Alastair Whitton, Patmos and the War at Sea


This exhibition of work by Alastair Whitton will run from the 1 October – 27 October 2009.

1. To start with the first sign, so to speak, can you elucidate the title of this series of works, Patmos and the War at Sea?

The Greek island of Patmos has been the site of conquest and occupation at various points throughout its history;  most notably dominated by, amongst others, the Venetians and the Turks. In more recent times Patmos was occupied by the Italians (1912–1943) and then by German forces during World War II.  However, most significantly it is where the Apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation in AD 96, after being exiled to the island by the Roman emperor Domitian for preaching the Gospel at Ephesus. It is these apocalyptic writings that are the source material for the Braille ‘texts’ in my recent works. The reference to sea in the title of this series is both literal and metaphorical; the sea being an ancient symbol of the spiritual realm. So essentially the title refers, by association, to territory and domain, both physical and spiritual as well as the war that ensues in the conquest thereof.

2. In work like this it’s clear that the implication of every detail has been weighed and every decision made after much thought – can you explain the various technical processes that have gone into making this work?

The works are layered both in concept and construction. The method of their making informs their meaning, while the format explicates their message. Each left-hand page of a work is made up of a selected text which I have translated into Braille. This is then laser cut, rendering it a seemingly unreadable code. Varied hand-stamped letters are added to these coded maps and function as clues and points of connection between ‘text’ and image. Each image is a carefully reconstructed view of a war scene from an archival/film source that, once cut and recomposed, is then ‘re-shot’. This process is an attempt to make sense of what has been seen and recorded; it is not disimilar to how one might analyse and dissect a prophetic text in order to better ‘see’ it.  A lens through a lens darkly …

3. In the photographic images you have chosen, despite the fact that they come from a specific historical period, your reference to war is not necessarily purely historical. Why did you choose to use images from the World Wars, firstly? Secondly, how do these military references play out on other levels in the work?

Archival images and film footage referencing the World Wars constitute the source material for the photographs in this project. These works function on one level as a personal act of remembrance; an homage to the courage and sacrifice of those who fought and died for the freedom that we in subsequent generations have come to enjoy and yet take for granted. However, you are correct in stating that my reference to war in this project is not limited to a specific historical period. War is a central theme in the Book of Revelation; the images that I have constructed are intended to allude to ‘another world’ war.

4. What is your experience of war, if any?

Battles are fought on a variety of different fronts in the world today; some actual, others internal but no less real. I was trained for war but thankfully was spared the horror of it. Many of the soldiers with whom I trained weren’t as fortunate. My father served in the British Army and both my grandfathers were involved in World War II.

5. On the left hand side of each work can be found a passage translated into Braille. However, on close inspection, one discovers that instead of being raised from the paper, the Braille signs are laser cut into the page. Hence, even if one were able to read Braille, one would be unable to read this passage. In this sense, you keep something secret from the viewer. You have, however, given the viewer clues – there are hand-stamped letters that, when combined correctly, spell out a word between the Braille signs. Can you elaborate on these mazes of obscurity and revelation; and on the significance of code in this work?

Essentially the Patmos project considers the way in which we, as human beings, see or rather fail to see parallel worlds and landscapes. Put another way it constitutes a meditation on what I would refer to as sight(blindness); an impediment plaguing mankind and not limited to sighted individuals but afflicting those unfortunate to be blind to this world as well. The process of concealing and revealing alludes to Christ’s pattern of parables. Furthermore, the laser cut Braille ‘texts’ function as a form of code and recall the  World War II Enigma machine. The works contemplate processes of interpretation and on one level are attempts to make sense of language.

6. What are the implications, in your view, of the role you have taken on, as artist, as the holder of the key to the secret code? What is your take on the notion of authorship vs. the notion of the artwork as an entity altogether separate from the artist, severed from the artist’s influence once exposed to the gaze of others?

I have always believed that a succesful work of art is one that continues to breathe and live on in the gaze of others long after it has been born. Hopefully the conversation is ongoing …

7. All of these editions are to be combined to form another artwork, an artist’s book. What is the significance to you of the book as an object?

A book is a container of thought made visible; a site of exploration and a landscape in which to walk. Holding and reading a book is an interactive, and very human, experience, one that involves us in a conversation between the thoughts contained within its contents and those that frequent our minds.

8. There is a strong sense that this work is underpinned by theories of the sublime, which can be traced through the ages of thinkers. You have cited the painter John Martin and the writer William Blake as specific sources of insight. Both of these artists have different views of the sublime and of transcendence. Is there a particular mode of ‘sublime thinking’ that has appealed to you in making this work?

To varying degrees, both the apocalyptic themes in some of John Martin’s paintings as well as Blake’s artist’s books were a source of insight to me in the Patmos project but so too were Goya’s Disasters of War and of course the work of Gerhard Richter.

9. Of course, in work as multi-layered as this, each viewer will take something quite different from the viewing (or, perhaps more appropriately, reading) experience. What model of transcendence, or making sense, have you personally taken from/put forward in your work?

My worldview is Christian and specifically Augustinian. It is the lens through which I look at all aspects of this world.


Patmos and the War at Sea opens at David Krut Projects, Johannesburg in October 2009. Selected works from this series were recently selected for the 8th Bamako Encounters African Photography Biennale scheduled to take place in Mali in November 2009.

1 October 2009
27 October 2009
Thursday, 1 October 2009, 6:00PM
Workshop Gallery on Jan Smuts, JHB