Featuring works from a whopping 140 international artists, including those from Germany, Spain, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Italy, Albania, Israel-Palestine, France, and Japan, Artists in a Time of War (March 15 - November 19, 2023), now on view at the Castello di Rivoli outside of Turin, Italy, forces viewers to get comfortable in chaos. Through its featured works – primarily paintings and videos, with some installations, prints, and drawings – curators Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Marianna Vecellio highlight the role of artists to find meaning in the calamitous paradoxes war presents: militant organization and cataclysmic destruction; survival and sublimation – or, as Christov-Bakargiev eloquently puts it in the exhibition press release, the “expanded interval between life and death.”
Despite the show’s physically chronological arrangement, the philosophy behind Artists in a Time of War is decidedly atemporal; perhaps nihilistically so. For example, the exhibition opens with a selection of deeply upsetting drawings and paintings of the Dachau concentration camp by Anton Zoran Mušič, including a series of paintings depicting ghostly, contorted and skeletal human bodies with cavernous open mouths. In curatorial texts, Mušič is described as being heavily influenced by Francisco Goya, who is put into conversation with the more recent artist via his iconic Disasters of War prints – first drawn 150 years ago during the Peninsular War, well before Mušič painted his specters. Goya’s ominous, now-iconic images of war and death spill over one another in a vitrine at the gallery’s center. Underlining the tragic circularity of global violence, Mušič’s series of paintings is called Nous ne sommes pas les derniers (We are not the last) (1970-1976; 1987-1988).
Arguably, “We are not the last” is the theme of this exhibition, whose featured artists explore international conflicts spanning across decades and geographies – even, in some cases, ideologies, as indicated by the inclusion of artists like Salvador Dalí (spurned by his contemporaries for his vocal admiration of Adolf Hilter)  and Alberto Burri (who fought on behalf of the Fascist army in World War II). From Lee Miller’s nauseating photographs of victims of the very same concentration camp in which Mušič was incarcerated (1945) to Michael Rakowitz’s The Ballad of Special Ops Cody (2017), a stop-motion film about a soldier’s guilt following the Iraq wars, and Nikita Kadan’s The Shelter II (2023), a commissioned installation reflecting Russia’s war in Ukraine, Mušič’s ominous title is proven right. By concluding the show in the present day, with two works by Rahraw Omarzad, one gets the sense of a depressing historical ouroboros, the snake stubbornly swallowing its own venomous tail.
It’s bleak, to be sure. Crucially, however, this show doesn’t stop at this message: rather, it carefully includes several standout works that pull this idea into new realms, culminating in a meditation on modern warfare that bleeds from purely existential despair into something more effervescent; even cosmic.
The standout work in this respect is Rahraw Omarzad’s series Every Tiger needs a Horse (2022-2023), an installation of black and white paintings commissioned for this exhibition. Omarzad – who is originally from Kabul, Afghanistan – fled the country in 2021 after the US military withdrawal that allowed the Taliban to reclaim control. According to the museum, the Castello di Rivoli collaborated with the Italian military to orchestrate Omarzad’s escape and subsequent asylum. In a first for the Italian military, they worked with the artist to create this series of works: a conceptual, process-based installation in which two four-walled canvas structures were built around dynamite paint bombs, and then detonated.
The result is a series of eight large paintings: half of black paint splotches on white canvas; half with white on black. In the white canvas works, the exploded black paint is a literal artifact of destruction, with smears of black paint powerfully evoking the moment of explosion, violently, randomly dusted outward, its smoky shrapnel scattering like debris. In works where white paint has been bombed onto black canvas, the effect is galactic: a fragment of frozen light, like an explosion of stars.
This series spreads across a full gallery. With plenty of room to breathe, these works powerfully stand between time and space. The true story of their creation binds them to a real person and history – an ongoing violence that is nodded to in the literal, “bombed”-looking works – but their abstraction and celestial poetry allows the viewer to “look up,” beyond geographic, political, or historic specificity into a more general, and thus emotional, meaning.
In this way, the series reverberates with another series in the show, Dinh Q. Lê’s beautiful Light and Belief. Voices and sketches of life from the Vietnam War (2012), a film and accompanying archive of watercolor drawings by Vietnamese artists-turned-soldiers during the American war in Vietnam. These documentary watercolors were created at the same time as the US filmed and broadcast its war in Vietnam, a testament to the material inequality between the countries in combat. Unlike the American footage of the war in Vietnam, which frequently depicted active soldiers – marching through the jungle with rifles aimed – the Light and Belief watercolors are often serene, meditative portraits of soldiers in still silence, wiling away the long hours between battles.
War is meticulously planned and devastatingly random; it is unfair; it is cruel; it renders us helpless; it, despite our best efforts, continues to be a fact of life, and probably always will be. It is what determines the lives of artists like Rahraw Omarzad and Dinh Q. Lê, and of myself, the American art critic whose compatriots marched into their countries, intent to destroy them. Artists in a Time of War is commendable for its embrace of these unavoidable truths; for the deceptively complex way in which its featured artists reflect on the meaninglessness of war.
In late June, Adam Frank wrote an article for The Atlantic called “Scientists Found Ripples in Space and Time. And You Have to Buy Groceries.” Frank, a professor of astrophysics, describes a recent groundbreaking scientific finding for the lay reader. In an extension of Einstein’s theory of relativity, scientists have proved that “the whole universe is humming,” with faraway black holes and our own bodies pulsing in unison with the past. He writes:
Every proton and neutron in every atom from the tip of your toes to the top of your head is shifting, shuttling, and vibrating in a collective purr within which the entire history of the universe is implicated. … All of a sudden, we know that we are humming in tune with the entire universe, that each of us contains the signature of everything that has ever been. It’s all within us, around us, pushing us to and fro as we hurtle through the cosmos.
I’m reminded of Frank’s words when I look back at Omarzad’s white-on-black paintings. There may not be meaning to this violence, but there can be connection – personal, cross-temporal, universal. In a show that may well be read as a testament to hopelessness, there is also a glimmer of possibility for something more: a kind of understanding; a nod to our shared humanity; a tumbling kind of helpless sympathy, like an avalanche of stars.
 Christopher Heath Brown and Jean-Pierre Isbouts, The Dalí Legacy: How an Eccentric Genius Changed the Art World and Created a Lasting Legacy (Apollo, 2021).
Cover: Michael Rakowitz, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody (2017).
fig. 1: Anton Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers (We are not the last) (1970-1976; 1987-1988).
fig. 2: Nikita Kadan, The Shelter II (2023).
fig. 3: Rahraw Omarzad, series Every Tiger needs a Horse (2022-2023).
fig. 4: Dinh Q. Lê, Light and Belief. Voices and sketches of life from the Vietnam War (2012).
fig. 5: Francisco Goya.