From Destruction to Design

Artist Piers Secunda creates art from the ashes of modern ruins in Iraq

What Remains by Piers Secunda is now on view at the Imperial War Museum in London. (Courtesy IWM)

Piers Secunda creates art out of history and ruin. The painter’s latest exhibition, What Remains, is now on display at the Imperial War Museum in London and is marked by a distinct materiality—works in the show are made with industrial paint, as well as charcoal from the ruins of Mosul, Iraq, ground into ink. 

Almost resembling individual plaster casts, Secunda’s unique painting method allows him to build his “canvases” into the third dimension. Resulting forms can be cut, carved into, sculpted, and painted over. The cast-like quality is also used more literally. For this show, the artist has used his material method to capture impressions of ISIS bullet holes and bombed building fragments collected on-site in Mosul. 

Artist Piers Secunda with two of his paintings for "What Remains" at the Imperial War Museum London

Artist Piers Secunda with two of his relief-like paintings for “What Remains” at the Imperial War Museum London (Courtesy IWM/Piers Secunda)

“I developed [these] systems of making works of art with paint, where I took the paint for a walk in three dimensions and I tried to figure out how I could enable the paint to grow without those traditional restraints,” Secunda told The Art Newspaper, “Since then, I’ve tried as much as I can to examine what the damaging of art means, especially if entire communities or ideologies systematically go about doing it.” 

The Imperial War Museum is exploring the theme of ruin and destruction over the past century in a free season of three exhibitions called Culture Under Attack. In addition to What Remains, the series zeroes in on the Nazi’s targeted bombings of London during WWII and the Taliban’s destruction of religious iconography in Afghanistan. These ruinations spark the conversation around cultural heritage and how it is both protected and restored. What Remains specifically focuses on the Mosul Museum, an ISIS target that was looted and burned by the group, sparking a worldwide outcry. It shows that the destruction of art is as powerful a symbol as the creation of art and has been exercised for millennia as a method for new leaders or regimes to assert dominance over prior systems. 

Installation view of Piers Secunda paintings for "What Remains" at IWM London

Installation view of Piers Secunda paintings at IWM London (Courtesy IWM/Piers Secunda)

Secunda’s work reinvigorates and reinstates the destroyed art, creating something new out of the ashes, quite literally. His series of drawings, created as site studies from the artist’s photographs of various ruins, could become an exhibit unto themselves. Secunda created the drawings by grinding the charcoal from the burned buildings down with mortar and pestle and mixing it with alcohol and gum arabic, fixing it to the paper in a fluid motion.  

Secunda’s drawings incorporate a strikingly different process than his paintings since they are two-dimensional. But the artist comments on the two disparate ways of working, saying: “Drawing by comparison is like lightning—it’s that immediate instant of expression and you can see the line grow.” 

In the interview with The Art Newspaper, the artist said he’s eager to explore destruction Mali and Syria next. 

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