BOMBA! - Norbert Francis Attard
10 March - 7 May
The connection between sex and violence is one that has received much sustained academic, sometimes salacious, even often prurient, treatment. Indeed in Maltese, and doubtless in many other languages, Bomba! refers both to a (destructive) bomb (i.e. a thing) and a (“hot”) sex-bomb (i.e. a person). That is common parlance. But the artist is exploring something more and this is the dangerously and disturbing aesthetization of military technology which is super-determined. And he is exploring it in a curious and challenging juxtaposition with lace, a product of his native land. Let us begin with the obvious visual connections: bomb or ammunition cones and breasts; the visual slippage between the phallus and the breast; the scatological wry humour (Bombs Away!) replicated in the messages written on bombs dropped from planes; the feminization of planes with their pin-up artistes in WWII, etc, etc. But there are other themes: the crystallized, almost diamond-like, construction of a modern jet fighter - recalling both the intense inward geological compression that forms diamonds and the outward fragmentation bombs that rip apart vulnerable flesh, bodies and lives; and the’ radarized’ planes where the silhouetted shapes are aestheticized and rendered almost lace-like.
It has often been noted that modern warfare anaesthetizes and depersonalizes through the (physical) distance between the aggressor and the victim, and because of the high technology that is employed both to deliver destruction and to register and monitor it. With that movement it could be argued that the nature of killing, that - according to certain radical feminist psychoanalysts - is sexual in nature, has also become re-sexualised. Rather than the physical act of killing, it is the “delivery”, the technology itself that is sexualized and fetishised nowadays. Clearly, throughout history, weapons have always been sexualized, but there is something in the nature of contemporary and post-modern warfare where the spectacle of a weapon and its sexualisation become particularly crucial through the almost limitless possibilities that technology offers. Witness the popular military air shows and displays that attract many thousands of public visitors. Not just aimed at weapons and defense procurement experts, these displays have become veritable air shows for the projection of national state power and of the technology itself as a magical and almost erotic object. Military planes almost become "female" in the way their employment of variable thrust jet engines enable them to flop over in mid air, curve their flights in an almost erotic "belly dance" for the marveling public. It is the connection between high-tech and their massive destructive potential that distinguishes these displays from civilian Air Racing and Air shows which are highly regulated, almost macho, and the aerial equivalent to Formula One car-racing. Witness, too, the contrast between the displays of military aircraft open to the admiring public and the closed, guarded, razor-fenced, and hermetically sealed airports they take off when employed in deadly earnest, and from which (even these same national) civilians are excluded as potential enemy.
If weapons – in this case military aircraft - become re-sexualized, the artist is doing something more with them as representation and artifact. He is juxtaposing them with lace, which may strike some observers as unexpected, even disturbing, and certainly counter-intuitive. But there is a sense in which this juxtaposition and even blending can produce some surprising results, even new insights. To begin with, both are objects of power and fetishization. Lace was a symbol of domestic power as well of prestige, figuring in representations of nobility and high birth, the main markers of political power. In certain cases it peeps out beneath armour, feminizing men and maculating women especially through the high lace collar and the hair veils that we know from classical European art. Women produced lace as symbolic of their virtue. It can also be seen as a metaphor of plotting and planning for the patterns were both highly intricate and implied tight, sustained control, visualism, and repetition – in much the same way military aerial surveying of territory involves close and detailed visual scrutiny. The process of scrutinizing lace is the same as that of poring over aerial reconnaissance photographs; it is merely the scale that is different, a fact that is negated by the actual process of scrutiny itself that brings the viewer’s eye close to the object. And both are pieces of strict precision, coordination, and planning. Nor are they necessarily opposed, i.e. ‘aesthetic’ vs. ‘functional’. Weapons, too, had aesthetic elements; armour was decorated, incised, elaborated, etc.; military aircraft are painted in bright colours especially at Air Shows.
The similarities that are different and the differences that are similar can be pursued further. Lace starts off soft and pliable with natural materials, but ends up stiff: in collars, frocks, etc. Military aircraft start off hard and unyielding, often high tech metals and materials, but end up flexible in flight through the stresses and strains experienced under high g-forces. With lace the actual patterns are designed to stand out from the surrounding fabric; with military aircraft the aim is to be technologically invisible (as with Stealth fighters), in short to fall through the holes in the nets of our perception, i.e. like lace, ethereal, invisible. The artist has done so very skillfully in his silhouettes.
Thus lace and military aircraft form an unlikely but provocative combination. But the hidden text of this exhibition is, I suspect, about fetishization and resexualization, those two complex processes that render both desire obscure and the obscure desirable. High tech was always ambivalent – a force for good and evil, creation and destruction. It is not the objects themselves that are negative; it is the uses they are put to – a truism, granted, but one we must recall. Indeed, may it not be that as humans we cannot often face this and thus both fetishize and sexualize in our attempts to control, attract, dominate and conceal from ourselves the shadowy recesses of our awful potentialities?
Paul Sant Cassia
Professor of Anthropology, University of Malta
Honorary Research Fellow, University of Durham, UK