aspect of war that is of concern to the artist, deepened by his reading of ex-soldiers’ accounts of their experiences of warfare, specifically Shake Hands with the Devil by General Roméo Dalaire which treats the failure of a United Nations mission during the Rwandan genocide, and Dr Tom Clonan’s Whistleblower, Solider, Spy, which tracks Clonan’s personal experience as an officer and later whistleblower in the Irish army, as well as his personal experience in the United Nations Interim (peacekeeping) Force in Lebanon and its accompanying psychological trauma.[1] Horan reflects on the perpetual state of war that has marked the past hundred years, beginning with the mass slaughter of World War I, which ushered in the age of fully mechanized warfare. Horan’s work dwells on a century that historian Niall Ferguson has called ‘history’s age of hatred’, without question the most horrific, hateful and bloodiest on record.[2] At the heart of it, Horan reflects, ‘are men making decisions to conquer or control geographical areas of mineral, monetary or political value. A blanket of public relations campaigns, among other things, will excuse it, explain it, mask it and tell the world it is for the best but when all is said and done young soldiers on both sides and innocent civilians die. The poor are made poorer, countries are devastated for generations to come and the powers in control get richer and the world keeps turning’. The media, in turn, punctuates the attention that most of us spare on a given conflict, and is therefore complicit, at least indirectly. This latter element, blinkering us from the full extent of the killing and destruction in any given conflict, has been, perhaps, the artist’s greatest motivator in creating these pieces: ‘I had duly [been] forgetting each conflict as the coverage ended, as if the killing and destruction stopped once the media had decided to move on. De-sensitised by mass media, I now found myself re-sensitised and was moved to express or explain how I felt’.

This desensitisation is also embedded in the cultus of the militant male critiqued by Horan’s sculptures, where he rejects the fantasy of the clean-kill myth and the fascination with weapons technology. The idea of play married to this fascination with weapons furthers the possibility of distancing the user/soldier from their effects.

Culture more generally – high and low – is also complicit in excusing war. The male soldier – at least as he is generally presented to us in the history of Western art – is above all manly: his virility and heroism is enhanced by his self-sacrifice in ‘protecting one’s own’. Within the countless representations in Western art history, one may draw compelling conclusions between this traditional image of the soldier’s body and that of Horan’s. Hewn from marble and naked, as are the bodies of the fallen warriors in the iconic friezes of the Pergamon Altar, any similarity between Classical sculpture – and indeed monumental commemorative sculpture in the present – and Horan’s ‘soldiers’ ends there. The Pergamon figures are among the works of art that provided the foundations of the Western Tradition and the figures’ influence, albeit less so in the past century, is enormous. The Pergamon figures are memorable because of their idealised beauty, even eroticism, and how they are presented: they die in battle and die nobly. It is no accident why such imagery of the warrior endures (indeed, within an art-historical context, much commemorative war art is stylistically regressive). While such clean representations of the act of war or warriorhood provide soothing balm for the mourning (and avoids insulting fallen soldiers), they also perpetuate a highly idealized – and seductive – image of fighting men and women. It is an image that works to the advantage of the powerful because it plays down if not conceals responsibility for lives lost – basically, much official art poses few difficult questions about the nature of war. The extraordinary pervasiveness of such outmoded imagery is despite the substantial body of literature on the often traumatic experience of modern and contemporary soldierhood. For instance, Philip Jackson’s recent sculpture for the Royal Air Force, the Bomber Command Memorial, unveiled in Green Park, London, 2012 and presented within Liam O’Connor’s classical framework, reflects the endurance of Classical models. But far beyond the bounds of art-historical study, current popular media – most visibly popular computer games – the Classical image of the heroic male survives – indeed thrives – in the countless configurations of bulked-up warriors. Play has rarely been so consumed by the subject of war. Traditionally, it has been independent artists, like James Horan, who work to challenge such imagery, as convincingly demonstrated by the recent major exhibition of war art at the Louvre-Lens.[3] In stripping away this idealization – in paring back the gloss to expose the roots of warfare and by utilizing the traditional medium of marble to emphasise both the link and diametric opposite in form and content to commemorative war sculpture, Horan challenges and compels the viewer to dwell instead on war’s perpetration and question it. 


