Ef­fects of Iraqi con­flicts told through artists’ work

▶ As a new show de­pict­ing the in­flu­ence of the Gulf wars on artists’ work opens in New York, Melissa Gron­lund re­flects on the im­pact and legacy of the fight­ing

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The timing, heart­break­ingly, could not be bet­ter. As news of anti-gov­ern­ment protests and vi­o­lence pours out of Iraq, a show has opened in New York look­ing at the im­pact the First Gulf War of 1991 and the Sec­ond Gulf War of 2003 has had on art.

Theatre of Op­er­a­tions: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011, which opened at MoMA PS1, the ex­per­i­men­tal out­post of New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, on Sun­day, looks at how artists glob­ally re­sponded to Amer­i­can en­gage­ment in Iraq. The events were not just his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant, say the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cu­ra­tors Ruba Ka­trib and Peter Eleey. The wars also co­in­cided with tech­no­log­i­cal shifts that dras­ti­cally af­fected artis­tic prac­tice and gen­eral me­dia con­sump­tion.

“With the Gulf War, go­ing back to 1991, we have the rel­a­tively new 24-hour news cy­cle,” says Ka­trib. “There was satel­lite tech­nol­ogy that made it pos­si­ble for re­porters to be live in Baghdad and to be re­port­ing on events as they were hap­pen­ing – to be in the hotel while the bombs were go­ing off in the back­ground. With the 2003 [Sec­ond Gulf] War,

The show un­der­lines how im­pact­ful the in­tro­duc­tion of Iraq via the news me­dia proved to be in the US

you have the rise of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies and the in­ter­net, and a lot of the artists in the show are deal­ing with what is hap­pen­ing when im­ages are be­ing shared.”

Amer­i­can artist Sean Sny­der, for ex­am­ple, has made a com­pos­ite por­trait of US sol­diers who served in Iraq by pulling im­ages up­loaded to Flickr, a kind of early In­sta­gram for im­age-shar­ing, by the ser­vice­men. The grid­ded work has a mon­u­men­tal, slightly sci­en­tific qual­ity, look­ing like a col­lec­tion of pic­tures in­tended to memo­ri­alise or tes­tify, even though the im­ages them­selves show re­cre­ation and con­nec­tion. “At the time there were new im­age sites and shar­ing plat­forms. New im­ages were be­ing pro­duced, and dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple were pro­duc­ing im­ages,” says Ka­trib. “This was re­ally in­te­gral with how the re­gion was be­ing rep­re­sented, and how it was con­sumed by those out­side.”

A run­ning joke at the time of both Gulf wars was that in­va­sion was the only way Amer­i­cans learnt ge­og­ra­phy. Not through teach­ers, but through news­read­ers hold­ing up maps. By fo­cus­ing on how the war ap­peared back “home” in the US, the ex­hi­bi­tion un­der­lines how im­pact­ful – and es­sen­tially visual – the in­tro­duc­tion of Iraq via the news me­dia proved. The idea of the “Arab street”, de­picted as video game-like ex­plo­sions seen from afar over the city and oil flares, con­tin­ues to form the way many Amer­i­cans still picture the Arab re­gion.

Theatre of Op­er­a­tions shows how Arab and Amer­i­can artists re­acted to the war via me­di­ated im­ages – me­di­a­tion was not sim­ply a fac­tor of re­mote­ness for Amer­i­cans, but the chief means for ev­ery­one, glob­ally, to watch the con­flict. Tarek Al-Ghous­sein, a Pales­tinian artist born in Kuwait, ex­pe­ri­enced the 1990-1991 in­va­sion of Kuwait from Cairo, where he shot Po­laroids of the TV’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the events. His blurry im­ages, of ex­plo­sions, gas fires, sol­diers and men in tra­di­tional Arab dress, give off an air of au­then­tic­ity, as if their poor qual­ity is due to the in-situ cir­cum­stances of the mak­ing. They are, in fact, a record of his dis­tance from it.

In Lon­don, Iraqi artist Dia Al Az­zawi was also paint­ing from me­dia im­ages. Vic­tim’s Por­trait (1991), a close-up ren­dered in Al Az­zawi’s sig­na­ture pal­ette of pri­mary colours, was cre­ated af­ter Al Az­zawi came across an im­age of a charred body of an Iraqi sol­dier in Bri­tish news­pa­per The Ob­server.

