The path of the projectile through the Golden Age forest, translation of original text by Kirstine Bruun, 4 February 2014 [Interview]
“There has not been a landscape project which has changed the Danish self-image since the Danish Golden Age [1800-1850]” says Morten Barker who is currently exhibiting at Kunsthal Nord with The Forest. With maimed trees and bird sounds reminiscent of machine guns, he wishes to do exactly that. “I think that it is about time that the image changes, and we get a realistic view of Denmark”, he says. When kunsten.nu meets Morten Barker, he has just driven for 18 hours through a snow-clad Europe returning home from Fotomuseum Wintherthur in Schwitzerland where he has presented his portfolio to Plat(t)form 2014 – a 10 am morning coffee is much needed. The landscape, which is the centre of his work, was actually very impressive, if only one did not have to focus on keeping the car on the road. Only a couple of sips are needed before Barker is ready to tell us about his latest exhibition The Forest at Kunsthal Nord, and about the parts of the Danish landscape and the Danish national soul, which, according to Barker, we tend to suppress.
The bellowing stag
The project started four years ago when Barker incidentally found himself at the centre of a powerfully symbolic scene. Like many other tourists, he had climbed a hilltop in a preserved area near Oksbøl military shooting grounds in order to observe the large red deer herds living there. “There was a large stag, bellowing. It was so picturesque – pure Golden Age, and all the tourists stood marvelled by the beautiful scene. After a while, a deep growl from leopard tanks was heard in the background. At one point, we could only see the stag out there, but we could not hear him – we could only hear the deep growl from the leopard tanks, but no one turned around”, says Barker, who describes the experience as the “perfect view of Denmark post 2003” (editor’s note: the war in Iraq). A sound side that screams war and tanks and an image side that illustrates Golden Age landscape and national symbolism – and everyone sees the latter. That is exactly where we are as a country at the moment”.
A tranquil war installation
The image of the bellowing stag has remained in Barker’s mind during his work with The Forest. The symbolism slowly sneaks up on the observer, who is first led through a forest consisting of 30 wounded poplars from Hevring shooting grounds, sharp, blinding flood lights and a small cabin with sounds of leaves, trees and bird song, for example a pecking spotted woodpecker. Then follows a series of landscape images seemingly from late autumn, and this is when it starts to dawns: the next photographs are close-ups of scarred and broken tree trunks and branches whose injuries are explained in the last part of the exhibition. X-ray photos of projectiles and projectile fragments drilled deep into the wood – the same bullets and ammunition the Danish forces have used in Afghanistan and Iraq, but here, encased in Danish trees. “I wanted to slowly guide people and tell them what to look for”, Barker explains. He hopes that people will examine things more closely on their way out, and for example see wounds and branches that have been shot off in the forest, or notice that “a woodpecker’s peck sounds exactly like a machine gun”.
A national symbol of the terrors of war
The exhibition concludes with a large tree stump which has been “cut down by rifle shots”. Barker explains that “one of the greatest symbols of the American Civil War is a massive tree stump - Spotsylvania Stump (editor’s note), which was cut down by musket fire from the old breech-loading guns. It must have been extremely bloody”. Barker wishes to create the same awareness in Danes. “Here is our own tree, which has been cut down by the same shots as the ones we use in Afghanistan. This is my way of making a Danish symbol of the ‘terrors of war’, because we haven’t had any”.
Barker’s work is often perceived as political statements against Danish warfare, but it is not politicians or the military he wishes to engage with. “My project is all about getting people to reflect differently. After the Vietnam War, politicians have attempted to prevent us from reflecting. One example is separating the military from the Danish population by moving all parts of the military to peripheral regions. The war is invisible to the majority of the Danish population, and that has become a problem for returning soldiers”, says Barker, who also argues that in that way, we send people to war “to do the dirty work without reflection”.
When an elderly lady thinks that the uniformed dragoons at one of Barker’s earlier openings is from the Salvation Army, or the military uses their basis for recruitment as the parameter determining whether is it worth it to lend a tank to the same opening, two world interpretations collide. Barker hopes that this interpretation showing the path of the projectile through the beautiful forest can become the more realistic one, and maybe also create other perspectives. “The sale of Dong Energy has created an emotional uproar in the population, in a similar way as the wars we have participated in. Everyone has an opinion about the current Dong sale, and there is pride that Dong is something especially Danish. This is in no way applicable in our military endeavours. That is a paradox”.
A curved, flourishing birch tree
With the brutality of war as the backdrop, there is something in Barker’s work which is especially worth noting: “Entering the shooting grounds has always moved me deeply. You see trees that are totally disfigured and scarred, but which are still growing. I once took a picture of an old birch tree, which had been shot so many times. It is curved, and it is filled with holes, but it grows and flourishes. That is beautiful, right? Life does whatever it can to sustain itself”.