Deeply murky waters

Andrew Silke visits the Age of Terror: Art since 9/11 exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.

The Imperial War Museum has always been one of London’s more dramatic museums. Massive battleship guns guard the entrance, aptly setting the scene for a ferocious arsenal of planes, tanks and assorted other weapons waiting inside. The major conflicts of the 20th century are covered extraordinarily well within the museum, but it has traditionally struggled in terms of how to represent the lesser clashes. Northern Ireland’s Troubles, for example, was for a very long time reduced to a single cabinet in an obscure corner.

The Museum though has made conscious efforts to recognise the importance of the ‘Wars on Terror’ in recent years. A few years ago, as part of a major refurbishment, a highly prominent place was handed (and is still given) to the wreckage of a car crushed in a suicide bombing in Baghdad. The Museum’s current major exhibition, Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11, represents an even bigger commitment to reflect the importance of terrorism in the modern era. Currently taking up almost the entire third floor, this exhibition houses 50 works that explore and represent major themes of terrorism and the state’s response to it.

The headline pieces in the exhibition include Ai Weiwei’s marble bust of a CCTV camera, and Iván Navarro’s much more impactful The Twin Towers, which uses mirrors and lights to create an optical illusion of two empty spaces disappearing into the floor to represent the fallen towers. Cognitive psychology can certainly appreciate the techniques used by Navarro, but overall the display of most distinct relevance to the psychology, in my opinion, is Coco Fusco’s Operation Atropos (see picture). As a profession, the American Psychological Association drifted into deeply murky waters as it became clear that key APA officials colluded with the United States Department of Defense to maintain loose ethical guidelines that effectively helped facilitate the psychological torture of detainees. This film documents the use of these same psychological torture techniques against a group of volunteers. The torture is carried out by former military personnel and mimics the tactics used on suspected terrorists in a variety of settings over the past 16 years. There are strong echoes of the Stanford prison experiment throughout and the impact on the volunteer ‘detainees’ at times certainly seems real. Operation Atropos might not have made it past many university ethics committees, but I can’t help but feel a wide viewing among psychologists would be valuable. See it if you can.

Subtly compelling is Francis Alÿs’ deceptively simple ‘Sometimes doing is undoing, sometimes undoing is doing’. Projected on a large screen is a video of a British solider in Afghanistan filmed assembling and disassembling his weapon. On an adjacent screen, a Taliban fighter does the same with his weapon. No words are spoken and both men, separately, go about their tasks with a calm focus. As a piece of artwork it subtly but pervasively challenges the idea that the enemy is an ‘other’ and underlines instead only shared humanity.

Age of Terror is a sombre, critical and thought-provoking exhibition. Entirely as it should be. I commend it to you.

The Exhibition Age of Terror: Art since 9/11 runs until 28 May 2018 at the Imperial War Museum. For more information go to

- Reviewed by Professor Andrew Silke, Cranfield University, whose next book, The Routledge Handbook on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, is published in March. Find more from him in our archive.

Picture: Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York/© Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York. Coco Fusco, Operation Atropos, 2006 Film still 

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