The Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars, 1991-2011 exhibit currently running at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 annex in Long Island City, Queens, New York, has all the trappings of a major art-world event. Not just the MoMA imprimatur, but its size and obvious commitment to showcasing major artists signal intent to make a significant statement about how the First and Second Iraq Wars were fought and how they have been portrayed in art in Iraq and America and Great Britain. As such, when Theater of Operations opened last November, it was covered by mainstream press giants such as the New York Times and The Guardian. The Times and Guardian reviews were mostly approving, but a discordant, brooding note was struck by the New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl, who seemed irritated by the spirit of the exhibit and unimpressed by much that he observed.
In Schjeldahl’s review, which at best damned Theater of Operations with faint praise, the author ruminated on the relationship of art and war, and his skepticism that great art might result from war resonated loud and clear. Adding poignancy to and perhaps justification for the bummer review was a long article called “The Art of Dying” by Schjeldahl in the next week’s New Yorker, in which the author not only revealed he was dying of cancer but spent significant page-space reminiscing about the long sad after-effects of his father’s service in Europe in World War II as an infantryman. Since Schjeldahl felt war had ruined his father and the Schjeldahl family happiness, it was hard not to think that his life’s commitment to art lay in belief that art constituted a realm of human endeavor opposite to and incompatible with warfaring and militarism.
Just as I was taking all this in, another furor arose: Apparently, Theater of Operations is partially funded by a corporation directly connected to Blackwater. O unholy alliance of money, blood, and art! Was it ever not so? Can it ever not be so?
Eager to make sense of things for myself, I visited MoMA PS1 a couple of weekends ago. The Theater of Operations exhibit occupies the better part of three floors of the renovated schoolhouse that constitutes the museum. Most of the artworks in Theater of Operations stem from the First Gulf War, and most are creations of Iraqi artists. Many of these artworks portray horrifying images of forty years of nearly continuous war in Iraq, while others are non-representational works that allow viewers to consider their relation to war obliquely. The artworks by Americans are almost all polemically anti-war and anti-Republican administration in intent and execution. Very few, though, are of or by soldiers; the American soldiers’ experience of war is largely limited to a series of photographs of deploying soldiers, their faces etched with both gravity and innocence, and another series of photographs illustrating political protests by veterans against the war.
Many of the artworks by American artists are not especially subtle:
Others reflect more artistic or less strident processing of war events and impressions.
A few large-scale installations work hard to impress themselves upon viewers. “Untitled (Iraq Book Project),” for example, by Rachel Khedoori, features everything available on the Internet about the Second Iraq War printed out and presented for inspection in bound volumes. The piece seems to speak to the over-saturation of words about the war and the strained effort to find words equal to the real events, anguish, and loss on the ground.
Another piece, “Hotel Democracy” by Thomas Hirschhorn, features twenty-some cubicle like living spaces, some reflective of soldier quarters on military FOBs and others the living spaces of Iraqi civilians hunkered down in tiny rooms, the inhabitants reduced to poverty and trying to survive sans community. The message here seems to address both the drive for individuals to personalize their living spaces in the face of war’s deprivations, while also speaking to the essentially cloistered and unnourishing inhumanity of those same living spaces.
Many many many pieces feature TV, drone, and video footage, as if to comment on how the war was made known through the unreliable necessity of second-hand images.
Schjeldahl objected in particular to this aspect of Theater of Operations. He suggested that the exhibit’s acknowledged debt to Jean Baudrillard’s famous “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” manifesto was morally facile and factually incorrect (real people, he implied, and I’m thinking he was thinking of his father, understand war not through images but by killing other people while trying to stay alive themselves). The sense was also that creating artwork around TV footage of, say, a news pundit describing “shock and awe,” was artistically lazy and cliched. Hmm, maybe…. One video installation I appreciated very much, “Shadow Sites II” by Jananne Al-ani, projects a series of drone or satellite shots of sculpted Iraqi landscapes on a giant screen in a darkened room. I found the slow-moving, nearly static videos engrossing—an overwhelming sensory experience at once ominous and soothing.
Some of the artworks by Iraqi artists also riff on the shock power of photographic images:
All told, my favorite pieces were paintings by Iraqi artists. I might say I “liked” them, but that seems wrong, for pleasurable enjoyment is not what the art of war is all about. English appears to lack the word to properly describe apprehension of artworks inspired by carnage and documenting atrocity. The most we can do, I’d say, is appreciate the drive to create art under terrible circumstances and contemplate their terrifying majesty.
The exhibition’s intent is clearly not to privilege American soldier perspectives and for God’s sake not to cultivate sympathy for American soldiers or absolve them of their complicity in the wars. That’s OK, but just OK—I think exhibition attendees would like to balance consideration of work by Iraqi and American civilian-artists with that of art created by military veterans. In my mind, the picture-and-text assemblages of Benjamin Busch (displayed at the 2010 War, Literature and the Arts conference), the FOB barrier murals collected by Graffiti of War (displayed at West Point in 2014), and Maximilian Uriarte’s superb Terminal Lance line drawings (as displayed in 2018 at Rutgers’ Zimmerli Art Museum) all would have sat very well alongside the artists and art featured in Theater of Operations. And what art might we find, if we looked, created by Iraqi soldiers and insurgents?
Further proof of the intent to exclude the voice of the American soldier was found in the museum bookstore offerings associated with the exhibit. On my visit, the only fiction featured were three titles by Iraqi-American author Sinan Antoon. Antoon’s great, but conspicuous by its absence was fiction by American author Iraq War veterans such as Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, or even the scathingly dissident Roy Scranton, or “anti-war” novels by civilians such as Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, or the searching and complex Iraq War poetry of civilian Philip Metres and veteran Brian Turner. The shelves were also missing titles by terrific and important Iraqi authors such as Hassan Blasim and Ahmed Saadawi, which was curious. And finally, I appreciated seeing Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, whose ideas about war imagery are central, but I would have loved to have also seen works by Ariella Azoulay, whose extrapolations of Sontag’s ideas takes us ever-nearer to understanding the vexed intertwining of violence, image, and art.
OK, OK, everyone’s a critic, and everyone is potentially a curator, right? Be all the above as it may, I invite you to reflect on the MoMA PS1 Theater of Operations exhibit as you will and as you can, hopefully in person or if not that, then by reading the articles it has inspired.
A little outside the purview of the exhibition review, but perhaps not too far: I was struck by the MoMA P1’s exterior and interior appearance, which makes little effort to hide the time-worn wrinkles and scars of the old school, even as it tacks on a number of modern adornments. The postindustrial-chic building and the jury-rigged exhibition spaces made me think of the half-wrecked government buildings repurposed as army outposts I inhabited on deployments to Kosovo and Afghanistan. I never served in Iraq, but I’m sure it was something of the same there.