Baghdad calling

IssueNovember 2008
Feature by Milan Rai

Chinese-American activist-artist Paul Chan embodies another aphorism from Robert Capa (see left): “Like the people you shoot and let them know it.” His three-part contribution to the London Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibition On the Subject of War includes films made of his “enemies”, in which it is clear he has indeed expressed affection and concern for those he is meant to fear.

Chan travelled to Iraq with US peace group Voices in the Wilderness in 2002, moved about independently and creatively, and brought back the extraordinary video collage Baghdad In No Particular Order which depicts various fragmented aspects of Iraqi life under sanctions, before the war.

The other people he is meant to regard as “enemies” in his Tin Drum Trilogy are the Bush administration – the subject of Re: The Operation (2002) – and such people as the Republican-voters of his home town Omaha, Nebraska, embraced in his film Now Promise Now Threat (2004).

Another video installation in On the Subject of War is a double-sided two-screen projection by Israeli-born Omer Fast. From one side, we see Fast interviewing a US soldier about a horrific incident in Iraq, and about an affair he had with a German woman with a passion for speed and self-mutilation. The two narratives are intertwined disturbingly.

From the other side of the room, on the other two screens, we see dramatic reconstructions of these events, in which the sergeant shoots dead an Iraqi – without being punished.

The other two artists in the exhibition on the lower floor of the Barbican art gallery are An-My Lê, a Vietnamese-American born in Saigon, who displays gigantic, rather blank, photos of US military manoeuvres on land and sea, and Geert van Kesteren.

Van Kesteren, who was an embedded photographer just after the invasion of Iraq, displays two works. Why Mister, Why? (2003-4) shows his photographs of interrogations at Abu Ghraib, the excavation of mass graves, American soldiers on patrol, and the chaos of daily civilian life.

Baghdad Calling (2006), on the other hand, is a collection of mobile phone photographs donated to van Kesteren to document the state of a country that was no longer safe for a white photographer to work in.

While photographing Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan and Turkey, van Kesteren realised: “My photography did not in any way square up to the horror of the stories of the refugees. It missed what I see as the cornerstone of my photojournalism: the laying bare of the essence of a situation and making that visual through the perspective of the individual.”

Hence the decision to collect a dizzying and poignant self-documentation.

At the end of my visit, I was indeed left dizzy. It is impressive that a major gallery in the capital of an imperial nation should explore an ongoing brutal war.

On the other hand, making art out of suffering – and using radically distancing techniques, as Omer Fast does – is troubling. Will this exhibition benefit the victims of war?

Or will it merely provide an exotic delicacy for sophisticated people shielded emotionally from the realities the artists present?

Capa is out of date. The prevailing principle now is: “Call yourself an artist, and then you can do whatever you want.” To what end and to whose benefit?

(Note: Paul Chan is proudly an “activist” as well as an “artist”.)