The destroyed car from al-Mutanabbi Street: is it art?

Reviewing various  media sources ahead of the Jeremy Deller exhibition at the Hayward later this month, I noticed some interesting divergences in how his work with the destroyed car from al-Mutanabbi street has been described.

Deller himself has avoided describing the car as art, preferring the term exhibit or display. Speaking soon after its unveiling at IWM London (video here), he said, ‘Well, it just makes sense, it’s not an art gallery, which is very good because it’s not an art work, so there’s no misinterpretation there…’. But this is not necessarily how the car has been received. Ken Johnson, in a piece for the New York Times about an earlier exhibition with the car at the New Museum in Manhattan, admitted a degree of ambiguity as to how it should be described when he wrote, ‘It has terrific sculptural presence, but it’s not an artwork; it’s an artifact and a conversation piece. To call it a found-object sculpture would be to trivialize it.’

Others have been unambiguous; the broadcaster Jon Snow placed the car at number one in his list (here) of the ’10 best British art works about war’ and the artist Xavier Pick introduced a video (here) of his visit to IWM London to see the exhibit by saying, ‘we’re … going to have a look at a new piece of art work that’s arrived in the central atrium…’.

While it is probably best not to describe it as art, the car has been positioned in relation to art by virtue of its association with Deller, a leading contemporary artist. Before this it had also been placed alongside works by Hanaa Malallah and other Iraqi artists in an exhibition in Texas, and before that it was used (without caption or description) in an exhibition at a gallery in the Netherlands (where several visitors objected to its presence).

Rather than posing a problem that needs to be resolved, I think the ambiguities and slippages in how the car has been described, beyond the basic information that it is was destroyed in a bombing in a particular place at a particular time, provide clues as to its suggestiveness and resonances. The fact that it can be positioned and viewed in so many different ways is a sign that something interesting is going on. The issue is less what the car is than what it does.

The car is one of the focal points of my research this year and there’s a lot more to reflect on with regard to the politics of ruins, relics and monuments and in terms of how the car constructs and is constructed by the spaces through which it travels and in which it rests. The exhibition of the car at the Hayward is sure to set off further associations, reactions and ripples of meaning as it makes another step in its long and strange journey.

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2 thoughts on “The destroyed car from al-Mutanabbi Street: is it art?

  1. I very much liked the last paragraph in the last post in Jeremy’s blog – somehow it describes how the art is in the framing and in the process and perhaps in the ongoing responses and puzzlement:

    “A slightly anti-climactic ending to our project, but then again, how could it have been any other way? I can’t attempt to summarize what has happened. I’m too close. We all are … The cacophony of conversations are still a mess in our ears; a jumble of disparate, contradictory, personal, and rhetorical narratives. We didn’t make a video for the final day. There is no final word. No ending. 

We’ll go back and sort through this in our heads. …. It felt good to be out of an office, digging into the fabric of public life and being right in the middle of a strange art project. America is a sweet, confused place full of good food, amazing stories, and an uncharacteristic, bellicose history that’s hard to reconcile with its generous population. It’s quite possible that in towing this blown-up car and making Harvey and Esam talk the ear off the country, we did our part in making America all the more confusing.”

  2. I like the fact that this project didn’t just engage people and generate diverse responses but that some of these were recorded and appear as videos or transcripts on the project website and in the book. They then becomes part of the work and to some extent qualify the voices and framings of the artist/curator/organiser. For example, at least one person whose response was recorded on video questioned the validity of the project itself. This record also extends the reach of the work in time and space, to the extent that it in some ways informs subsequent exhibits and displays. At the same time, as the stories surrounding car grow and multiply, I have heard it said that the car itself is progressively falling apart, calling into question its own temporality as something akin to a sculpture, monument, ruin or fossil (all words I have heard used to try to describe it)…

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