Ruins and representation: the politics of exhibiting and narrating war

Jadaliyya recently published a strong critique by Rijin Sahakian of It Is What It Is, the project undertaken in the US by Jeremy Deller using the wreck of a car from the March 2007 bombing of the al-Mutanabbi Street book market in Baghdad. In it she makes a number of important, well-founded points that I won’t rehearse in full here; the article is worth reading (link here) and the issues it raises warrant in depth consideration. Here I offer a few initial reactions and thoughts.

Sahakian questions the project’s claims to be providing educational insight via an open, participatory experience organised around the wreck. This, she argues, recapitulates stereotyped images from news media of Iraq as a place of conflict and destruction.

Deller has said that he sees a difference between media images and objects and that objects can have effects that are more complex and more profound than those elicited by standardised media images. And, as I understand it, trying to go beyond simplistic media representations of the war was one of the intentions of the project. But the politics of exhibiting a ruin extracted from a war zone in the occupying countries, while the war is ongoing, are certainly more complex than is explored in the project.

Sahakian argues that the strategy of using the wreck is dehumanizing, particularly in view of the fact that the project did not feature any of the other artistic and cultural responses to the bombing. On this it’s worth noting the Al-Mutanabbi Street Broadside project, which aimed to foster and gather precisely these responses as a way to recover what was lost and to make possible a different future (see here).

Here I would note that while a broader mix of people was involved in events at galleries and museums during It Is What It Is, the project does not seem to have involved the same kind logic or engagement with the community most affected by the issues it explores as did Deller’s previous works on the UK miners’ strike (a re-enactment of the ‘Battle of Orgreave’, a confrontation between police and miners that took place in 1984) and music fans (The Uses of Literacy, in which the artist worked with fans of the rock band the Manic Street Preachers). In that sense it perhaps represents a shift in Deller’s methodology away from that utilised in his best known and best received work.

Sahakian also examines how the project was framed by the four people who accompanied the wreck on its trip across the US: Deller, Nato Thompson (a curator from New York’s Creative Time), Esam Pasha, an Iraqi artist and translator who, having worked for US forces in Iraq, had relocated to the US, and Jonathan Harvey, who served one tour of Iraq in 2008 as a Psy-Ops officer. As she notes, neither Deller nor Thompson had been to Iraq, and both Harvey and Pasha had worked for the occupying forces. This, she argues, means that the project cannot be seen as neutral or open and that the conversation ‘falls squarely on a US military grid’.

It could be observed here that Harvey and Pasha, who did most of the talking on the road trip, do seem to have been up front with people about their roles and perspectives on the occupation. The project website presents videos where they describe these, to some extent allowing viewers to judge the implications of this. And though they are presented in neutral fashion, other interviews can hardly be seen as endorsing the occupation. Rather they seem to confirm its arrogant folly and the great ignorance of some Americans, at least. Whether these needed to be exposed in this manner is perhaps another matter, but these interviews do give some kind of flavour of how different people experienced the war and have reflected on it.

While not diminishing the force of her criticisms, I think it is worth noting that Sahakian’s critique focuses more on the organisation, framing and narration of the project than its effects. In so far as we can evaluate them from the videos and transcripts made available through the project website and book, these do seem more complex than might be assumed from a project designed along a military grid. Despite problems in its framing, the project does appear to have elicited quite a rich range of responses – including a direct rejection of it from an Iraqi man working in Washington DC –  that shed further light on what the war and the occupation meant for different people. Through it people linked the Iraq war with the US treatment of native Americans and with the response to Hurricane Katrina, among other things. Despite its flaws, It Is What It Is does arguably elicit a vernacular, rather than elite, form of geopolitics. albeit one staged within a fairly privileged set of coordinates.

Whether reflexivity about the conditions under which the project was staged is enough to circumvent Sahakian’s critique is open to question. In an early passage in Orientalism, Edward Said writes that it is part of orientalism’s flexibility that the westerner can occupy any position in relation to it – including that of critic – without losing overall superiority. Any attempt to move beyond the impasse that this suggests must involve taking seriously the kinds of points Sahakian raises.


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