game over, generation alpha.In Game Over: Generation Alpha a male figure is seated on a predator drone which he controls via a games console, commenting on the fact that there is little difference in the working method employed by a gamer or a military drone controller, each of whom remotely controls the avatars/drones under his/her watch. In an article by Mark Brown in The Guardian newspaper (28 July 2013), a former drone operator confessed that his activities as a member of the US military staff who fly drones from Nevada, was ‘really is a lot like playing a computer game – like playing the same video game four years straight on the same level. Brown remarked that politicians such as US Republican senator Lindsay Graham accept the accidental killing of the innocent through this method because ‘we’re at war’. The sophistication of predator drones – basically remote control by satellite – furthers the illusion of the clean kill because the ‘killer’ is so far removed from the reality of his/her actions, while military parlance such as ‘neutralizing the enemy’ delineates sharply the difference between legitimate killing and murder, and aids the desensitization of soldiers from the suffering of the enemy. Since Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes experienced man-to-man combat nearly forty years ago, the hero-trip has become easier:

Fantasize about a laser beam so fine you could slice an airplane’s wing off with no more than a hairline cut – or a man’s head with no blood at all. […] It allows the hero-trip without any cost. […] As we get more technologically advanced there are more and more policy makers tempted to live out this fantasy. Even the language is getting neat and tidy, as in “surgical strike.”[4]

War Machine(with tank)War Machine with Tank depicts an oversized figure controlling the machine beneath it. This figure’s bodily and facial features are reduced to their primal essence, appearing almost ape-like, while the hands and feet are oversized (a characteristic of much of Horan’s oeuvre), emphasizing their function. Thus this ‘dehumanized’ and hence unpredictable presence appears more reckless and menacing while the perfectly smooth, gleaming surfaces of the polished Kilkenny marble reflects the lurid beauty of contemporary war machinery. The title, describing the figure rather than the tank as ‘war machine’, is a clear reference to the desensitizing rituals of military training which, in preparing men and women for war – that is, killing – demands the subordination of moral volition in face of the enemy. On another level, the figure represents those in power and their control over the fate of soldiers. Horan reflects on the young soldier who has limited knowledge of whom his opponent truly is – his and his adversary’s lowly status of being a cog in the wheel. He trusts in his own superiors’ persuasive demonization of the enemy which makes the killing right. Veterans of modern warfare have reflected that most terrorists are not devils but horribly ignorant people. Marlantes asks if the Western soldier’s embodiment of killer is much different: ‘we ended up fighting for a government that was napalming villages to defend the shoppers back home against the evils of “international Communism”. These “devils” begin to look suspiciously similar – and spurious’ (Marlantes, p. 54). The figure’s grip on the barrel of the tank bears a resemblance to Don McCullin’s famous photograph of a shell-shocked American marine gripping the barrel of his rifle but with the message completely turned on its head.

AfterthoughtThe lineage of Afterthought clearly includes Auguste Rodin’s Thinker (earliest version begun 1880). Stylistically, The Thinker was clearly founded in the tradition of the heroic, physically idealized male nude and seems to contemplate the fate of Man in fighting the sins of self-indulgence, malice and violence. Considering the enduring idealization of the male body within tropes of militant masculinity, and the frequent motif of war as hell, it is not surprising that Horan has looked to Rodin’s figure as a starting point for reflection on war. Afterthought, however, also subverts these traditional attributes.

