Bearing Witness, Not Weapons
Jill Gibbon Skypes with our European Editor
DN: Thank you very much for talking to the New Art Examiner today. I wanted to know a little bit about your background. When did you first think you were going to be an artist? When did you first decide you wanted to be an artist?
JG: Oh, that goes back a really long, long time ago. I think I couldn’t really imagine doing anything else. I think one of the ways I have always understood the world is through drawing. I’ve always just felt as if drawing offers something that writing doesn’t. Interesting, actually, when I was young drawing really wasn’t done in the art world. It was a method that was beginning to be seen as irrelevant and was being replaced by photography. So, that made it an even stranger choice but it is one that I have become increasingly committed to. Drawing offers something that it is very hard to capture in other mediums.
DN: You went to art school I presume?
JG: I did. It took quite a long time actually. I came to the UK from Australia and spent quite a few years as an activist. I was involved in the peace movement in the 1980s when the cruise missiles were coming to the UK; at that moment that seemed to be the only thing that seemed relevant. It seemed so pressing, the Cold War, the siting of the cruise missiles, and that really took up all my energy. Then I went to art school, Leeds Polytechnic. After that I did an MA at Keele in contemporary art. It was some years after that, that I did a PhD at Wimbledon School of Art, that was really, really useful. That is where I began to tease out all the sorts of assumptions about why does drawing no longer seem relevant?, why does representational work theme?, apolitical and unpolitical; that was sort of the crux of the matter I was looking at. But particularly about drawing in relation to war. That was the real underlying question in my PhD.
DN: So, you met or you were part of the women on Greenham Common?
JG: Yes. Absolutely. I went to Greenham Common. I visited a couple of times. I was part of women’s peace activism in Leeds and we went fairly regularly to visit Greenham Common, and that was phenomenally influential. In terms of ideas of witnessing, in terms of using your body as(pause) simply the idea of placing your body in militarized places.
DN: As someone who was completely unarmed and unprotected.
JG: Absolutely. Just to go in and situate your body there. That idea of witnessing has been a thread through my work ever since, I would say. What began to really interest me in later years was that, if you look at official war art, war art is often described as a form of witnessing and it is often described as an eye-witness account, which is odd for starters because it offers this idea of an eye, detached, hovering over events. As if the artist’s body is irrelevant, or not there. I began to get really intrigued about what would happen if we replaced that idea of witnessing with this activist feminist idea where witnessing is all about your body, and it’s all about situating your body in militarized spaces in an oppositional way. That’s the key difference. Not as a detached observer but as an embodied protest.
DN: You raise a question in my mind that I didn’t latch onto when reading about you. When looking at the history of the victimization in war, the long history, you are actually empowering yourself by going to these arms fairs and you’re putting women at the centre of the argument in a very powerful way. You are saying we are not victims, we are going to talk about this and we are going to expose what you are doing.
JG: Oh, absolutely and there is also an element there, and it’s one of the things I’m very aware of using, of the invisibility of women. You talk about how women and children have often been the targets, the victims, of war and I think that is also kept invisible. What tends to be focused upon is the war zone, not the aftermath, nor the impact. There is also something about becoming a middle-aged woman and being invisible. I really enjoy using that invisibility. What I have realized is, if I put on the suit and have this kind of veneer of respectability, no one notices me. I can just slip in and out of the aisles. Wearing pearls helps because that situates me in a particular class so that I am invisible and kind of respectable as long as I’ve got the pearls and the heels. So, it’s playing with all kinds of myths of gender and femininity and absolutely subverting them. You know, the idea of the powerlessness of women, the idea that they are victims of war; it’s trying to turn that on its head and get inside the military industrial complex and (slight laugh)… What? That’s always been the question for me, what then? And there again, one of my guiding principles, really is this idea of feminist witnessing. Simply to be there, and then one of the ways I stay there is through the drawing. I feel very much at sea if I am not drawing. I draw in small notebooks so it appears that I’m taking notes. I think there is a particular look of concentration that comes on my face so it’s a way that I can seem that I am meant to be there.
DN: If I may go back a bit just to ask you, the drawing is obviously vital as you are drawing while you are there. And I’ve looked at your drawings which have an immediacy and the rough-hewn quality that you’re there getting it all down. When did you realize that drawing can have this kind of power within the context of an arms fair?
