Throughout history, humans have turned to art to help remember and make sense of war.
In Australia, the role of artists as eyewitnesses to conflict was formalised more than a century ago, when the first ‘official war artists’ were appointed to paint the battlefields of World War One.
Some of the country’s foremost artists have depicted military engagements since then – from Arthur Streeton’s famous landscapes of the Somme, to Archibald Prize winner Wendy Sharpe’s haunting paintings of war-weary civilians in Timor-Leste.
But what happens to those artists when they come home?
At the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, Honorary Professor Jon Cattapan, in collaboration with fellow former war artist (and close friend) Professor Charles Green, has been exploring responses to conflict through a series of Australian Research Council (ARC) funded projects.
Professor Green, alongside his partner and co-artist Dr Lyndell Brown (the first Australian woman to work in a war zone as an official war artist), photographed Australian troops throughout the Middle East, including Afghanistan and Iraq in 2007. Around a year later, Professor Cattapan worked alongside peacekeeping forces in Timor-Leste in 2008 and 2009.
Despite being exposed to very different conflict zones, the artists found their work – and their lives - altered by their time there.
Professor Cattapan’s experience of wearing night-vision goggles on patrol made a lasting aesthetic impact on his work. Professor and Dr Green’s experience prompted them to move from central Melbourne to regional Victoria, where they have since created a large native garden.
“We were drawn to nature as a salve for the destruction we witnessed in Afghanistan and Iraq,” says Professor Green.
But perhaps most significantly, since 2011, art as research has become all three artists’ central methodology.
Like so much of their work over the past ten years, it was a response to conflict.
“The project explored ways of coping, of being resilient and strategies for minimising damage to our country and ourselves,” says Professor Green.
It resulted in a new, edited book, an exhibition and a two-day conference. A major painting (also called Afterstorm) from the exhibition was acquired for the permanent collection of the University’s Ian Potter Museum of Art.
Afterstorm: the book
The book, edited by Professors Cattapan and Green, features a collection of essays that respond to, but also challenge, the notion of gardens as places of respite from conflict.
“It is definitely not a celebration of place,” says Professor Green.
“Gardens are immensely charged motifs that revolve around turbulence and inevitably, in Australia, on the place (or absence) of Aboriginal people.”
In the book, renowned Gunditjimarra elder, activist and Deakin University’s Professor Richard Frankland pens a letter to Australia reflecting on the consequences of land being taken rather than ceded, with gardens as sites of dispossession.
World-leading lung specialist and visual arts graduate Professor Gary Anderson also writes about the role gardens have played providing plants for drugs since the early modern period, and art historian Professor Jennifer Milam reflects on the slavery that built Thomas Jefferson’s famous Monticello garden.
The book’s cover features the Afterstorm painting, which was a collaboration between Lyndell Brown, Charles Green and Jon Cattapan.
The artists collaborated on the piece over many months, painting over each other’s images until they were all satisfied it was complete. For an artist, there’s isn’t a much greater sign of trust.
“Very often good things happen through friendship,” says Professor Cattapan.
“We would send those creative art parcels up and down the highway between Morabbin and Castlemaine after having worked over and over the pictures for months, and then another one of us would pour paint over the top of it. We’d genuinely think ‘great’.”
Research through art
Professors Cattapan and Green were the first academics in Australia to receive an ARC Discovery Project grant to make art, rather than research about art. Since that 2011 award, they have secured two further substantial Discovery Australian Research Council grants to conduct research through art.
“Receiving the third grant in succession was really satisfying,” says Professor Cattapan.
“Like STEM researchers, we’ve created a team that has consistently produced recognised research outputs.”
Their first project explored the aftermath of sites where Australia has been involved in conflict and peacekeeping. The second traced 100 years of conflict since 1918, uncovering themes of turbulence and entropy that survive to the present day.
Their current ARC Special Research Initiative grant is investigating the experience of Australia’s many, long-lasting wars at home.
“While we’re not in a conventionally declared war at home, there are several reasons why Australians should think about the present through great, ongoing conflicts that we prefer to ignore,” says Professor Green.
“This pandemic has subjected us to all the classic constraints of war at home, with measures like closed borders. We’re also experiencing violent climate warming and the enormous damage that is wreaking.
“And then, underneath all that, there are the ongoing Frontier wars that white settler society has waged on Indigenous peoples up to and including the present day.”
Their work has produced a long series of what universities call ‘non-traditional research outputs’; essentially research outcomes that aren’t classic peer-reviewed papers or books but which have been subject to parallel processes of review, validation and debate.
These include substantial public exhibitions of original works of art, accompanied by publications explaining and analysing the works’ significance.
“Like scientists, we put our research work out there in a set of densely argued hypotheses, proposals and outcomes that the viewer or the specialist audience will respond to,” says Professor Cattapan.
“It’s an interesting development in how we think about research at the university.”
And while artist academics may not have thought of themselves as researchers two or three decades ago, things are changing across the sector.
Professor Cattapan points to the increasing number of Australia Council grant advertisements looking for artists who will work as researchers by way of example.
“Back when Charles and I were at art school, the prevailing view was that you let the art do the talking for you,” he says.
“But by the early 80s, that had ruptured, and artists became more willing to argue a case and debate their work.”
And in today’s uncertain world, with its experience of continual turbulence and conflict, universities are crying out for artists willing to take on the challenge of joining in research consortiums.
Afterstorm: Gardens, Art and Conflict, is published by Art + Australia and available now. ISBN 978-0-6485474-5-7.
Banner: Afterstorm I + II (2019), by Lyndell Brown, Charles Green and Jon Cattapan. Oil and axcrylic on linen (two panels). Picture: Supplied