Limitless Illusion: Artistic Reinterpretations of Military Aerial Vision in World War I and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan



Denhom, Elizabeth

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This thesis explores artistic responses to two pivotal moments in the advancement of military aircraft and aerial imaging technology that marked important shifts in technological innovation and in the conduct of war: the first systematic use of aircraft in World War I, and the implementation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or “drones” in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Examining work by artists from Western Europe and the United States, this thesis argues that visual representations that question and reinterpret current issues and societal changes, such as shifting vision, new technology, and major conflicts, are an important tool for interpreting and more deeply understanding complicated socio-political histories, especially because artistic responses often present perspectives or represent groups that have been overlooked or undervalued in traditional historical narratives. Artists who responded to World War I, including C.R.W. Nevinson (British), used the flatness of the picture plane to emphasize a flattened aerial view made newly possible by airplanes. In the aftermath of 9/11, in a period when governments intensified digital technologies designed to impersonalize warfare, contemporary artists James Bridle (British), Tomas van Houtryve (Belgian), and Trevor Paglen (American) seek out digital media and alternative ways to represent the aerial view of drones. All of these artists engage with the aerial view and often create artwork utilizing the very technology they criticize in order to reveal its limitations and reinsert the human element back into the image. This thesis cannot comprehensively catalogue the development of military flight and aerial vision; rather it considers two specific moments when war, flight, and aerial imaging technology caused significant shifts in visual perception, experienced both by individual soldiers and by artists. Seeking new ways to represent or conceptualize changes in visual perception, artists interrogate the limitations of weaponized vision and criticize the consequences born from those limitations. Artistic responses implore the viewer to observe, engage with, and question the world around them.



Futurism, Drones, World War I, Art in war, Contemporary art, Edward Steichen