JG: it’s been a real process. And the drawings have really changed and how I use the drawings has changed. And I would say it’s an ongoing process of exploration, what I can do drawing in the arms fairs. I would say when I first went into an arms fair I was really, really shocked. And I would say of my first experience I was in shock. And you can see that in the initial sketchbooks they’re really frantic and I felt totally out of my depth and I think the drawings are a bit out of their depth and they are highly caricatured because I think I just felt in shock and angry, and all of that comes through. As time has gone on I have begun to think more deeply about what I’m doing with the drawing. What is this achieving? And with that, what I do with the drawing has changed. I’ve become really interested in this veneer of respectability and in the sales gestures and all the little rituals that contribute to this veneer of respectability. And what has begun to occur to me is that by representing those gestures, it’s a way of interrupting them. That’s very much influenced by Brecht in fact. Because Brecht writes about the use of gesture in theatre: you interrupt the gesture and you free the gesture, you quote it, you draw attention to it. By drawing attention to all these little rituals that provide this veneer of respectability I’m interrupting it. The other thing that has happened is that the longer I have been in arms fairs I have been looking at people really closely. And I have begun to realize that this veneer of respectability is very incomplete, there are cracks all over the place. There are cracks and fractures. People drink a lot. People get sick. I have seen reps vomit twice, (they may be simply exhausted) but people with their heads in their hands, kinds of manipulation, seduction, kinds of lecherous lunges at the young female rep; it’s all there underneath the polite surface. So the other thing I do is to try to grab those moments and it’s all done on location so it is very chancy. Another big question for me is how I show the drawings because a lot of the purpose of drawing is to survive simply being there, but then I realized I have got this archive that to an extent reveals the life within an arms fair. The way I exhibit them at the moment is an entire sketchbook. I tend to draw in concertina sketchbooks so I can show the whole thing open. The other thing, I draw in, little notebooks, are shown open. I think the moment I take the drawings out of the sketchbook and try to neaten them up or in any way work to tidy them up it loses that connection to the witness, essentially. The drawings are a document of an intervention, they are also a document of a performance because I’m always performing while I’m in there.
DN: I never gave it a second thought that you might have tidied them up after the fact. You feel these are done in that minute. You and I, I think, would completely agree that human beings no matter where they are or what they’re doing never cease to be the animal they are and there will always be a certain banality to their behaviour. One of the questions that strikes me and my readers from an art point: the tradition of drawing how you learn to draw has a huge aesthetic history.
JG: Oh yes.
DN: There is an aesthetic, however horrible, in armaments.
JG: Yes, oh god yes!
DN: There is a certain strange beauty about that bullet, this missile and you bring that out in your work. And when you bear witness to this are you witnessing to the fact that human beings even when they create something terrible have to put a bit of beauty into what they make?
JG: The aesthetics of the arms trade are absolutely key. Arms fairs in themselves are highly aesthetic events. I define and think about aesthetic experience as a sensuous experience and arms fairs are incredibly sensuous events. There’s music, there’s champagne, there’s food and then there’s the weaponry which is presented spotlit, new, shining. When you are talking about the bullets they are displayed in cases absolutely exquisitely spotlit, revolving. It is all about it being new and never about its use. You never see this material when it’s exploded or its impact on people and communities. So the aesthetics of the event is a really important challenge in how I represented and how I interrupted those aesthetics. You talked about the aesthetics of drawing. I have become increasingly aware of the connotations attached to different drawing traditions and I have begun to try to use those much more deliberately. So when I first went in there, as I said, I used to caricature wildly and I still will have moments of that and there the influence is George Gross and sometimes I will try quite deliberately to reference George Gross. I think one of the things George Gross did so brilliantly was to get a sense of that really disturbing intersection between the beauty and the horror of the Wiemar Republic. The young party-goers in their dresses, the beautiful prostitutes: but war profiteering absolutely infected with that. So, I quite deliberately try to reference George Gross in the history of war profiteering but also the other tradition of drawing is basically Renaissance drawing. The preparation. In quite a traditional way I will draw from Michelangelo drawing, Raphael, just to familiarize myself with those conventions. So, the angel looking upwards, a certain tilt of the hand, and then I will use those tropes in the drawings to get at the way that, potentially, the arms world is trying to present itself as civilized. So, for instance, with the classical music everything being terribly polite; and I suppose, Renaissance drawing if it has one connotation it is civilization. The civilized West. So I will bring in those little tropes but I will always then try to interrupt them in some way by having them next to a missile. It is always a dilemma. I think some of the drawings are too polite, they simply reproduce the veneer and I might go into another phase of George Gross caricature for a while so it’s a kind of uneasy balance between those two very different approaches.
