Diego Rivera, Cartoon of The 'Manufacture of Poisonous Gas Bombs'
(Detroit Industry Mural, north wall) 1932
The news from Syria is as always horrid. The use of poisonous gas another descent into the hell that human beings can build for themselves. Trying to draw in these circumstances seems fruitless and of such little value. The drawing above by Rivera a timely reminder that all of these things are manufactured and the arms industries of 'advanced' Western nations continue to grow and grow. In fact the UK prides itself on its achievements in this area, as a government spokesman states, “The UK is one of the world’s most successful defence exporters, averaging second place in the global rankings on a rolling ten-year basis, making it Europe’s leading defence exporter in the period.” How good to know we are a 'defence exporter' and not an attack exporter or warmonger.
The manufacture of poison gas is accompanied by the manufacture of gas masks, companies profiting from both the gas and the source of protection from it. We first of all worked out that we could protect ourselves from airborne diseases by making protective masks for doctors during a time of plague. But our knowledge of chemistry has now improved. There is something of the alien about people in masks, something of the worst fears, fear of not touching others, of isolating every part of our bodies from contact with what should be life affirming, the very air we breath.
The drawings below are not drawn to shock or to have emotional impact, they are simply illustrations of what existed, all taken from an illustrated history of the gas mask and yet in their very straightforwardness they are as horrid as the most powerful images of Goya.
Although I can sometimes think there is no way that as an artist you can respond to these issues that doesn't mean that we have to give up.
Jill Gibbon: The sweet sound of violins with a tank background
There is an exhibition on at the moment in the Bradford Peace Museum of the work of the Yorkshire artist Jill Gibbon, who for the last 10 years has been going undercover at international arms industry trade events in order to expose what goes on. In 2007, Gibbon applied for accreditation to that year’s Defence and Security Equipment International fair in London as an ‘official war artist’ and she explained that she was particularly keen to practice drawing tanks. (The fact that they accepted this reason, perhaps being an indication of how these people think) Since then she has under a variety of disguises attended several of these events, always taking her sketchbook in order to record her experiences. Gibbon describes these events as full of “beautifully lit military equipment, girls in short skirts with trays of Champagne and an atmosphere more reminiscent of a high end car show than an arms fair”. At one event she was offered complementary rubber stress balls in the shape of grenades and at another free sweets their wrappers decorated with the words ‘Welcome to Hell’. Her sketchbooks document the sale of high-grade weapons with the potential to kill thousands of people, in environments completely normalised and constructed to appear as if people are buying a new car or replacement white goods.
Jill Gibbon with one of her sketchbooks.
Installation view of sketchbook pages
The Bradford Peace Museum is located at 10 PIECE HALL YARD, BRADFORD, BD1 1PJ and is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays 10am till 4pm