Ben Turnbull: “The truth gets told as you walk around the room”

The memorial pop artist talks about his new exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery

A group of soldiers pile up, tripping over each other as they force a pole into the ground. On the end of the pole is the familiar flag; seven red stripes and six white; 48 stars on a blue backdrop.

(Click on the gallery to see more images)

The flag-raising at Iwo Jima is a familiar image, but in Turnbull’s version, ‘Gung Ho,’ a mass of blue and purple contorted faces scream from the bottom of the frame as they are trampled underfoot.

Turnbull’s exhibition, No Guts No Glory, created largely out of collaged vintage US comic books, will be open at the Saatchi Gallery’s Prints & Originals Gallery from 11 April - 8 May. It tells a visual story of American warfare over the last century. Exploring themes of heroism and sacrifice, the exhibition narrates the experience of young American G.I.s.

“Everything for this exhibition was imported; like artists import paint,” says Turnbull, who carefully selects his comic book clippings based on their style and colour. Each image is made of hundreds of stories, as Turnbull visualises the devastating potentials of warfare. However, Turnbull is not trying to preach here: “My work never has a political agenda, but if people take one from it, that’s fine by me. I hate that kind of art that just tries to cash in on something that’s going on in the world.”

The artist has been fascinated by American culture from a young age and was heavily influenced by the propaganda works and commissioned war posters of James Montgomery Flagg. He also admires Barbara Kruger’s billboards, which explore the phenomenon of advertising in American culture.

When the horror of ‘Gung Ho’ becomes apparent, it isn’t perhaps a surprise that Ben Turnbull watches zombie films. “You must be informed by what you like, read, see,” says Turnbull. “Subliminally, these things must affect your creative conscience.”

Turnbull’s Homecoming series, depicts three coffins from aerial view, covered by the American flag and bearing the slogans, “No one shall be left behind,” “Will you have a part in victory,” and “First in the fight always faithful”.

The Postcard series relates edited extracts from real letters, sent from G.I.s during the Vietnam war. Turnbull has constructed the messages out of collaged letters and they are set against gaudy postcard backgrounds, depicting idealised landscapes of Vietnam. A 21-year-old man named Larry writes, “Dear, Mom. Today is probably the worst day in my entire short life.” That day was unfortunately his last.

“The tragedy of all these words really hit home when I saw a footnote that Larry Jackson died within 24 hours of writing these thoughts,” says Turnbull. The childish connotations of the collaged letters demonstrates the naivety of their authors. These men had no idea what they were going to face when they left the US.

‘The Return of the Living Dead’ explores post-traumatic stress disorder and depicts three M-65 field jackets against the American flag. Across the backs of the jackets are the phrases, “What are we fighting for,” “Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn,” “Next stop is Vietnam”, made up of letters cut from the American flag. Turnbull calls it “the best work I’ve ever done.”

Turnbull believes his form of art-making is much like journalism. Instead of pushing an agenda, he focusses on reporting the reality of warfare. “The truth gets told as you walk around the room,” says Turnbull. “A normal person wouldn’t naturally think about this as a job, but maybe this is my way of dealing with things instead of just being angry about what goes on in the world.”

Each of the works in the collection illuminates the multitude of individual stories that combine to make a piece of history. An image becomes a barrage of voices G.I. voices shouting “I won’t kill!”, “chew ‘em up!”, “No matter what happens, keep goin’!” Turnbull refuses to let them be silenced.