The show is an enor­mous one: it fills the en­tire premises of the PS1 art space, a for­mer pub­lic school build­ing in Queens, and to­tals more than 300 works. Given its in­ter­est in trac­ing the con­ver­gence be­tween new forms of me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tions and the Iraq wars, there are a num­ber of US artists known for their in­ves­ti­ga­tions into how im­ages shape per­cep­tion – Paul Chan, Martha Rosler, Michel Auder, for ex­am­ple – and it is in­ter­est­ing to see how art­work about me­dia im­ages trans­lates into work about vi­o­lence. Ma­jor in­stal­la­tions, such as Thomas Hirschhorn’s Hotel Democ­racy (2003), which fa­mously cri­tiqued Amer­i­can ac­tions at the time, are also re-cre­ated for this show. But the cu­ra­tors have cast a wide net in re­search­ing art­works, and a sec­ond line of pieces dis­play a more im­me­di­ate re­sponse to the con­flict. In these, there is a clear shift in tone: more earnest, more heart-rend­ing, such as with pho­to­jour­nal­ist Su­san Meise­las’s doc­u­men­ta­tion of the First Gulf War, show­ing mass graves in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, foren­sic spe­cial­ists in­ves­ti­gat­ing ev­i­dence of ex­e­cu­tions and the anony­mous graves of chil­dren. In Ju­dith Joy Ross’s im­ages – as full of peo­ple as Meise­las’s are often empty – the Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher has doc­u­mented anti-war pro­test­ers in mid­dle Amer­ica, dis­play­ing them with im­ages of the sol­diers and fam­i­lies who fought abroad. Both sides of the po­lit­i­cal con­flict are shown in black-and-white, straight­for­ward por­traits, with noth­ing to for­mally dis­tin­guish be­tween them.

Other art­works deal with the at­tri­tional ef­fects of US sanc­tions. The “em­bargo sculp­tures” of Nuha Al Radi, who be­came well-known in­ter­na­tion­ally for Baghdad Di­aries, her ac­count of life in Baghdad dur­ing the First Gulf War, are a re­minder that the sanc­tions were felt not as much by the gov­ern­ment as by ev­ery­day Iraqis. These rough, spindly, fig­u­ral works are made of what­ever ma­te­rial Al Radi could find in the early 1990s: rocks, metal can­is­ters, wood, feath­ers. It’s an Arte Povera aes­thetic born of be­ing in geopo­lit­i­cal crosshairs.

Kuwaiti artist Thu­ruya Al Baqsami, whose hus­band was taken prisoner dur­ing the First Gulf War, is also given promi­nence, with her im­ages of anger and mourn­ing that show the con­flict as a story of mar­tyr­dom and stymied calls for peace. Her chron­i­cle of pain, in its folk­loric, al­most myth­i­cal reg­is­ter, finds echoes in the work of Bri­tish-Amer­i­can artist Sue Coe’s wood­cuts of the Sec­ond Gulf War’s atroc­i­ties, such as the chem­i­cal bomb­ing of Fal­lu­jah and the Amer­i­can of­fences at Abu Ghraib, which sim­i­larly achieve a totemic qual­ity.

It was re­ported re­cently in The New York Times that 64 per cent of US sol­diers think the Sec­ond Gulf War was not worth fight­ing. One ques­tion I have, go­ing into this ex­hi­bi­tion, is whether Amer­i­can au­di­ences ap­pre­ci­ate how cat­a­clysmic the two wars are con­sid­ered to have been by the Arab re­gion. The fact that, as re­cent protests and sub­se­quent crack­downs in Iraq dis­play, Iraqi cit­i­zens con­tinue to live amid vi­o­lence, po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity and a lack of eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity, speaks painfully to how the ef­fects of the two Gulf wars are on­go­ing. “There’s now a nearly 30year en­tan­gle­ment with Iraq, and es­pe­cially in the United States it’s very over­due,” says Ka­trib. “It’s a mo­ment that needs to be looked at not just in the last week or weeks, but at where cer­tain as­pects of the sit­u­a­tion crys­tallised, and where cer­tain things hap­pened that could help us trace what’s hap­pen­ing now.”

Dia Al Az­zawi

Dia Al Az­zawi’s ‘Vic­tim’s Por­trait’ (1991), a picture of a fallen Iraqi sol­dier that he based on an im­age the artist saw in a Bri­tish news­pa­per

Martha Rosler and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Martha Rosler’s ‘Hooded Cap­tives’ from her se­ries ‘House Beau­ti­ful: Bring­ing the War Home’

Above, a pho­to­graph by Su­san Meise­las of Tay­mour Ab­dul­lah, 15, the only sur­vivor of a vil­lage ex­e­cu­tion, show­ing his bul­let wound; right, Thu­raya Al Baqsami’s linocut, which reads ‘No to the in­va­sion” MoMA PS1; Bar­jeel Art Foun­da­tion, Sharjah

Theatre of Op­er­a­tions: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 is at MoMA PS1 in New York un­til Sun­day March 1

Kris Graves

Nuha Al Radi’s sculp­tures, in­set, are made from metal cans, and what­ever ma­te­ri­als she could find dur­ing US sanc­tions against Iraq in the 1990s

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