For issue 11 of Photoworks magazine, Mignon Nixon looked at Nancy Spero’s War Series of 1966-1970.
‘How do we account for the rampant sexuality of war?’ This question, presciently posed at the turn of the century by the psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell, is visited urgently in Nancy Spero’s War Series of 1966-1970, an extensive set of gouache and ink drawings produced in response to the Vietnam War. ‘Male bombs’ with cartoon erections, grotesquely extended, ejaculate murderously in ecstatic displays of sexual violence. Female bombs rain blood. Bombs shit infant heads. And in one drawing, Fuck (1966), silver jets trace a frenzied spiral in the sky, bearing on their wings the insignia not of U.S.A. but of F.U.C.K. Tiny, helpless, naked bodies in the throes of death are the quarry dangling from every fiery mouth—the nose of every plane transformed to a serpent’s maw—in a gruesome exhibition of sexualized killing.
Mercilessly entangling sex and violence, the War Series portrays war as a situation in which fantasy overwhelms the subject, but also the social. The unreality of war, to which seemingly every survivor and soldier’s account attests, is the effect of a socially orchestrated destruction of social bonds. As recently reiterated in the degradations inflicted by the US military at Abu Ghraib, the obscenity of war, to which Spero has so often alluded in her writings and her art (‘manifestos against a senseless obscene war’) is less an aberrant eruption of individual pathology, than a consistent expression of war violence. Those sadistic fantasies, often sexualized, repressed in the interests of civilization in time of peace, are tolerated, even elicited—appropriated–by the state itself as integral to the conduct of war. Spero represents sexual violence as a defining condition of war. In this she anticipates Mitchell’s recent reflection that sexual violence seems ‘automatically’ to accompany war violence.
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Spero worked from newspaper and magazine photographs and television reports to devise the imagery of the War Series, a nightmare litany of bombs shitting, helicopters shredding, planes shattering, victims shrieking. Abruptly abandoning the ‘elegiac mode’ of large-scale oil painting, as she once explained, and the sensual motif of the recumbent couple, she now worked exclusively on paper, wetting and scouring fragile, wrinkled sheets with gouache and ink to create a phantasmagoria of ferocious, apocalyptic violence. This recourse to thinnest paper and thinnest medium—gouache diluted with spit–and to poster scale, underscored the immediacy, urgency, and marginal visibility of the gesture itself. Exhibited almost exclusively in anti-war shows, these drawings eluded critical response at the time. The atrocities of war, as we know, become ever less visible as they mount up. The critical silence on the War Series, however, also testifies to the neglect that still attends representations of war sexuality, as if that ‘automatic’ annexation of sexuality to war which formed the focus of Spero’s response to Vietnam could only surface into discourse in 2003, when, with the invasion of Iraq, the series emerged like a return of the repressed in exhibitions and criticism. And if the War Series was explicitly conceived in resistance to the American war in Vietnam, as a critique of hysterical violence, it also pointed up that particular political pathology by which the state hystericizes both the victims of war and those citizens who protest against it. On almost every page, screaming tongues project from the gaping mouths of aggressors and victims alike, as if to dramatize the eclipse of speech by invective, curse, and cry. A rain of profanity—‘Merde,’ ‘Fuck you’–almost illegible until the viewer draws close, making intimate contact with the page, bespeaks the silencing, the belittlement, of political protest by a state in thrall to its own grandiose and hysterical logic.
In Spero’s vision, the machinery of war is yoked to the body of the aggressor not only prosthetically, but also fantasmatically; it is deployed to traumatize the victim not only physically, but psychically, often sexually. Here the destruction wreaked on the war victim, the death act that haunts the sex act, is given a distinctly and disturbingly intimate inflection. Sexual violence in the War Series symbolizes the obscenity of war, a condition never vitiated by repetition. No graphic shorthand diminishes the brutality of an individual act. In Fuck, seven silver jets scream across the sky, each mouth, bent on engorgement, grasping a single minute figure, a distinctive pose describing the fate of the captive as its body is devoured. Pinned by the calves, a figure swings along the bottom margin of the page like an acrobat on a trapeze. Above her, the graceful legs of another dangle pathetically, knees daintily clasped together, head and torso swallowed to the hips by a ravenous snout that inhales its prisoner with a mixture of malice and ardor. At the left-hand corner of the page, almost illegible, a figure careers frantically, clasped at the feet. Near the centre of this page, or vortex, a muscular torso, clenched arms thrust out in a wide V, resists annihilation to the last, while at the top of the page a spidery figure flails against the sky, caught by one arm in a pincer grip. This frenzied energy only intensifies, to the right of the page, in the planes’ pursuit of bodies bent over and splayed sadistically, hanging in the sky like bloodied prey, their grotesque predicaments enhanced by the artist’s extreme delicacy of rendering.
Spero’s preoccupation with the individual pose, answering the obscenity of war with the specificity of a given figure, is a defining characteristic of the War Series, in which the faceless victim of war—caught in a rain of fire, swept up in a wave of violence, mown down in a killing field—shares the fate of countless others, while still preserving the integrity of a unique loss. A heap of bodies, a pile of corpses, is always portrayed as a group of individuals, each assigned a distinct pose—lying supine or prone, the body arched, flat, or twisted. Each receives its artistic due. Like the expletives pencilled in tiny letters, these miniature figures also draw us into intimate examination of the page, make us come close and so become implicated in the scene. This proximity, dictated by the scale of marks and by details of rendering, counteracts the distanced, wary gaze not only of the warrior, but of the war citizen, and in particular the war citizen of photography. For in Vietnam, war photography brought the war home, with the double consequence that, as Martha Rosler memorably demonstrated in her eponymous series of photocollages, the domestic milieu was simultaneously pervaded by and inoculated against images announcing the atrocities of war. That photography speaks of death is a refrain of much of the critical literature on the medium, but also of Virginia Woolf’s classic text on war, Three Guineas. Photographs of casualties, she remarks, counteract the rhetoric of war with graphic proof of its consequences, of the brutal reality of ‘dead bodies.’ What such a photograph does not necessarily do, Woolf observes, is to touch on the passions that stir the desire for war. Blood lust, remains, in our own time of war, a cherished omission.