When the UK Armed Forces deploy overseas, they operate out of static locations known as operational bases. Historically and through to present day, troops on deployment personalise these spaces through a range of ‘placemaking’ activities, including displaying photos, creating murals, building furniture, and erecting signposts. Behind the Bastion engaged with veterans of the Iraq War and War in Afghanistan, currently based in the Lincolnshire area, to reflect on what ‘home’ means to them today and what it meant whilst deployed.
Over the course of the project, the veterans engaged in a series of art therapy sessions creating artwork inspired by their experiences. In parallel to the artwork being created by the veterans, the artist, Ed Kluz, was commissioned to authentically capture and convey what it was like for troops living in bases in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Over the course of the art therapy, the veterans explored a wide range of topics including family, privacy, and portaloos:
‘The horrors of the desert toilet; the gift that keeps on giving. The honk-box, the sh*t-pit, the TURDIS. It takes commitment to lock yourself in a boiling hot plastic box in the desert heat. It’s over 50C outside, hotter inside. The sickening smell of over-use. You could barely breathe and didn’t really want to. It was suffocating, overwhelming, honking, overpowering. BUT…it was one of very few places to get five minutes privacy, give your head a wobble, grasp the situation, shed a tear, shout in anger, scream in frustration, read a Bluey in peace. Think, boil, sweat and gag. Filthy, disgusting, baking, stinking, but amazing in equal measure. Five minutes privacy. What price privacy? It’s something most of us take for granted during normal times. Helmand, 2006; desperate times, desperate measures’.
In response to the veterans’ artwork, and in consultation with the IWM’s collections, Ed created the installation ‘They Can’t Mess With What’s In Your Head’. The scale models shown in this viewing box are based on the testimony of the veterans involved in this project and those who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
The form of the box references the ubiquitous watch tower; here, however, the direction of the gaze is reversed and the viewer has to look within. The tent which encloses the structure is made from a woven geotextile, similar to the black kind commonly used on military bases to create shelter and temporary buildings. The vibrancy of its colours and dynamism of its appearance are in some ways the antithesis of militaristic architecture, but are reminiscent of the colourful and often humorous imagery which adorn the surfaces of blast walls and recreational areas.
Some of the scenes depicted inside are inspired by real locations in some of the bases – albeit altered and made more uncanny by the use of optical effects – whilst another pair of symbolic dioramas represents the longing for home and the loved ones left behind. These views are refracted through lenses and reflected in mirrors making them difficult for the eye to fully grasp and the mind to completely fathom. They are oblique, dream-like images from an artist’s response to the irreducible experiences of those who lived in the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) of Afghanistan and Iraq.
For the veterans involved in the project, ‘home’ was elsewhere: whilst deployed they were there to do a mission, the base was not home. Home was the UK where there family was:
‘With an increasing accessibility to life back home via the internet, my favourite way to stay in touch was always the bluey. Free to collect and send in the post, every person on deployment looked forward to receiving mail. To tear open the folded letter from a friend, family or loved one. To hold their words in your hand, imagine them back home writing the stories or random conversations, and feel that little bit closer to them. That little bit closer to home, as you got closer and closer, day by day, to seeing them again’.
Behind the Bastion is an IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund commission in partnership with Bishop Grosseteste University. The IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund is a national partnership programme of over 20 artist commissions inspired by the heritage of conflict and created in partnership with Imperial War Museums and 14-18 NOW, the official UK arts programme for the First World War centenary.