Charles L. Roberts: The War Years

Peter Kingstone



Charles L. Roberts: The War Years is a video installation of up to 10 separate videos each approximately 3 minutes in length.  Each video will be shown on a separate monitor within a gallery setting.

            Charles L. Roberts is a grandfather that I have never met. He was an American soldier who was stationed for a brief time in London, England during World War II. There he met my grandmother, already a married young woman. They started an affair and she became pregnant, but he left England to return to the United States where he already had a family. My grandmother’s husband divorced her, so she fled to Canada with a babe in her arms, my mother. When she arrived in Canada she worked many lower end jobs, as a prostitute and also formed relationships with men who would take her and her child in. In 1949, when my mother was 4 my grandmother had another daughter out of wedlock. When my mother was 17 and her half-sister 13 my grandmother abandoned them. My mother has never seen her since, nor has she seen her father. I have not met either grandparent on my mother’s side.

            My work explores ideas around narrative, histories, and the intangible nature of truth. Charles L. Roberts: The War Years is the first part of an exploration of ideas about history and truth generated in the wake of World War II. Starting with the work of post-modern theorists after World War II, in particular Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Auschwitz, the possibility of producing a meta-narrative had become contentious.  For the world to survive it had to expose itself to the ideas of non-male, non-European and non-white viewpoints. There could no longer be a single, dominant narrative. Every “whole” is a skein of discrete narratives. This is the approach I have taken to create Charles L. Roberts: the War Years. 

The title Charles L. Roberts: The War Years turns the project into an historical document. Audience members will wonder on who Charles L. Roberts was, this mystery of what he did before or after the war years that makes this particular time period so important, and the presence he had in the artist’s life, through his non-presence in the artist’s life is a tension that will inform the work.

But, as I have no true knowledge of Charles L. Roberts, the piece becomes a conglomeration of fantasies and imagery from the war. These discrete narratives will explore my generation’s understanding of World War II; an understanding constructed by media and, in particular, American war movies. Therefore, Charles L. Roberts: the War Years is a narrative about the construction of history.

            The 10 pieces in the narrative of Charles L. Roberts: The War Years will include: him as a member of the United States air force dropping the atom bomb, as a German spy infiltrating the Allies armies, as a war hero killing 50 German men, as a wounded soldier in a field hospital, as a Nazi prisoner of war, as a grunt moving through North Africa, as a victim on the beaches at Normandy, as a flying ace shooting down German warplanes, as a general, and as a medic tending to wounded soldiers.

            Charles L. Roberts: The War Years will be installed in a gallery, ideal because a gallery is a white box, a space without history. It will house not only the videos, but also war ephemera. Sand bags will create a small trench; model aircraft the sense of fighting in the skies; stretcher and medical supplies the sense of death; and maps and plans will give a sense of the war in the planning stages. The space will conjure images of war, a war that, for my generation, has only been played in schoolyard, and enjoyed in the movies. The pieces of the installation will not be authentic World War II equipment. They will be childlike recreations. This detail of unreality in the installation will further the sense in the creation and play of history within the narrative of the piece.

What I remember distinctly from high school history class is that histories are told by the winning side. I am not sure if that is true any more. With theorists like Michel Foucault, activists and writers like Jean Genet, books like Hiroshima by John Hersey or films like Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Margerite Duras and Alain Resnais, the history of the winning side is under attack.  Many histories are being told, not simply a meta-history. You may be thinking that Charles L. Roberts: The War Years is a narrative by the winning forces, but I am not sure about that. Charles L. Roberts: The War Years is not a story about the Allies winning the war, but a about casualties of the war.  My grandmother was a casualty. Charles L. Roberts: The War Years is one half of the narrative. The second portion focusing on my grandmother is in the planning stages.

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