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 GMT

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.

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