PRINT January 2004


Nico Israel on artists on the Iraqi front

DURING THE NAZI OCCUPATION of Paris in the early 1940s, Picasso’s atelier at 7 rue des Grands-Augustins was regularly visited by Gestapo agents in search of inflammatory material and hidden Jews. Once, an officer noticed a sketch of Guernica pinned to a wall, and he asked the artist, “Was it you who made this?” Picasso replied succinctly, “No, it was you.”

Whether or not the anecdote is true—Picasso supposedly told it to a Newsweek reporter shortly after the liberation of Paris—it reveals a great deal about the art of war. Picasso had never visited the Basque town of Guernica y Luno; he learned about the Franquista atrocities from newspaper reports and photographs. For that matter, despite adamant assertions to the contrary (“yo lo vi”), Goya, whose “Disasters of War” etchings have recently been clown- and puppy-(de)faced by the shrilly naughty Chapman brothers, never actually witnessed the effects of battle or the execution of anti-Napoleonic rebels either. Yet Picasso and Goya, through their art, left a kind of fragmentary testament—not of “man’s inhumanity to man,” as the banal humanist credo would have it, but of specific perpetrations of what we now call “war crimes,” their effects on victims, and, above all, their implications for bystanders.

Picasso and Goya spring to mind precisely because contemporary artists confronting the war in and on Iraq seem to approach the question of responsibility so differently. This may have something to do with the changed nature of war (and war coverage) itself. I suspect it has more to do with the fact that the nature of artistic production and the expectations of artistic effect have themselves changed so dramatically—even in the past thirty years. These days, few artists would dare to try to make an Esto es Peor–type etching, partly because of the danger of commodifying suffering and partly because they recognize the political inefficacy of such a gesture. Never mind Goya and Picasso: Most contemporary artists wouldn’t even bother to attempt to do what recent exhibitions of Nancy Spero and Philip Guston show they did so effectively in response to Vietnam, which was to indict something (including themselves) in the very forms of their work.

One notable feature of some of the contemporary war-related art recently on view in New York has been a resurgent interest in locality—in witnessing the effects of conflict unmediated, with one’s own eyes. Last year, after the US invasion, the young American artist Steve Mumford went to Iraq, once in April for five weeks and once in August for two months. A talented painter of colorful, figurative, highly narrative canvases, Mumford had, in the late ’90s, been associated in a few art-press accounts with an attempt to move “beyond irony” (or back to sincerity), and his two trips to Iraq might be considered an expression of that conviction in his art—which is precisely what makes it both interesting and problematic. Alternately following journalists and troops around and simply acting like a conscientious tourist, Mumford recorded what he saw in drawings and watercolors, never spending more than an hour on a single work. He made about two hundred images, posted dozens of them in his well-written, informative dispatches for the web publication, and showed forty-five in a late autumn exhibition at Postmasters in New York.

Some of the drawings of ordinary Iraqis that Mumford made initially look like snapshots taken by a well-intentioned backpacker; their titles—Backgammon Players; The Suq; Portrait of Mhedi—give a clear sense of their images. Yet drawing admits shades and nuances that photographs and television images, despite their pervasiveness, cannot, and Mumford clearly believes that the exposure to duration inherent in “anachronistic” handmade art can counteract the waning of affect produced by information saturation. This is especially evident in the images Mumford produced on his return to Iraq in late August, when he gained access to troop life. Night Patrol, Inside a Humvee, Baghdad, Aug. 20 has a creepy, robotic feel; Pool of Oil, 299 Engineers Battalion, Tikrit, Oct. 4 points at once to an utter banality and, perhaps, to the ultimate basis for the war; and Spc. Jose Fuentes Watching [the film] Three Kings While Spc. Amanda Lusk Sleeps, Samarra, Oct. 8 offers a rather tender portrait of how US soldiers spend downtime.

The reference to David O. Russell’s 1999 Hollywood film concerning the last Gulf War is apt. Mumford’s “en plein air” approach to conflict is similarly ambivalent and, like Three Kings, could just as easily reinforce either pro- or antiwar views. Spc. Fuentes might not see (or might not want to acknowledge) that the film he is watching while stationed in Iraq glaringly details the blockheaded naïveté of American gung-ho invasion (and the global pervasiveness of American consumer and media products) while also upholding an American sense of “fair play”; viewers of Mumford’s works might not see (or might not want to acknowledge) that watching Fuentes watch Three Kings further refracts and redoubles that ambivalence. Mumford’s drawings, usually captioned with a couple of explanatory sentences, at times seem a bit too “embedded” in the logic of the military, or perhaps too filtered through the point of view of the servicemen he befriended. Titles of works from September and October increasingly refer to equipment with GI jargon (CMOC Entrance, with a 113 and Mortar Tube, Samarra, Oct. 9; Two 477s, Tikrit, Oct. 4; Blowing up 3 SA II Missiles and Warheads, Tikrit, Oct. 3), and even the powerfully drawn Three Suspects, Samarra, Oct. 9, of hooded and bound Iraqis waiting to be interrogated, comes off as less sympathetic than simply strange—which is probably the way the “suspects” do to the US forces who have to question them. While these drawings are undeniably gripping, it is not easy to say exactly why. Does their power inhere in the depicted scenes themselves, the fact that they are handmade as opposed to photographed, or rather simply in the concept of a quasi-insider artist “being there” where something potentially important seems to be happening? Is Mumford’s general lack of representation of Iraqi suffering deliberate, or was it simply that, despite “being there,” his view was somehow restricted—as restricted as, say, an image of a Saddam statue being toppled with the American tank cropped out of the background?

