top of page

Marcus Wood


Heads on poles, ritual decapitation and the space of terror

Traitor’s heads were traditionally displayed impaled on stakes or poles, in London Traitor's Gate was notorious for such harrowing public installations.  While the display of heads on poles is in one sense now historically distant in Europe, in certain contexts it is very much alive and contemporary.  In the current flood of atrocity imagery generated by events in Syria there has been a large amount of carefully choreographed and visually extremely violent propaganda.  Much of this material is deliberately aimed at the intimidation of the West, and carries an outrageous satiric element.  Many of Isis's violent installations approach aspects of Europe's horrific past, and also question the rules for what is acceptable and what is unacceptable when it comes to the public display of state sanctioned violence.  Group decapitation and the symbolic display of heads on poles has emerged as one chosen indeed privileged element within the lexicon of extreme terror.  ISIS Jihadists have been mass exploiters of this symbolism.  There were ritualistic displays of the decapitated heads of children, women and men set on poles, or stuck on railings in Mosul as part of the fallout from the mass murder of Christians.  Is it useful to set up any sort of interpretative comparison between this real space of abject horror and the mediating aesthetic space of my paintings and drawings?  Are we now re-entering a semiotic space of utter barbarity where the propaganda of terror can usefully equate display codes of early modern Europe with the executioners of Isis in Northern Syria in 2017?


 "Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch" to which one might add "'Nach Mosul kunst ist barbarisch", but no-one cares very much any more.  There are, it seems, no decent limits to how extremists whose absolute authority is finally based in terror will advertise their capacity to terrify.  Whether anyone can make an art-work which usefully interrogates this language of terror remains a very difficult question to answer  The first time I met Jac Leirner the Brazilian conceptual artist she walked into my studio, where the first five of my heads on poles were pinned on a bone white wall.  She looked at them for a while and then said 'beautiful drawings' and walked out. Should a head on a pole ever look beautiful?  Is Goya's desolate etching 'Great Deeds Against the Dead' from The Disaster's of War one answer to this question?

bottom of page