'No Guts No Glory': Comic book collages show the true cost of war

Updated 12th April 2017
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'No Guts No Glory': Comic book collages show the true cost of war
Written by Clive Martin, CNN
A portrait of John F. Kennedy made up of contorted comic book heroes, a handgun carved into a school desk, Abraham Lincoln on a Pez dispenser. These are the creations of Ben Turnbull, a kind of modern day Pop artist who has always looked to the extremes of American culture for his inspiration, drawing on what writer Don DeLillo might call the "magic and dread" of that society.
For a boy from suburban South West London, it would inevitably be pop culture that led him to these violent, politicized visions of the world across the pond.
"I was obsessed with 'Time Tunnel,' 'Night Gallery,' all these weird American shows. TV's changed a lot now, but there was a time when they always seemed to be on. It really formed my idea of a different world," he tells me. "I think that kind of culture is art, really. I think it's better art than a lot of art that's out there today."
With his new exhibition at London's Saatchi Gallery, Turnbull looks once more toward America, and American violence, this time focusing on that great US export, war.
"No Guts No Glory," looks at the journeys of three Marines in Vietnam: what brought them there, what they did there, how they were killed or what happened when they came home.
The show is full of recognizable iconography -- the dog tags, the slogan-covered military jackets straight out of "Full Metal Jacket" -- but for Turnbull, this isn't just about Vietnam, but all wars.
"This project is an across-the-board look at war and men, and why men do what they do or don't do; and what they do when they come back, and what happens to them."
The collages, sculptures and installations on display are far more than just imagery. With the single-mindedness of a historian or a detective, Turnbull went to great lengths to endow them with an impressive level of historical accuracy, spending months looking at not only books and films from the time, but also first-hand materials from soldiers like those in his show.
"All the stuff is taken from historical imagery, words, fashion, propaganda posters," he elaborates. "It's imaginary in the sense that I've transformed it, but the postcards are from actual postcards that have been sent back from Vietnam by these guys ... There's a line in one postcard when one guy, (Larry), says, 'I'm 21 now, but coming home older.' And he was killed the very next day."
"Postcards from the Edge No.1" by Ben Turnbull
"Postcards from the Edge No.1" by Ben Turnbull Credit: Courtesy Ben Turnbull
But despite all the bloodshed and tragedy, Turnbull says this show actually moves away from his usual motifs about America and violence. (Think a Captain America statue brandishing the severed head of Saddam Hussein, or a gumball dispensers filled with guns.)
"Weirdly for a war show, its not actually about violence. It's more emotional than that. It's much more about the reasons why people fight and the reasons why they die as well. It's got a much more haunting quality."
But while his practice may be rooted in history (he's not shy about his early Pop art inspirations), Turnbull rejects accusations of nostalgia.
"I think there's a certain value in nostalgia, but it's not something I'm doing," he responds. "I take facets of ... American subject matter. I want to use America as a platform because it's an amazing platform to have to base a series of stories on."
"The Return of the Living Dead" by Ben Turnbull
"The Return of the Living Dead" by Ben Turnbull Credit: Courtesy Ben Turnbull
I tell him he seems quite different to most artists I've met. Does he feel like an outsider in an industry where marketing and aesthetic rule above all?
"Oh yeah, I'm in the wrong job," he says with mock sincerity. "But there's no point having all these facts and figures if you don't have something to get it out your system."
He smiles: "I'm not arrogant but I would say I'm ... individualistic."
And what could be a more perfect summation of an artist so obsessed with America and American values?
Ben Turnbull, the rugged individualist.
"No Guts No Glory" runs from from April 11 to May 8, 2017 at Saatchi Gallery in London.