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Cuthbert's Waterloo a timely reminder of the horrors of wars past

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Tuesday, 25 February 2003

The human cost of war can never be measured but there is perhaps no more important time than this to contemplate the tragic legacies of war. In this context, it may seem futile in the anonymous face of internationally sanctioned carnage for contemporary artists to examine the idea of why or how humans still want to kill one another.

So what can artists offer society in times like these? The arena of late 20th century left-wing political activism is often the last place to find cutting-edge contemporary artists' creative contributions. Art historians could blame Trotsky's steady disillusion of revolutionary Russian artists' political role as the beginning of the progressive left's impatience with today's artists. Trotsky's annihilation of the Russian avant-guarde stripped Soviet artistic expression of its rightful international identity for many decades. This left revolutionary Russia's creative community, who'd once been poised at the edge of 20th century cultural leadership, stranded in an intellectual backwater of repressive stage-managed cultural priorities.

Despite this historical disillusionment, a group of high-profile Victorian artists including Australia's representative at the upcoming Venice Biennale, Patricia Piccinini, announced they would shroud their sculptures currently installed on the edge of the Yarra in protest against the threatened war with Iraq. Risking condemnation for orchestrating the possibility of contemporary art's irrelevance to more immediate political agendas, these professional contrarians nevertheless plan to symbolise their resistance to war by concealing their publicly funded artworks from view. For many hard-working anti-war activists, a few middle-class artists' gestures of protest are about as interesting as paying the printer's bill for last month's campaign posters.


The urgency of political momentum surrounding the many legitimate causes for protest in today's world, often tramples the enduring social value of contemporary visual thinkers' subtle contributions to our lives. Today's artists absorb and creatively reflect issues affecting society at a different pace from mainstream intellectual commentators. But are contemporary artists equipped with the philosophical drivers needed to plumb the depths of moral indignation required to propel more than the visual retrieval of alienated social and cultural identities they're primarily focused on these days? Should we expect contemporary artists to confront social and political iniquities more directly through their work?

Artists of the Russian avante-guard pierced ancient geometric volumes in search of alternative uses for conventional forms; painted trains in jubilant abstracted propaganda motifs and erected symbolic rickety towers to advance their perceptions of revolutionary freedom. When compelled to illustrate the finer points of revolutionary Soviet achievements, many of these creative idealists failed honourably at servicing socialist realism's heavy-handed literalism.

So, do artists have anything to tell us about war today? Tasmanian artist Adam Cuthbert's sculptural installation 1% of Waterloo currently installed at CAST Hobart couldn't be better planned as a sophisticated reflection on one of history's bloodiest battlefields.

Cuthbert's glimpse of the battle of Waterloo is from La Belle Alliance below La Haye Sainte where a quintessential moment of military history is converted into a diminutive epic made almost entirely of plasticine. Hundreds of small hand-made models of soldiers, weapons and horses line up in classic military formation on the artist's mock contoured battlefield installed at knee height above the gallery floor. Several ruined plasticine buildings add to 1% of Waterloo's fusion of the intimate scale of childhood model-making with the obsessive strategies of a replayed military campaign. Perfectly scaled plasticine soldiers and military equipment have a lumpy realism about them, suggesting years of patient moulding to form these identities of one of history's many dramatic theatres of war.

Adam Cuthbert's beautiful installation is whimsical yet pleasingly obsessive. Minute cannons, rifles and bloody limbs are intricately moulded as are the many casualties strewn and trampled on the battle floor. Bloody patches of red plasticine issue from wounded infantrymen while horses sprawl dismembered as the atrocities continue around them. 1% of Waterloo is one of the most ambitious works of art to be presented in Hobart for years.

Beyond admiring Cuthbert's formidable achievement in modelling his duelling armies of hundreds of soldiers, livestock and armaments so precisely, 1% of Waterloo performs another important function in today's world by converting the idea of warfare into an intimate but highly sinister game. The message here is that history has an extraordinary way of repeating itself. Replace Cuthbert's 18th century weaponry with mouse-driven missile software, daub camouflage colours onto international military uniforms and turn mud and cholera into dust and dysentery and ask ourselves, what exactly is so different this time around? Fortunately, 1% of Waterloo resists theoretical posturing by simply reminding us of the inevitabilities of armed conflict, although the life-sized model of a symbolic head hanging over the scenario lurches towards a slightly more tyrannical form of artistic literalism. Even so, Adam Cuthbert's gigantic toy battle brings war's ghastly legacies just that little bit closer.


Have I answered my own questions? Does the physical revelation of an artist's private obsession with drama of an historic military campaign add anything to the urgency of the anti-war protest movement? Adam Cuthbert's fanatical playtime fantasy of Napoleon's shattered ranks of maimed and mutilated infantrymen is one of the most potent symbols of war's incredible devastation I've ever seen.

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Portions of this article were published in The Sunday Tasmanian on the 16th of February 2003 as a review of artist Adam Cuthbert current installation at CAST, Hobart Tasmania.

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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