World War One: Fragments
John Goto

2014 will see an outpouring of TV documentaries, books, films, video games and exhibitions ‘commemorating’ the 1914-18 Great War. Collective interest will peak around August 2014, but will soon dissipate as our present day concerns outweigh those of the distant past.

It will often be repeated that no combatants remain alive. And so the archives will again be trawled for images and memoirs. Some new primary source material may emerge - for example, the videotaped conversation with veteran Mr. Fred Goff presented here - but more significant will be the new perspectives brought to bear on such material, the new arguments made and new conclusions drawn. As always the historical narrative will remain unstable, seemingly blown by the winds of time. We continuously make and remake history; it is its condition.

The centenary histories will themselves soon become history. Which is not to devalue them, but simply to acknowledge that they too will be seen as of their time. This is both the fate, and the value, of all we make.

Presented here are two fragments excavated intermittently over the past twenty years. The first is a videotaped recording of Mr. Fred Goff recalling his army service in Mesopotamia 1916-19, and the second is an artwork I made around 1992 in response to his account.

The VHS tape was placed in storage shortly after it was recorded in 1990. Videotape technology has since become redundant, and only recently was the interview transferred to DVD - although this medium too is fast being superseded by digital downloads from cumulus clouds. Technological change offers us an accelerated measure of time.

Following this trajectory I have uploaded a short extract concerning Mr. Goff’s memories of the Battle of Ramadi to YouTube.


The picture below drew on Mr. Goff's testimony. When exhibited the following caption accompanied it;

‘In August 1990 John Goto visited a family friend, Mr. Fred Goff, at the residential care home where he was living. Ninety-four years old, Mr. Goff was at the time watching on television the build up to the Gulf War. The TV pictures seemed to act as an aide-memoire and he began to recall his own experiences as a young man during the First World War in the same terrain, which was then called Mesopotamia.
Goto returned a few weeks later to photograph Mr. Goff and record his reminiscences on videotape. Not long after that he made his third and final visit. Mr. Goff had died during the previous night and lay in his small room, strangely still in the half-light.’


Mr. Goff

The artwork has a number of elements, or panels. An empty desert at the centre of the picture divides Mr Goff’s face in two. Above is a sequence of stills from a video released by the US military of an Iraqi tank being destroyed by ‘smart’ munitions. The lower panel shows young men with eyes closed, surrounded by sand and personal memorabilia, with wooden oil derricks along the skyline. This montage was one of the last I made using analogue photography, which was soon to be replaced in my practice by emerging digital technologies.

At the time of making, the montage felt resolved as an object and image, though its meaning remained provisional and ambiguous in nature. Looking back, the picture can be understood as a historiographic subject - an object of its time.

But we ask more of artworks than that they are mere relics of their era. A successful artwork must also speak to us in the present. As Picasso put it ‘If a work of art does not live in the present, it must not be considered at all.’* Picasso considered good art to be transhistorical, existing in two time frames simultaneously - those of the past and the present.

What does this tell us about the difference between the artist’s approach to history, and that of the historian? Although the artist will almost certainly consult primary and secondary sources when researching their theme, she/he will subject this material to an imaginative process quite different from the historian’s methodology. The transformation occurs at the level of words into images; rational discourse into poetry; disinterest into empathy; methodology into improvisation; clarity into ambiguity; realism into delirium.

WW1 was the first major war to be recorded on moving film, and this gives the photographic records an immediacy denied to previous conflicts. When watching the BBC’s Great War series recently, which was first broadcast in 1964, I was struck by how dated the historical narrative seems, but also how engaging the movie footage remains. Our eyes scan the images, finding significance in details and faces beyond the intended subject. The sense of ‘there it was-ness’ is eerie and at times overpowering.

My videotaped interview with Mr. Goff is without artistic ambition; its function was simply to record his story. Like the war footage it has an engaging veracity and presence. As historical testament its proper place is in an archive and I am pleased to report it that it has recently been accepted for preservation into the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive.

John Goto 10.2013

A summary of the interview can be read here >

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