The Devil's Rope: a cultural history of barbed wire, by Alan Krell

An unruly, intriguing bouquet of barbed wire

Jay Merrick
Monday 13 January 2003 01:00
Comments

The collectors call themselves, with charming goofiness, the Barbarians, and they like their samples in 18-inch strands. There are more than 1,500 types, and buffs can tell a Double Rowell from a Hunt's Double Plate Lock Link at a glance. The Hunt is the grail, worth $1,000 per strand.

What is this stuff? Bernice Chrissman, writing in 1962 of her rugged early years in the American Midwest, recalled "that number 9, black wire, with sharp barbs wrapped around it at intervals of four inches was the first barb wire on the range back in the 1880s. I remember the first time I saw it. I wondered what kind of weapon it was."

Barbed wire: the Devil's Hatband to 19th-century ranchers, the Devil's Rope for Native Americans. Alan Krell is equipped with a subject whose potential fertility is chimerical, because barbed wire seems simultaneously intriguing and vacuous. It's a one-take material – you string it along posts and if people or animals brush it, they get cut. It protects and attacks, equally. Not exactly the stuff of dreams or art. Look at it or touch it, and you think: brutish, sharp, intractable.

Krell thinks otherwise and The Devil's Rope does treat us to fascinating moments. But his mission – to bulk up barbed wire's status as a cultural icon – is rather like the prairies before its arrival: endless and beyond organisation.

The obviousness of most of Krell's examples and connections do not point to a failure of research or imagination. Actually, his imagination is rather too hopeful. Case in point: Oliviero Toscani, Benetton's controversial photographer, whose image of an Aids victim soiled a faux Renaissance fresco with appalling postmodern voyeurism. He did barbed wire, too – a surprisingly dull shot of roughly horizontal lines. When the Corriere della Sera accused him of a crude Nazi death-camp allusion, Toscani denied it, claiming he was portraying alienation. In fact, the image signifies neither because it's far too tidy.

We are rarely energised by the idea of barbed wire as a potent cultural entity because Krell doesn't often get closure on his battlegrounds of choice: detail, torture, intimacy, the familiar. But if The Devil's Rope doesn't quite work as a plasma of ideas, it remains a grippingly fractured panorama.

And Krell's search for detail delivers rewards. Most of these – supported by many fine illustrations – come in the early history. Krell is excellent in his meticulous examination of the technical development, marketing and punch-ups over patents; and even better on the metal burr's initial purpose – a far cry from the "Jewish chandeliers" of Dachau.

We are left with a nice question. Why do some objects and materials resonate in imaginative contexts, while others don't? Why are Howlin' Wolf's "cobra snake for a necktie" and Duchamp's urinal satisfyingly loaded, when Roland Penrose's surreal barbed-wire bra isn't? Perhaps barbed wire is just too vile, and fit only for the southern-fried Bosch landscapes of Cormac McCarthy's novel, Blood Meridian. Like Bernice Chrissman, we know that barbed wire is nothing more, or less, than a weapon.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in