Christopher Stewart

Gimpel Fils

It’s estimated that there are some twenty-five thousand private military personnel currently in Iraq, collectively comprising easily the second-largest fighting force in the country (the largest being of course the US Army). Employed by firms with names like Custer Battles, Global Risk Strategies, and Blackwater USA, they are mostly funded by US tax dollars and handle everything from training local forces to surveillance, weapons procurement, and on-the-ground fighting. But these mercenaries aren’t trained in US boot camps. They’re drilled in places like the one depicted in Christopher Stewart’s photographic series “Kill House,” 2005.

Located in the wilds of Arkansas, this desolate structure is used to prepare outsourced soldiers contracted (as a press release for the show puts it) “to clear domestic houses in conflict zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan.” If one didn’t deduce from its sobriquet what recruits are here conditioned to expect—i.e., red-eyed, Kalashnikov-wielding insurgents lurking around every dark corner—then the scrupulous design of the house makes that plain. Stewart’s seven photographs lead us stealthily up darkened flights of stained concrete steps, past smoke-damaged walls, locked doors, and straw-strewn landings, and finally to a bedroom whose only furniture is a rusted metal bed resembling a torture device. The intention is clearly to create a sense of fear and hair-trigger uncertainty.

That such a paranoid ambience is a microcosm of the political Zeitgeist is surely why it interests Stewart, a British artist who for the past half-decade has produced photographs by working his contacts on the fringes of the security industry. But Stewart is not a documentarist. Rather, his photographs are ambiguous tableaux that conceal as much as they reveal, assaying insecurity by couching it in formal terms. His latest suite, with its perpetual play of shadows and light, activates the cinematic imagination: Presented with something approximating a horror movie’s spooky old house, we’re primed to think in terms of innocents and malefactors, and to feel moderately edgy—while simultaneously receiving cues that this is harmless fiction. At the same time, Stewart encourages a forensic approach to viewing by selectively illuminating physical evidence. We pore over these tightly focused images, impatient for clues. Is that blood on the stairs? Are those bullet holes in the walls?

Both mind-sets—the dehumanized, it’s-just-a-movie one and its ratiocinating private-detective counterpart—are encouraged by the building itself, but Stewart’s photographs can no more claim impartiality than would the architects of the “kill house,” nor do they pretend to. Rather, they’re one answer to what photography might be when, as today, we’re routinely manipulated into a state of nervous tension by images—on the news, for example—and then confusingly reassured that the fighting isn’t real (by the expanding realm of military-themed entertainment dubbed “militainment”). These photographs reflect such paradoxes with steely simplicity.

Also on display was a three-monitor video, Levanter, 2002. Stewart’s trio of vantage points—from an intelligence outpost atop the Rock of Gibraltar that monitors attempts at illegal immigration from Africa to mainland Europe—are repeatedly blocked by the Levanter, an annually appearing cloud that particularly obscures the downward view of the harbor wherein cargo ships, those agents of globalism, slowly ply the waves. It’s an unforced model of Empire’s cloudy thinking in demanding that doors open and close to suit it. If Levanter doesn’t compare to “Kill House”—because it doesn’t engage our complicity—is still serves notice of a thoughtful, inventive talent nimbly sidestepping the potholes of politicized art.

Martin Herbert