New York based artist David Birkin (b. 1977) – winner of the 2018 Aesthetica Art Prize – creates powerful artworks which reflect on the way war is depicted in contemporary society. Working with human rights lawyers, journalists, and civil liberties organisations, Birkin is interested in the edges of visibility, often focusing on omissions and redactions.
The winning work, which is on display at York Art Gallery (until 30 September), addresses the relationship between spectacle and loss, specifically in the representation of civilian casualties of the Iraq War. The project was a collaboration with the NGO Iraq Body Count, and involved inserting identification numbers from their casualty database into photographic software to generate a chromatic “value” for each person. These colours were then exposed onto photographic transparencies and displayed on X-ray light boxes discarded by British and American hospitals. The abstract portraits point to blind spots in the visual record, reflecting on the way that contemporary conflict is depicted.
Recent works include Our System Failure, a public installation which occupies major advertising space in Times Square, New York. Reflecting on consumer culture, the piece offers audiences the opportunity to rethink contemporary value systems. Drawing comparisons between the civilian and military budgets, it makes a bold statement regarding economic priorities.
In a similar way, the 2018 work Charade is a video filmed in collaboration with the human rights organisation Reprieve. Bringing together over 50 actors, artists, musicians, dancers, and performers – including Benedict Cumberbatch – it explores questions of censorship in relation to a recent secret military directive. In response, participants convey personal and political messages silently, These works tap into the themes of the current Aesthetica Art Prize exhibition, which looks to ideas of surveillance, data collection and the digital landscape. Exploring the wider effects of over-consumption, media stimulation and emotional disconnection, the diverse pieces call into question new modes of communication, offering reflection upon the era of post-truth across painting, photography, video, installation and more.
See Birkin’s Profiles as part of the Aesthetica Art Prize exhibition, at York Art Gallery until 30 September. Find out more here.
1. All images courtesy David Birkin.