Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Anti-War Art at the ICA


Visual art has, in general, been slow to respond to the challenge of the Iraq War and the ‘War on Terror’, but now things seem to be changing. This year we have seen Mark Wallinger’s brilliant State Britain (based on Brian Haw’s protest in Parliament Square) at the Tate Britain, which is currently favourite for the Turner Prize. Then there have been a couple of small shows in East London, plus there will be work on show at Marxism and now the Institute for Contemporary Arts has weighed in with Memorial to the Iraq War.

Deliberately timed to coincide with the departure of Blair, the ICA has invited twenty five artists from many different countries, including Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, USA and Britain, to exhibit works which could serve as memorials to the war or which are proposals for such memorials. The idea of a ‘memorial’ to a war that is still going on is obviously open to challenge, and, indeed, is challenged in a written piece by one of the invited artists.

However the aim, explicitly stated in the Newspaper/ Catalogue accompanying the exhibition, is ‘ to show to a wider public that contemporary art is more capable of social and political engagement than perhaps they thought’, and the idea of a memorial is, perhaps, a vehicle for facilitating this. The main question is does it succeed and the answer has to be only partially.

As a literal public monument only one work here makes a real visual impact – Iraqi Stars by Marc Bijl, featuring three large five pointed stars, one green (for Iraq), one white (for the US coalition), one red/ black (for blood and anarchy). But many of the works, although not really viable memorial proposals, nevertheless ask the viewer to engage thoughtfully with various aspects of the war.

The first piece we encounter is Nate Sloman’s installation, Never Ending Story, consisting of old broken petrol pumps. This establishes from the start the central role of oil, but it also, more subtly, evokes America’s past – the America of Ed Hopper perhaps – and the whole history of the oil/car economy. Jalal Toufic’s Dual-Use Memorial highlight’s the extreme intellectual isolation of Iraq through sanctions; a rarely mentioned aspect of the conflict, worth remembering in the context of debates about boycotting Israel.

Jeremy Deller’s Twin Cities is small and simple, almost minimalist; just outline maps of Britain and Iraq with Iraqi cities marked on the map of Britain and the equivalent British cities marked on Iraq e.g. Aberdeen/ Kirkut, Mosul/Derry, but it makes its point effectively. Also moving are Collier Schorr’s three sketches focussing on soldiers who have been maimed and crippled – a perennial feature of war always neglected by the media, but dealt with by artists from Rembrandt to Otto Dix and George Grosz and many poets, singers, film makers etc.

The proposal I liked most, though it is completely unrealisable, is from Sam Durant. It suggests collecting war debris in Iraq and shipping it to London and Washington where it would be piled up round public buildings, beginning with 10 Downing St and the White House. This is accompanied by an illustrative photomontage and the famous quote from Walter Benjamin about the Angel of History.

On the down side, there are some pieces which approach the subject so obliquely that they barely register and there is nothing here to match the power of Wallinger, let alone the great anti war art of the past – Goya, Picasso, Nash, Dix etc. But this relative failure is not cause for condemnation. Masterpieces will not come to order and the effort to engage should be applauded and encouraged.

John Molyneux

3 June, 2007

Memorial to the Iraq War, Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London

23 May – 27 June. Admission: Mon-Fri £2/£1.50 concs. Sat- Sun £3/£2 concs.

Edited version of this article appears in Socialist Worker, 9 June 2007.


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