Afterthought depicts a male figure holding the pin from the grenade on which he crouches. The frightened expression, the right hand covering the mouth, is the realisation of his impending doom and is blackly comedic. The oversized grenade and simplified contours of the figure are redolent – as in War Machine with Tank – of the mismatched scale of mass-produced toys jumbled together in a boy’s toy chest – Action Man figures thrown together with Lone Star toy guns. In this manner, Afterthought reflects on the experience of boyhood as part-indoctrination of values associated with male adulthood – specifically notions of manliness/heroism and soldierhood/war and the lure of war as adventure. The fact that the sculpture is carved from Carrara marble, the material used for countless renderings of the heroic male nude, makes Horan’s treatment of the figure even more disarming. Missing are the dry, hard, muscled contours, the perfect proportions and facial features generally found in such figures, particularly in monumental war art; one might even consider Horan’s slack-bodied figure as physically devoid of ‘maleness’. Horan has stripped away all idealisation and instead presents a masculinity that affects because of its innocence, propensity to err, vulnerability and fear.

Our finest hourOur Finest Hour considers the impact of the most widely used assault weapon in military history. Part of the Kalashnikov family, the AK 47 was developed between 1946 and 1948, entered use in 1949 and remains popular, numbering around 70 million of an estimated five hundred million firearms in use. It is one of the most familiar and familiarizing weapons in the media imagery of war, and a weapon of choice in official and guerrilla warfare. This is particularly the case in zones of low-tech combat – developing nations – from where countless images of boy and youth soldiers are regularly flashed across our television screens. Our Finest Hour depicts a figure clambering on an out-sized AK 47; the figure is literally ‘loving the gun’, coveting it, which seems to comment on the glamourizing of weaponry, warfare and its destructive power. The work of acclaimed war photojournalist Don McCullin, which has recorded many of the most savage conflicts of the past five decades, evidences the constancy of this weapon across world conflicts since the middle of the twentieth century; one can trace its growing pervasiveness, almost as an object of desire.[5]

In referencing the ubiquity of this weapon, Horan poses the question of what our time in history will be remembered for. Recalling the famous scene in the 1933 film King Kong, where the ape climbs the Empire State Building – that age’s symbol of human endeavour – Horan asks what will really be our stamp on earth – ‘will future archaeologists be uncovering more bullets than bones?’

IMAG1557All They Know is a poignant, emotive sculpture of a sleeping baby, endearingly depicted as contented babies often sleep, curled up with their thumb in their mouths. One does not immediately notice that the contours of the ‘mattress’, are formed by four bullets. Children reared up in ongoing conflicts are normalised to the sounds of gunfire, explosions, shouting and screaming. Thus they accept warfare as part and parcel of life. Horan asks about the fate of such children as adults: How does one respect the value of life when one has seen no such respect? How might a human born into violence, raised in anger and distrust and accustomed to death adjust to a peaceful society?

Many powerful men and women have not served in the military but as Michael Moore sought to demonstrate in his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, they avoid sending their own children to warzones while indulging in the age-old language of heroism in seducing young men and women into fighting for ‘the honour of one’s country’. Yes, this phrase is a familiar Americanism, but it is also a working social construct that has and perhaps always will traverse cultures; its appearance might differ (would we ordinarily compare contemporary American soldiers with the children wielding Kalashnikovs in the Congo in the sixties?) but the goal of the powerful is essentially the same. Embed such tropes in the mind from youth (one may argue that the information age has diminished the power of such tropes but the evidence speaks differently) and war will remain much less repulsive than it ought to.

[1] Roméo Dalaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: the Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (London: Arrow, 2004); Tom Clonan, Whistleblower, Soldier, Spy: A Journey into the Dark Heart of the Global War on Terror (Dublin: Liberties Press, 2013).

[2] Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred (London: Penguin, 2006).

[3] The Disasters of War 1800-2014, Louvre-Lens, Lens, France, curated by Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, 28 May – 6 October 2014. See Laurence Bertrand Dorléac (ed.), The Disasters of War 1800-2014, exh. cat. (Paris: Somogy, 2014).

[4] Karl Marlantes, What it is like to go to War (London: Atlantic, 2011), p. 72.

[5] Don McCullin, Shaped by War (London: Jonathan Cape, 2010); pp. 59- 61: Congolese government troops abusing Simba prisoners accused of participating in the massacre of hostages, Stanleyville, Congo, 1964; pp. 150-51: Phalangists, Beirut, Lebanon, 1982; pp. 152-53: Phalangists with the body of a Palestinian girl, Beirut, Lebanon, 1976.