Heavier than Air

Heavier Than Air, Imperial War Museum, London, 10 December 1998- 28 February 1999

The texts below are reprinted with permission – all rights reserved



Catherine Moriarty & Angela Weight, ‘The Legacy of Interaction’, Tate Papers, Issue 9, Spring 2008, ISSN 1753-9854

As artists continue to discover the archive and explore ideas of the archival, often in collaboration with collecting institutions, there seemed to be a need for a reminder of earlier projects that sought to bring artists and archival collections together – initiatives that aimed to stimulate interactions as part of the creative process.

The idea that artists might reinvigorate and activate collections in new ways no longer seems a radical concept, but this understanding of the possibilities of collaborations between artists and archives was not always so prevalent. As is often the case, it took pioneering individuals to change sets of ideas about what artists do, what museums and archives do, and the role of the arts beyond, and behind, the gallery.

Angela Weight was Keeper of the Department of Art at the Imperial War Museum between 1981 and 2005, and throughout her time there she championed the idea of commissioning artists to work alongside the Museum’s collections and archives, encouraging them to reflect on the institution’s place in shaping the memory of modern warfare, a role it has performed since its founding in 1917.

During the First and Second World Wars, the British government commissioned artists to make records of each conflict both abroad and on the Home Front. The Imperial War Museum reinstated this tradition in 1971 by creating the Artistic Records Committee to commission artists to respond to modern conflicts in which British Forces were involved. The projects discussed here were initiated by Angela Weight through the Department of Art in the 1980s and 1990s to provide a critique of the institution itself.

What’s going on here is the idea that if you remove objects and items from their everyday arrangements within the museum and display them in another context you invite the museum visitor, and the curators, to see things afresh. It is that idea of reinvigoration, and presenting a new vision that is so powerful about all these projects.
While Mark was at the Museum he also invited another artist to show with him?
Yes, at that time Mark Fairnington was working with Mark Dean, a film and video maker, at the Ruskin School of Art. Mark Dean went to the film archive at the Museum and said to them ‘What have you got?’ The film curator said, ‘Well, what do you want?’ It would take more than twenty years to view the film archive from end to end! And this is a problem curators often find, perhaps less so now that things are on the web. People come along and say ‘What have you got?’, and you have to narrow the field. At that time – only ten years ago – you still had to look through card indexes. Mark found some German Second World War camera gun footage of the destruction of an Allied bomber. Camera guns have been fitted to fighter aircraft since the First World War. The camera begins filming automatically when the guns are triggered, recording the line of fire and any hits to the target. His film Untitled (Fw190A7 – Boeing) consists of this footage slowed down 5,000%, a cross with markers and five decades of dust.
Mark took the film and slowed it down so the actual process of death was elongated, and the film was displayed alongside Mark Fairnington’s installation.
This was entitled Heavier than Air.



Roy Exley, ‘Mark Dean: Dust’ Untitled 18, Spring 1999

… Dean cleverly plays with and distorts our perception of time: in how many ways can it link life and death? His video work currently showing in Heavier than Air at the Imperial War Museum is taken from film footage from a camera gun in a Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf 190 as it closes in on a U.S. Air Force Boeing B-17, which parallels the feeling of disappearing down a tunnel in the Mad Max piece, in this instance tracer bullets replace road-markings, but the imminence of death still hovers over the scenario. Dean told me of the disquieting hours he spent in the Museum perusing camera-gun footage whose visuals were just as disturbing as watching a never-ending snuff-movie – the horrors of war reduced to celluloid spectacle. Dean’s intelligently wrought pieces are defeated by the peremptory glance but, conversely, intensified and consummated by the prolonged and discerning gaze, their subtlety calls for a patient response, their intentionality only realised and reached through the viewer’s participation.