Juan delGado: Altered Landscapes and the devastation of war

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Pearl Findlay explores Altered Landscapes of Juan delGado’s highly personal multi-media exhibition, tracing a personal narrative through the scarred vistas of Europe and recording the journeys taken by refugees, many from Syria and northern Iraq, during the artists’ travels to Greece, Macedonia and Calais

The exhibition starts outside the door: a welcome sign states how the art space is intentionally darkened, and kindly signposts the audience to accessible alternatives if needed. On entering the exhibition, I find myself submerged in darkness, invited in by a dim ambient light bulb to one of three landscape images.

Background noise echoes through the exhibition space, creating an ambiguous and atmospheric tone. The text on the first wall accurately describes what the exhibition entails. There is a longer printed supplement, an ‘easy read’ guide around the exhibition particularly useful to those with language difficulties, and an enlarged text. These extra steps taken to ensure accessibility provide an inclusive framework, creating a well thought-out welcome to all. The offer of additional information bodes well for everyone, as the photographs document purposefully dim-lit landscapes that insist on being seen up close, and even then with difficulty.

The first image shows a discoloured, yellow-tinged industrial terrain. The sense of darkness it is accompanied by, with only a light bulb to illuminate, heightens a sense of struggle and allows the imagination to explore what it might be like for someone to walk through these landscapes at night. The second image offers a softer version of abandonment; a yellow sweater in a straw field.

The contrast between man made and natural elements feels more commonplace, but proposes questions of whom it belongs to as the notion of disbandment takes hold. The final image conjures a grey landscape of bare trees, evergreens and electric pylons amongst a fog. It could be anywhere in the world, but smacks of the UK.

Moving into the film space, there is a low hanging light fitting installation, with brightly coloured visuals of a person’s point of view, walking through various landscapes. Leaves; grass; fields; pavements. This provides a sense of movement and urgency.

The film begins by overlooking coloured city lights, a city unknown, with stars reflected as brightly in the sky. It conjures up the image of the narrator’s home, a place he needs to leave. His breathing, the sounds of his environment and his internal thoughts spoken out loud make this film ever more real and immersive.

‘They look the same, yet somehow different. The lights, the colours, the shapes.”

The two mediums are brought together with subtitles and spoken word, lending a painfully real insight into the thought process of war-led heartbreak.

“I need a response. I am in a world of silence. But I must find you. I need a sign. Those vast vessels which once carried our dreams, they are all empty now.”

His voice trembles; he becomes upset and his speech unclear, leading us to engage with the text. He is reasoning with someone, ultimately saying his goodbyes. As black and white features of his city move to shots of traffic at night, it becomes apparent he is fleeing.

“The war has changed everything, it comes with a price. I’m changing, I’m becoming without you, this sickness is taking me over… I must leave, Habibi.”

Bright black and white images emerge, depicting a more stark, but still bleak, reality that is all too reminiscent of the UK and Europe. Natural images of mountains, sea, rivers and grass appear, and then traffic appears. This shows another form of uncertainty; a cold, harsh viewpoint takes hold.

The blend of grey scenes of discarded junk, dumping grounds and bare trees conjure up a metaphor for a new future in an unknown place. His breathing turns to heavy panting as he crosses grass and fields, along with several discarded items on his way towards a dumping ground. Emptiness and endless grey images give a very familiar perspective. There is something heavily weighted here. Yet this isn’t where the eeriness lies, rather it’s uncertainty that festers. There is imagery of plastic in trees in the wind, resonant of paper fortunes tied to Japanese ‘O-mikuji’ trees.

As the film draws to an end we are faced with the view of barbed wire on a motorway, as the sounds of seagulls and wind merges in with the sounds of passing cars.

DelGado’s film and exhibition offers a deeply personal account and heartfelt insight of what it is like to flee your home country amidst a war in search of an alternative. Despite a clear attachment to his home and evident regret, Habibi makes the brave decision to leave this country, meaning that he may never see his loved ones or home again. DelGado’s installation is a fully engaging experience, inviting his audience to witness an authentic account of an endangered individual directly affected by war.

Altered Landscapes is on display at the New Art Exhange, Nottingham from 12th June until 6th August, commissioned for DASH’s INSIDE project in partnership with the venue.

NAE is wheelchair accessible, has an induction hearing loop and disabled parking on request.

The Altered Landscapes exhibition has audio description and closed captions. The exhibition is in darkness, but torches and ushers can be requested.