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Through the eyes of art

10 Dec 2019

Through the eyes of art Image

By Rhonda Dredge

The Shrine of Remembrance is turning towards art in a bid to connect with its audience and to promote fresh ideas on the nature of war and its aftermath.

The first of three exhibitions that take a less historical view on Australia’s battles opened last month.

Through the Eyes of the Son tracks the thinking of one photographer over the past 50 years.

John Williams has never been to war but has dealt with it through his father’s attitudes and a photographic record of key events and sites.

There has been and will probably always be conflict between the aims of the armed forces and those of families left to deal with the dead and afflicted.

This exhibition is memorable because it gives space to a son to reflect on the fact that his father wanted nothing to do with commemorative events and histories written by others.

His father, a veteran, had no time for the “rubbish” in newspapers, books or patriotic events, according to the exhibition blurb. In other words, he believed that experience is lived and not constructed.

This idea spurred on the son on to develop his own vision which he did by attending Anzac Day marches from 1964 to 2003 with his camera, taking up an artist’s residence in Europe where he photographed memorials and bullet holes in buildings and by looking for hidden narratives using photomontage techniques.

His black and white photographs are on exhibition at the Shrine of Remembrance in a retrospective, which focuses on the artist rather than a topic.

Williams went on to be head of the Department of Photography and Film at the Sydney College of the Arts. During his life span he reflected on war and the exhibition maps attitudes, trends in art, as well as places and people.

Yet the strongest image, despite all of this thinking, belongs to a recalcitrant, jaw-jutting, pugnacious digger with a cigarette in his mouth from a 1964 Anzac Day march in Martin Place.

By 2003, according to Williams’ small anecdotal study of the march, diggers were looking older and more haunted by their memories. Changing attitudes towards war suggested that the story had become more complicated.

Even in 1975 ex-soldiers still appeared to be playing the role of war hero, with medals on their jackets and a sense of pride in their accomplishments but the later montages reveal that it was becoming increasingly impossible to ignore German and French versions of the story.

“This is one of our special exhibitions,” said curator Kate Spinks. “We’ve tried to do something a bit different.”

She said that while most of the main exhibitions at the Shrine were essentially historical relating to particular conflicts, this exhibition allowed for a more artistic interpretation.

“This is a great opportunity to explore different questions about the way people communicate not just soldiers,” she said.

She said that Williams was interested in unpacking the theme of ANZAC Day and looking at it with a critical eye.

“I think art gives you a sense of freedom to explore alternative narratives and aspects of history that you can’t explore through traditional artifact-based history displays.”

If this is the case, then why does the image of the 1964 veteran lord it over an exhibition of varied and more nuanced responses to war?

“For me, the more I looked at it the more it changed,” Kate said. “I saw real emotion in the eyes and face the more I looked at it and thought about the themes.”

Through the Eyes of the Son, A John Williams Retrospective, 1933-2016, The Shrine of Remembrance until April 2020.

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