Following an invitation from the Ruya Foundation, artist Francis Alÿs spent nine days in October and November 2016 embedded with the Kurdish Army, or Peshmerga, on the Mosul front line during their campaign to liberate the second-largest city of Iraq from ISIS. Here, Alÿs shares some of the notes he took during his embedment, as he grappled with questions of the artist’s role in war and the reality of nomadism and terror. The paintings produced in Mosul will be on view at the Iraqi pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, as part of the show “Archaic,” which runs from May 13 through November 26, 2017.
I AM AFRAID IT WOULD BE DIFFICULT to give a coherent account of my embedment with the Peshmerga, for it was anything but coherent. I arrived in Iraq on October 28 with the intention of documenting the displacements caused by the Mosul offensive against ISIS. Yet, for a series of tactical reasons, I instead found myself dropped somewhere along the fourteen-mile Iraqi Kurdistan military Peshmerga’s front line on the eastern flank of Mosul, with a small bag and no plan of action. At first, the stupefying reality of combat and the smell of terror nearby numbed me and frustrated any proper creative process. However, as I had to somehow make contact with my Peshmerga guardian angels, drawing turned out to be a providential way of communicating, plus it gave me the illusion of being part of the scene. Images started filling my notebook and words soon followed.
Saturday, October 29, 2016
Fighting the jetlag, breaking the ice, waiting for the subjects to forgive my presence. Early night / foreground sound track of mobile phones playing Arab rap with background music of the US-led coalition bombardment.
Sunday, October 30, 2016
Earthworks. The Peshmerga offensive is a massive engineering enterprise, a monumental Land art operation. Behind each platoon there is a bulldozer waiting. Every hundred meters of gained territory results in hundreds of tons of dry earth pushed forward, all in order to move the front line ever closer to the suburbs of Mosul. Landscape is refashioned daily by the shelling, ISIS’s tunnels are behind, under, and beyond our mobile front line; the dunes are scarred by the infinite lines of trenches while on the Syrian-Iraqi border ISIS’s bulldozers breach a passage through a hill to erase the Sykes–Picot Agreement’s fatal design.
The desert is no longer an exotic escape. It’s pure naked exposure. The closest to protection from the snipers is by running from one shadow to another.
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
In an era when any insignificant event is instantly public online—and governments are tapping millions of cell phones—how on earth is it possible that no intelligence whatsoever can tell us how many ISIS fighters are left in Mosul? There lies the power of terror.
Heard among the Peshmerga returning from a village they just freed: “This morning they were shooting at us; this afternoon they receive us with open arms, as if nothing had happened.”
Thinking of the Yazidi kids of the refugee camp near Dohuk I visited in February 2016. What can we tell to a child in the face of terror? In a child’s imagination, what is the image of terror? How can one make sense of terror to a child? How can one integrate the un-acceptable? Can a human tragedy be testified to by way of a fictional work?
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
In the midst of gunfire the rain caught us all by surprise. What could the ISIS fighters possibly make of the rain? Strangely it brought us closer, we shared that moment. Did I film the rain?
Thursday, November 3, 2016
Second day of trying to match on small canvases the colors of the scenes I’m witnessing in an attempt to coincide with the moment I am living—this is the abstraction of war within the spectacle of combat. Meanwhile, I watch a Peshmerga rushing to take a selfie on the background of an exploding rocket. The smiles of this war will be well kept in cell phones, in between photos of sweethearts and motorcycles. What happens in Mosul stays in Mosul.
The Mosul offensive is like the making of a movie: 90 percent waiting, 10 percent action. With tea and Turkish biscuits served in the intermezzo.
The white flags waved on the Mosul rooftops against the sky blacked out by the smoke provoked by the bombings.
In the absence of language, I miss the way in which talking helps to materialize an idea.
Furat (Iraqi friend filmmaker), referring to European ISIS volunteers: “The young Europeans did not live a war. All they know is through video games. They come here because they live war as a fiction.”
50,000 euros = classic bomb GBU-US
200,000 euros = missile AASM
600,000 euros = cruise missile SCALP
500 to 750 USD = daily pay of a private security contractor in Iraq
435 USD = monthly pay of a Peshmerga fighter
The disturbing beauty of counter-light explosions at dusk.
Friday, November 4, 2016
Quel est l’enjeu? What’s more absurd? When the Big Friendly General fires his cannon into the suburbs of Mosul to entertain the accompanying press, or when I play my commedia dell’arte in the face of terror? What does it mean to make art while Nimrud and Palmyra are being destroyed? If ISIS’s logic is “destroy to exist,” does it mean we ought to create in order to survive? Is art is just a means of survival through the catastrophe of war? Do we live because we narrate? In classic Arab literature, poetry fixes things and fractures the past from the present. Within a situation of continuous conflict, does memory allow us to reinvent/reset ourselves and escape the vicious circle in which violence calls for more violence? “It’s not about turning your back, it’s about how you turn your back.” (Elias Khoury, Beirut, November 2015)
I against my brothers,
I and my brothers against my cousins,
I and my brothers and my cousins against the stranger.
Saturday, November 5, 2016
What did I see yesterday? What really happened? What role does fear play in my memories? What part does fantasy play? Where do I stand in between those two forces?
Symptomatology of Embedment:
Intellectual and neurological arousal, all senses on alert / urge to register the moment no matter how / hyperactive mental space where the most disparate elements can be connected / acute 360 degrees perception / state of total submission to the events, I absorb them like a sponge / sleeping like a log in spite of the constant bombings
Sunday, November 6, 2016
There is something peculiar about the times we live in, and with them, a different expectation of the artist’s role. When the structure of a society collapses, when politicians and media have lost credit and terror invades daily life, society turns toward culture in pursuit of answers. The painter is expected to look at its reality without any filters; the writer is asked to produce stories that will help make sense of the madness going on; the musician is urged to transcend his present; the poet is invited to translate social tensions into verses. Even Hollywood actors are meant to have a cause! Yet, is the artist able to assume those roles from a moral, intellectual, and emotional point of view? Artists have their own agendas and their own subjective view of facts. When does witnessing become denouncing? When does denouncing become accusing? Is the artist’s role to reveal the hidden reality of things without naming them, like Akram once told me? Or is our job just to open up a different perspective on a given situation—rather than change the world, to challenge it? Art can open a space of hope in the midst of hopelessness. Paradoxically it sometimes takes the absurdity of the artistic operation to introduce a measure of meaning in a situation that seems to have stopped making any sense.
-Why the Middle East?
Because it’s the nest of civilization, the heart of all human conflicts.
-This particular war?
Because it is local, tribal, and religious conflicts that have had extraordinary repercussions on more than half the planet. It’s medieval barbarism perpetrated and spread with the most modern of technologies.
An existential war.
-And art in all this?
Back in Afghanistan a friend told me: “If you do, you’re wrong; and if you don’t do, you’re wrong.” Otherwise said: Doing something is the right thing to do, but do I have the right to do it? That’s the impossible equation one has to deal with.