The UK-born artist Phil Collins was also “on site” in Iraq, but in May 2002, after the bellicose rhetoric had begun but before fighting commenced. His approach was to film young Iraqis in Baghdad alone and unscripted in front of his camera in the manner (though hardly the spirit) of a Warholian screen test. The result, baghdad screentests, on display in New York in a group show at apexart curated by Vasif Kortun last spring (and later shown at Tate Modern as part of its Art Now series), is by turns enchanting, unnerving, and simply sad. Just by filming people with their permission, Collins, who has also worked in Belfast, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and the Basque country—maybe he’s approaching hot spots of global conflict alphabetically?—opens points of potential interpersonal access, reminding both viewer and viewed (or to use Levinasian terms, “friend” and “enemy”) of a shared horizon of communication. But the objects of Collins’s shots often sit silent, as if waiting for something or simply refusing even to try to be agents in what might seem an inherently unequal exchange. In this failure to communicate lies the work’s poignancy: There is no presumption here of undoing mediation, of sublating distance. Collins, who also presented a solo show recently in New York at Maccarone Inc., has superimposed sappy British and American pop love songs on the video, thereby giving the work a perhaps unnecessary narrative shape, at once encouraging its audience (in the artist’s words) to “fall in love” with his images and simultaneously reminding it of the worldwide reach of contemporary “Western” culture.

Last summer, the Imperial War Museum in London announced that it was funding filmmaker Steve McQueen to travel to Iraq to obtain images and ideas for a new (as yet unmade) art project. In 2002, the IWM sent the British duo Langlands & Bell to Afghanistan, and they came up with a digital projection (seen in New York earlier last year at Henry Urbach Architecture) that imagined “The House of Osama bin Laden” from a photograph of its facade the duo surreptitiously took while on their state-funded excursion. Tellingly, McQueen’s journey was delayed several times: The British Ministry of Defense said it could not guarantee his safety. He was finally able to leave for Iraq in early December, accompanied by British officials, for a week. Given McQueen’s filmic track record, he will almost surely produce something provocative and weighty, but can McQueen really learn that much more in seven days “on site,” in the presence of Defense Ministry representatives, than, say, George W. Bush can learn talking turkey with US servicemen? For McQueen and other theoretically minded artists, as for military wonks, it boils down to a question of economy and strategy.

Meanwhile, Iraqi artists, for whom “being there” is less a choice than a matter of fact, have not yet responded with the kind of artistic energy one might expect given their own proximity to combat. It may simply be too soon for the sort of considered reaction that artists require to respond to such earthshaking events, or it may be that history has taught Iraqi artists that advertising one’s political impressions is unwise. Among the few examples of war-related art I have been able to find (in part, thanks to Mumford, who generously shared contact information) is a photo transfer about six feet tall by Farid al Jabari, depicting an armed American soldier and a wailing old woman both trapped behind a wire fence while a fiery inferno rages in the background. It is unclear when the work was created; given its subject matter, I suspect pre-invasion. In a quite different vein, in Esam Pasha’s allegorical mural painted on a wall next to the front gate of the labor ministry, the sun rises over a domed structure (presumably representing Iraq), with white doves soaring to the sky. It is worth noting that Pasha obtained funds to make the mural from the coalition forces now housed in the labor ministry. In a more abstract, contemporary-seeming vein, Dilovan Amin, a painter and art professor from Duhok City in the Kurdish-dominated north, has sent me a suite of digital images he calls “Explosions.” In each, a set of building blocks looks as though it is being blasted apart. This, he commented in an accompanying e-mail, is what “war means”—although whether the explosions represent mere destruction or blasting out of captivity (just war or “just war”) is far from certain. Amin, who now says he feels he can finally express what he feels in his art, responded to my use of the term “occupation” by writing, “We Kurds prefer to use the word ‘liberation.’”

While this small sample of art produced (or soon to be produced) in response to the war can hardly be said to provide a definitive account, viewing these works dealing with the site of Iraq—which itself was for over a decade precisely in the US’s sights and yet maddeningly out of sight—exposes a constellation of questions revolving around the auratics of locality, in which Goya’s “yo lo vi” has become a kind of ethical imperative. Is tourism-as-art (Mumford, Collins, Langlands & Bell, McQueen), one wonders, part of the same set of forces as art-as-tourism (biennials, art fairs, etc.), with the same power structures undergirding them? If so, the more difficult subsequent question—how and whether it is possible to avoid being embedded, either as a tourist, artist, or journalist (even art journalist)—remains to be answered.

Nico Israel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.