Sometimes rather than creating images of conflict or creating art that responds to it directly, artists employ conflict as an internal quality of their work. Some artists deliberately create an element of contradiction in their artwork in order to create tension or irony, to highlight certain qualities, or to create unforeseen relationships that allow us to think differently. Through unexpected juxtapositions, they challenge our expectations and perceptions of the everyday.
Mona Hatoum,Untitled (Wheelchair), 1998, stainless steel and rubber, 97 x 50 x 85 cm (Tate)
Take a look at Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum’s Untitled (Wheelchair). At first glance, Hatoum’s sculpture looks innocuous enough: it’s a simple, somewhat severe wheelchair with the necessary seat, wheels, and armrests. But look more carefully, and you might notice that its handles are actually knives. With this one subversion, Hatoum has taken an ordinary object and turned it into something full of potential and meaning. What kind of person might consider using a wheelchair with knives for handles? Could this wheelchair represent the potential dangers lurking in the everyday?
British artist Peter Kennard creates internal conflicts in his artwork through the use of photomontage, or the pasting together of disparate photos and other visual elements to create an entirely new image. With pictures of the earth being drowned in oil and missiles exploding through peace signs, Kennard’s work is hardly subtle. But his images are powerful in that they make explicit things we might know or feel and make contradiction visible. His Disappeared Prisoners is even more poignant in that the soldier appears to be using the tools of the artist. But instead of creating art, he is painting over the faces of the men and women who were “disappeared” and murdered under Augusto Pinochet’s regime in 1970s Chile, wearing gloves as if to avoid dirtying himself with the deed.
Peter Kennard, Disappeared Prisoners, 1978, photographs on paper, ink and gouache on card, 25 x 22 cm, (Tate)

When it comes to representational art, art is by its very nature a document of the time, place, and culture in which it was created. For those artists who have lived through and engaged with conflict, their work offers one way of passing on the experiences of those things we can’t all live through. Some artists have chosen to document conflict while it rages, while many have found it impossible to do so without a degree of commentary embedded in their work. Still others have embraced the spirit of conflict in their own work to speak to issues with particular poignancy.
In the art history of conflict, many things have changed to allow for artists’ work to become the mouthpieces for their opinions and ideas. But some things remain unchanged: it’s one Roman statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, for example, that set the standard for the statues of mounted generals that still feature in our modern-day cities.
If you could make a sculpture that addresses conflict in some way, what would it be and how would it look? Would it be a soldier on horseback? Would he (or she, or it) be triumphant, or not? Would it even be a sculpture, or a performance or collage instead? What would you say with art?