Traditional war memorials have adhered to a strict code of remembrance: commemoratethe dead by distancing death; achieve public consensus through the applicationof a conservative aesthetic. If truth is the casualty in these classic depictions, agreater good remains permanently enshrined: consolation for the bereaved and theelevation of the fallen to cult status. Society needs to rally youth that must fight futurewars and these monumental odes to martyrdom provide the necessary inspiration.
Damsels in Armor is a civics lesson of another order: 24 unsanctioned monumentstestifying to war’s truly brutal cost. Rising above the detritus of battle, these damselsbear witness to the inevitable price of engagement; no suit of armor can shield themfrom the acid scars of battle, now permanently etched on their once beautiful faces.Triumph’s glory has proved to be transient. Corrosion defaces, distorts, reveals. Thisgallery of figures forces us to acknowledge a reality understandably edited for commissionedmonuments: every victory is Pyrrhic.
A fusion of sculptural elements, weapons and armor, these "victory" compositionshave historical roots in works like Nike of Samothrace and DeLacroix’s celebratedpainting “Liberty leading the people”. Elements and details were juxtaposed digitallyfor a seamless, almost painterly finish, traditional in its look, if unorthodox in content.The damsels faces were selected from ‘40’s and ‘50’s commercial photography,another era when truth was glamorized for mass consumption. Original photographyof armaments was done on site at the Arms and Armor Collection of theMetropolitan Museum of Art, the New York City Police Museum, and the War Museumof Greece.
Viktor Koen's new series of digital prints, 'Damsels in Armour' can be looked at in atleast two radically different ways. In the first place, they are a heartfelt protest againstwar. As Koen says in an artist's statement: "Rising above the detritus of battle, thesedamsels bear witness to the inevitable price of engagement; so suit of armour canshield them from the acid scars of battle, now permanently etched on their oncebeautiful faces."
In the second place they are about a new kind of technological engagement. For a long time now, the world of avant-garde art has been preoccupied with video. It is video that has been regarded as the cutting edge of methods of image-making.
It is perfectly true that artists have been quick to exploit the possibilities offered by this medium. Thedominance of artists' video in large survey exhibitions like the most recent Venice Biennale and the most recent Cassel Documenta has, nevertheless, tended to throw light on its limitations, perhaps evenmore than its virtues. One set of limitations is economic. Artists making video remain dependent on technologies which were developed for other purposes - on the one hand for television advertising, for computer games and also for large-scale big-screen film making; and on the other hand for the huge amateur market.
It is thus not surprising that experimental artists have been looking for new ways in which to relate to the digital age. Computers offer increasingly vast possibilities in the manipulation of still images. In particular, they bridge the gap between what is created by hand - painted or drawn - and what is recorded by the camera. The process is often analogous to the process of sampling that increasingly dominates the production of pop music.
In the 'Damsels in Armour' series, for example, the faces are selected from '40's and '50's commercial photography, while individual photographs of the armour and other accoutrements were made in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and in other museums as well. It is the computer that offers the possibility of making a seamless blend of these elements. The blend, nevertheless, operates like traditional art - it can be looked at for a period of time, long or short, selected by the spectator rather than imposed by the artist. It can be contemplated from different distances, from different angles and in different lighting conditions.
Of course, there are elements in digital images that consumers of art in its more traditional forms find disconcerting. A digital image has its roots in photography while at the same time surrendering any claim to photographic 'truth'. We accept the idea - but how much longer will this acceptance last? - that a photograph is an image of something that existed in the physical world before the picture was taken. This is one reason why pornographic photographs are more shocking than painted or drawn representations of the same sexual acts - they seem to offer a guarantee that the act took place in reality, and is not just the product of the artist's fevered imagination.
A digital work is openly a fiction. Like many fictions, it has the power to operate simultaneously in several different spheres. For example, Viktor Koen's 'Damsels in Armour' recall the figures in baroque allegorical
gorical paintings of the 17th century. The spectator is nevertheless aware that the suggested prototypes never existed, and never could have existed. The resemblance is a metaphor, which in turn suggests that visual images can behave in a certain way- in this case, as moral archetypes.
This offers a challenge to established ideas about 'modernity' in art. One of the things the original Modern Movement surrendered, in return for a new freedom to distort and transform images, was the right to moralize. This was one of the things that enraged Modernism's opponents. They read these transformations of observed reality as actively immoral acts. There were of course efforts made to create works of art that were unmistakably Modernist but which at the same time preached a moral lesson. The most celebrated of these is of course Picasso's 'Guernica'. Yet one only has to compare Picasso's painting with its immediate models in Spanish art - the paintings and prints made by Goya in response to the horrors of the Peninsular War, to see that Picasso's relationship with the spectator is more problematic than that of Goya.
The digital transformation of images does of course have strong roots in the commercial sphere. Many of the techniques of this new form of art making evolved in response to the needs of the advertising industry. Advertising uses aesthetic means only superficially - its main purpose is to persuade and to inform, and any form of image-making is legitimate so long as it forwards these objectives. Digital art, though it aims at creating aesthetic effects, has inherited advertising's eclecticism. PostModern art is sometimes spoken of as having evolved into a 'post media' situation.That is, any form of physical expression is appropriate and now distinctions aremade between different forms. In a much more specific way, digital art works areoften 'post stylistic'. The sampling process encourages artists to mingle styles of representation.The emphasis has shifted from achieving a coherent stylistic result to achieving efficient communication of feelings and ideas.
All of this, in terms of the art of the last hundred years, is new territory. One can saythat Pop Art, the great artistic success of the second half of the 20th century, lookedat advertising imagery from the outside, as a phenomenon detached from the artist.Digitisation works from inside mass culture and technological culture, but does notaccept their assumptions while nevertheless employing all the skills that these cultures have created for their own purposes. The result is a kind of art that is both extremely accessible and fascinatingly new.