by Tom Salmon:
London’s Imperial War Museum takes a seemingly paradoxical approach in its mission to explore the impact of modern warfare. Military hardware, tanks and other tools of war are removed from bloody battlefields to become the objects of children’s fascination. Meanwhile, a series of art and photography exhibitions like Don McCullin’s Shaped by War invite visitors to reflect more deeply on the human tragedy of conflict.
Ori Gersht’s exhibition This Storm Is What We Call Progress was one of the museum’s more philosophical exhibits, dealing with conflict, survival, memory, history and geography.
The exhibition is dominated by a two screen film that recounts German writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin’s journey as he attempted to escape Nazi-occupied France to the US by walking over the Lister Route, a high Pyrenees pass that many refugees used in the 1940s. Finding that the border was closed Benjamin committed suicide rather than turning back and returning to occupied France. Gersht reflects on the fact that Europe’s borders have all but disappeared, changing the significance of the Lister Route and the final cause of Benjamin’s suicide completely.
The film features Benjamin’s words about progress as a storm that drags the backward-looking angel of history ever forward.
Another film is based on 85 year old dancer Yehudit Arnon who as a young girl was ordered to dance at an Auschwitz SS officer’s party. She refused and was punished by being made to stand barefoot in the snow for hours. She told herself that if she survived the concentration camp she would dedicate her life to dance, which she did with great success.
Benjamin’s metaphor is powerful given the exhibition’s home at the IWM, and it’s no surprise that his words give the exhibition its title. The onward march of time means that we cannot repair the past, but we can try and understand and overcome its potentially negative effects on the present.