My focus on Dante’s poem as an inspiration was though its exploration of morality in politics. I grew up through the Reagan/Thatcher years and I feel that they have had a far greater influence than most today would care to think. Policies that were adopted through dogma rather than through necessity have had far reaching ramifications that are only now being questioned. The ideology of the supremacy of free-market capital at any cost have in some regards, with the assistance of other unforeseen contributory factors, created a far more politically uncertain world than that of the Cold War era.
Until 2001 the defining and conveniently heroic political moment of the post-war years had been the fall of Communism. In the western popular imagination, led by an increasingly accommodating media, the breaking of the Berlin wall became a convenient metaphor for a supposed end of ideologies. The events of September 11 2001 certainly put an end to that optimistic, simplistic and hubristic narrative. The attacks on America did not come out of a void; they were the latest chapter in a story that can be traced back through the machinations of generations of the world’s powerful elites. The sorry story of political and religious conflict rolls on and its crushing inevitability now falls heaviest on the lives of the ordinary citizen. Those with the least ability to affect political change are those that are subject to the most uncertainty and misery because of political change.
In terms of the outcome of that day in September the reasons underlying the attack remain academic. Ordinary people suffered extraordinarily – that should be the focus that develops a positive political difference. This suffering of the civilian is the constant in modern conflict that is dragging humanity back to the morality of the mediaeval. Conflict has developed from the ancient terrorizing of cities, to the formalised ‘civility’ of wars in distant fields to the World Wars fought firstly in fields and open seas, and then in and over cities. Now we have returned full circle to the notion of the urban civilian as legitimate target. This change has been a gradual evolution for most of the world, but for America it was a harsh and sudden return.
Those that instigated the attacks will defend it as being ‘deserved’ or ‘necessary’, and so again we return to a catalogue of blame, counter-blame, justified responses, outrages, conflicts, wars, civil-wars, terrorist outrages, political coups and violence. Always violence. Surely the perpetually preferred, political expedient of violence in response to violence is the negation of any enlightened sense of moral progress. With the instigators always secure and the powerless always the victim. Regardless of flag, faith or ideology the result is always the same and the attacks on New York exemplified this; as did the political response in the Middle East.
The Purgatorio is driven by the relationship between virtues and vice. Sin is not independent of love but directly dependant on it – through it being a product of a chaotic, perverted or misrepresented love. Whereas the Inferno seems to present an unremitting fall to a predictable and inevitable end, the Purgatorio presents the opportunity to the reader to believe in the ability to change an unfavourable fate. There is optimism within the poem, even at that simplest level of the journey being represented as an ascent rather than the Inferno’s descent.
I am not relating the Purgatorio to New York and September 11 through the deaths on that day. I am looking at the world’s perception of America as an imagined political and cultural entity and how the individual suffering was lost to the slogan of ‘America under attack’. A New Yorker reinforced my own thoughts when he stated that on that day, and for a short time after, he felt that America had the sympathy of the world; but all this was lost when the inevitable, predictable war machine started to roll.
The work, though specific to Dante’s writing will also feature elements of images found from the internet, particularly of people in New York that terrible day. Another aspect of my work in the past has featured significant press images as reference for my oil paintings. This is done intentionally (rather than creating fictitious characters) because I feel that it makes the viewer reassess their generally ambivalent attitude to such photographic images. People look at a painting with far more intensity than they do a photograph.
I am also constructing an assumed and complete narrative of the major elements of the day in New York on the basis of found video footage. One large landscape painting, in the fashion of the traditional ‘history’ genre, made from connected canvas panels. This, shown in Manhattan, relates the exhibition location as being in the considered centre of architectural and corporate ideological progress, but being brought low by one of the oldest human traits – it is the story of Modernism versus Medievalism. Optimism versus Nihilism.
This is a collection of work recognising the suffering of the American people on that day and I hope it will be seen as respectful to the memories of all those that died and suffered as a result – both in New York and beyond. William Blake wrote: “Can I see another’s woe, and not be in sorrow, too? Can I see another’s grief, and not seek for kind relief?” Despite the many cultural differences of the peoples of the world we are all essentially united by our humanity; our common desires, hopes and despairs.
Some people have tried to warn me away from taking 9/11 as subject matter. I do not feel I have to justify my position and I hope that the work demonstrates my belief that peace will only awaken when vengeance finally sleeps.
One painting from the Purgatorio work