Paying the Price: Hyde Park Arts Center’s “Consuming War” takes stock of the conflict in Iraq

“Consuming War,” which opened Sunday, November 4 at the Hyde Park Art Center, uses the limited space at its disposal to make a clear statement against consumerism and its implications, both in the present conflict in Iraq and all other U.S. involvements in the Middle East in the past few decades. The exhibit’s title is not only a reference to the overwhelming structure of war as a conflict that consumes soldiers and civilians, but it is also a direct reference to consumerism.

Opening day attracted a sizable number of people, many of whom clustered in the main gallery to listen to two musicians play what can only be described as free jazz. The concert was dedicated to the late Malachi Ritscher, who in November 2006 set himself on fire to protest the war. The corridor adjacent to the exhibit begins with a minimalist shrine to Ritscher, consisting of a picture taken during a protest in which he holds up a sign reading “Lead U.S. to Peace,” and pamphlets containing his mission statement. In his pamphlets, Ritscher explains his reasons for “immolating” himself in response to recent events, and describes himself as a “spiritual warrior.”

Most interesting is how Ritscher takes responsibility for the actions he finds most deplorable in the U.S., using “we” in the statement. He writes: “What has happened to my country? We have become worse than the enemy: killing civilians and calling it ‘collateral damage.’” By committing suicide close to the “Burning of the Millennium” statue near Midway Airport, Ritscher hoped that the sacrifice of his life would be “worth more than those brave lives [that were] thrown away.” Viewers are entitled to consider him a “spiritual warrior,” or completely insane. What cannot be refuted is that he has definitely succeeded in attracting attention to this sensitive topic.

Following Ritscher’s memorial is a series of rectangular red posters with quotations by figures from Thomas Jefferson to Mahatma Gandhi. One quotation, from the actress Brett Butler, was particularly straightforward and bitter. She wrote: “I would like it if men had to partake in the same hormonal cycles to which we’re subjected monthly. Maybe that’s why men declare war–because they have a need to bleed on a regular basis.”

The main exhibit is composed of art pieces from a series of artists. Michael Rakowitz’s “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” is one of the works on display. The piece, which consists of “artifacts constructed from Middle Eastern packaging and newspapers,” is simple, yet compelling. The artifacts are supposed to represent the priceless objects that have been stolen from Iraqi museums during the war, and they are provocative in that the pieces demonstrate that war not only has physically destructive consequences, but also historical and cultural ones as well. The war has not only left thousands of civilians and soldiers dead, but it has also left an irreparable dent in Middle Eastern cultural history. On the other extremity of the room is Tom Burtonwood and Holly Holmes’ “Price War!” which is equally forceful, with six balloons shaped like bombs and covered in advertisements for mainstream products such as Eggo waffles, Breyers, and Spam.

The exhibit, which will be on display until January 20, also includes two-dimensional aspects and snippets of moving images. One particularly gripping passage is a George W. Bush State of the Union address about “waging a war against terror,” juxtaposed with images of mangled and charred bodies.

Needless to say, “Consuming War” presents viewers with a good dose of reality. For those interested in what current artists have to say about war, consumerism, and terrorism, the exhibit is sure to please.

“Consuming War,” Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Through January 20. Monday-Thursday, 9am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, 12pm-5pm. (773)324-5520. www.hydeparkart.org