DN: So since Upton Sinclair talking about the corruption of the armaments industry in the First World War right through to Gross in the Second World War. I know you are producing a book, THE ETIQUETTE OF THE ARMS TRADE, and it’s on sale at the moment, and we will have a little note at the bottom of the interview where people can purchase it. Do you think by bearing witness alone you can make a change in even one of these individuals going to these fairs? Or are you trying to enlighten the public because it is the taxpayers money that is producing many of these armaments?
JG: I think that the arms trade relies upon invisibility, particularly in arms trade with repressive regimes. The British Foreign Office has a list of countries where there is serious concern over human rights, the British arms industry sells weapons to ¾ of the countries on that list. It is so blatantly corrupt that it relies upon being hidden. So, a key aim is to make it visible. For myself, I think that art needs to work in collaboration so it is art, activism, research coming together. The book has a lot of drawings but it also has a couple of essays, one about drawing and one about the arms trade, which is as comprehensive as I can give, based on current research of what the arms trade is and what it does. I don’t think drawings can fracture the polite veneer of the arms industry on their own.
DN: And you have an exhibition on at the moment?
JG: That’s right there’s an exhibition at the Peace Museum in Bradford and there sketchbooks are on show, there are photographs, there is a performance, and there are also gifts. Another aspect of the project is collecting the gifts given away by arms companies. Really very bizarre. So at the Peace Museum there is a stress ball in the shape of a bomb, in the shape of a grenade, in the shape of the tank. There are condom’s with the slogan ‘the ultimate protection’, a sweet with the slogan ‘welcome to hell’ and these objects within the arms industry seem a joke but I think when you take them out of that context and put them into a context which is critical of war they become something else.
DN: May I ask a sort of the last question, do you ever see many female buyers?
JG: That’s a very interesting question. Overall the industry is very male dominated and on the whole the women who were there tend to be young, very often they are models who have been employed simply to stand at front doors, lean against tanks, or lean against missiles. However, the large corporations are aware that they need to present a more progressive front so in the larger arms companies there is a real effort to employ more women and have women on the board, usually non-executive women, who say nothing. You do see some women who are involved in sales and I think, again, that is the only way I could get away with being there. And because it’s quite new and seems to be terribly important bringing women into the industry I’m treated, on the whole, with great respect. People are quite deferential to me which again is something I am making use of. You know if they want more women in the industry then here I am (laughs) is my approach.
DN: Thank you very much Jill. I would love to talk more. Good luck and with your teaching as well
JG: The questions have been much more interesting than the usual ones I must say. I really appreciate them.
DN: The New art Examiner was started by Derek Guthrie and Jane Addams Allen, who was a Chicago native and her great aunt was Jane Addams.
DN: So that is the tradition we follow.
JG: That’s great. Well I really appreciated it. Thank you.
Volume 33 no 2 November / December 2018 pp 6-9
The Etiquette of the Arms Trade – Ten Years of Drawing by Jill Gibbon.
A clothbound book with speciality paper throughout, Two essays, 76 pages, 34 colour images
UK Delivery – 3 days, Europe – 5 days, Rest of the world – 7 days
3 thoughts on “Bearing Witness, Not Weapons”
Not surprising, I found a video in YouTube on Jill Gibbon’s drawings.
Thanks to your eye opening interview with Jill Gibbon, I started reading about the work that she does. I find it unbelievable and disgusting that arms can be sold presented together with a fashion show, a string quartet and champagne and pretzels, as though they were luxury goods to be appreciated by the very few. How can this be? Gibbon is an artist to be commended for her courageous work.
“War and repression are big business. ….. Products are promoted for each political moment – heavy arsenal for the war on terror, ‘less lethal’ weaponry for the Arab Spring. New lines are launched with spectacular displays – a fashion show alongside racks of missiles, a string quartet on the back of a of military truck. And between the vast bombs, tables are laid with champagne and pretzels.”
Looking at the Don McCullin photography exhibition at the Tate Britain in London which is opening today, I can’t help but be profoundly disturbed by the 3-course dinner and wine tasting event, “Wine Tasting and Dinner: Don McCullin”, they are organizing later on in February, with important emphasis on the Tate’s well stocked wine cellar. In the promotion of the event they wrote, “We Invite guests for a special evening in celebration of our cellar.” Not surprising the event is already sold out.
The focus on wine is fundamental, lest McCullin’s war photographs of Vietnam, Northern Ireland and Syria be forgotten. His work has made a tremendous impact on bringing the images of the horrors of war and its ensuing poverty and destruction to us for decades. Here was an opportunity to celebrate this great man, but instead we are invited to drown the “sorrows” these war images inflict on us by imbibing alcohol with a group of surely very caring people.