Caught in the Crossfire: Artistic Responses to Conflict, Peace and Reconciliation

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Herbert Art Gallery Coventry 25 January to 7 July

The Herbert Art Gallery sits opposite Coventry's cathedral and the resonant ruin of its former one, which on 14 November 1940 was devastated in a raid during which over 4,000 firebombs were dropped on the area. So comprehensive was the bombing that it led to a new German word, Coventrieren, meaning the total destruction of a city. The following day, John Piper - who later designed the baptistry window for the new cathedral - went into the smoking wreckage. The result was Interior of Coventry Cathedral Nov 15 1940, this show's opener. Piper's broken church is luminous, bathed in bonfire reds and yellows; like Paul Nash's ironic yet anticipative battleground vista We Are Making a New World, 1918 (not on show), it folds destruction uneasily into rebirth. In so doing, it telescopes the aims of 'Caught in the Crossfire', which ends with a perky little 'no more war' note from Yoko Ono: to tabulate artistic responses to conflict, to accommodate righteous anger concerning the apparent reality of perpetual warring, but also to sidestep outright hopelessness and - mostly, anyway - soapboxing. (And, as Ono's presence and a smattering of Banksys and Blek le Rat pieces might suggest, to interest a general public.)

Beyond this, the 37-artist exhibition spotlights the Herbert's collecting policy, which, according to the show's guidebook, has focused since 2008 on 'conflicts around the world from the Second World War onwards, together with peace and anti-war movements'. A lot to go at, then. The show touches on ten different historical and contemporary fronts, from Northern Ireland to Vietnam to Bosnia, from the various Gulf conflicts to Israel/Palestine and apartheid. These are divided across categories - 'Blitzed City', 'The Front Line', 'The Machines of War' etc. War, here, often feels like a veritable challenge for artists: how not to be dumb about it? Terry Atkinson's weighty drawing Product. 15-Inch Howitzer, Made by Coventry Ordnance Company in Glasgow, 1977, in which the dark, upwardly angled metal mass of its hardware looms monolithically, embeds ordnance in a political/industrial matrix; Cornelia Parker's Embryo Firearms, 1995, her twin Colt 45s lifted off the production line at an early, soft-edged stage, look like weirdly gorgeous Platonic weaponry - the work disarms in both senses.

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On this evidence, effective war art needs a graphic forthrightness that can shelter other registers. Iftikhar Dadi and Nalini Malani's Bloodlines, 1997 - the Radcliffe Line marking the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan rendered in blood-red sequins on a gold-sequinned base - works because it is at once factual and jarringly lustrous. By contrast, Matthew Picton's relief maps of Coventry and Dresden, charred sections of the scores for Benjamin Britten's War Requiem and Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung demarcating the destroyed cities' streets feel fiddly and overly tight: a neat solution to a representation problem rather than something with actual gravity - unless one wants to call it deliberately incommensurate. Among the single works, most blindsiding is the multiscreen footage of Rosie Kay Dance Company's 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline, 2011, in which five fatigue-wearing dancers make a segmented dance out of anticipatory stages of combat and theatre-of-war events: regimented drills, excitable/sexualised physical jerks (to the Black Eyed Peas), seemingly being shot, crawling on broken legs and, finally, a death scene with a single, spasming, floored figure watched by the others. …