Meanwhile, In Baghdad… An artful approach to the Iraq War

Protest, apathy; progress, ceaseless struggle; justice, corruption–all contrasting themes explored in the Renaissance Society’s latest exhibit “Meanwhile, In Baghdad…” This group show includes the work of ten different artists who deal with the overlapping and complex subject of the war in Iraq. Each adds an examination and a portrayal of allegories of the ongoing war in the Middle East. With media including photography, drawing, video, audio recording, statuary and text, artists create varying depictions and viewpoints of this complex war.

The opening reception this past Sunday attracted a large crowd for both the art and the artists’ talk, which included a question-and-answer session with artists Ann Messner, Matt Davis, Daniel Hayman and Walead Beshty. There was a political buzz in the air as viewers and artists discussed the works in soft-spoken conversations, or observed the artworks pensively. The show is set for the senses. Visually, the white space is filled with hanging frames and installations while the sounds of an echoing Arabic song from Abel Abidin’s video “Construction Site” mix with the audio recording of Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Weather (Spring).” Goldsmith was present at the opening, reading his “weather report” into a microphone. His work is an epic poem, consisting of a recording of him reading weather reports taken from a New York radio station from the spring of 2003, the year of the invasion of the Iraq. This particular station also gave reports of Baghdad weather. The repetition of these one-minute clips of daily weather reports from New York and Baghdad creates a surreal irony that emphasizes the fact that the war remains continual, repetitious, with no end in sight.

The exhibit’s main poster depicts Matt Davis’s “Trooper,” a manipulated photograph of a post-Vietnam soldier whose image has been pasted several times over itself–creating an echoing, psychedelic effect. At Sunday’s reception, Davis explained how he wanted to “give an impression of shrinking and expanding” with the repetition of the smiling, blank paratrooper, and that “the image speaks for itself.” In the main open space another figure, Jonathon Monk’s “Dead Man” lies in the middle of the floor, a rubber statue of a wounded soldier who looks to be more in a peaceful sleep than fatally injured. A few people stopped to examine the soldier more closely, but mainly small groups chatted around him, seemingly unaware. The sentiment of Monk’s soldier is similar to the war in Iraq where observers remain oblivious to tragedy like the peasants in Pieter Brueghel’s “Landscape of the Fall of Icarus.” That is, the war was closely examined by a few but mainly something that for most Americans feels far removed.

Messner summarized this detachment perfectly in the artist talk: “We’re not being bombed, so it doesn’t feel real.” The Iraq war feels as real as Monk’s “dead” soldier: disturbing, but still fake and, thus, far removed. We live our lives with relative comfort here in America while meanwhile in Baghdad the war continues without any end in sight. Messner’s work, “Disasters of War,” is a compilation of photographs and articles of war she deemed important collected in a tabloid. A thousand copies were printed by the Renaissance Society for viewers to take, although Messner said she would have liked to have some slipped into the New York Times for mass distribution.

Apathy and disconnection are two of the many themes explored in the installation. The historically cyclical nature of war and how it can be directly viewed in the Iraq war is depicted in Maryam Jarfi’s “Siege of Khartoum, 1884.” Jarif’s project combines text and photographs; the display features a mixture of iconic images from the modern war, such as Saddam’s capture and the fall of his statue But all the photographs are captioned with headlines and articles about earlier colonial wars dating all the way back to 1898. Through the whiting-out of certain words in the articles and headlines, these captions could be read as descriptions of the current war in Iraq, demonstrating how this war is unfolding perfectly into the prescribed evolution of colonialism. Daniel Hayman also combines text and images in his “Amman Series,” a collection of etchings depicting Abu Ghraib victims and their testimonies.

The aestheticizing of war poses many questions. Is war too simple to depict? Where are we in Iraq? What’s the point? How and when will it end? The list is endless. Presenting art against a backdrop of war also changes how we look at art. Whether we see this installation as an attempt to quell apathy and to rally protest and change, a shallow display of propaganda, or simply a response to the contemporary landscape, “Meanwhile, in Baghdad…” is an exhibit definitely worth viewing, both for the art and the questions it asks.

Renaissance Society, 5811 S Ellis Ave. Tues-Fri, 10am-5pm; Sat-Sun, 12-5pm. Through December 21. (773) 702-8670. www.renaissancesociety.org.