May 2009, It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq @ New Museum

Jeremy Deller, "New Commissions: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq," 2009. Installation view, New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.


It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq at New Museum
235 Bowery
New York, NY 10002
February 11 through March 22, 2009
It Is What It Is: Report from the Road at The Cooper Union Great Hall
Cooper Square
New York, NY 10003-7120
April 24, 2009

The scarcity of information about the war in Iraq and the impossibility of accessing valuable first-hand information about the experiences of US, Allied and Iraqi individuals involved in or affected by the conflict was the reason for Jeremy Deller’s It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq. This project relies on remarkably sparse and distilled visual components (most notably, the rusty remains of a car survived to the catastrophic explosions that destroyed Al Mutanabbi Street, the cultural and social hub of Baghdad, in 2007) and mainly pivots around a facilitated discussion platform. For this purpose, Deller gathered an impressive array of experts, artists, journalists, refugees and militaries who are either Iraqi or have been directly involved in the tragic events that followed the US-led occupation of 2003. After opening as a conversation platform/installation at the New Museum, Deller’s project hit the road for a coast-to-coast trip that would ideally extend the conversation to the whole country. Together with curator Nato Thompson (who also represented Creative Time, one of the producers of this project), Iraq War veteran Jonathan Harvey and Iraqi artist Esam Pasha, Deller toured the U.S. on RVs, trailing the destroyed car along, as a specimen and discussion-starter.

I waited longer than usual before sending this article out. After my first visit at the New Museum, I somehow had the impression that the project, and the validity of Deller’s idea, had to be tested on the road. Floating in the stark white of the New Museum’s 2nd floor gallery, Deller’s discussion platform consisted of a few IKEA couches, armchairs and ottomans, gathered around a birch-ey coffee table, resting on a large gray rug. The set’s background was a monumentally large banner reporting the title of the show in English and Arabic. It was flanked by Deller’s brilliant overlay of American city names to an Iraqi Map (and vice versa) on the left, and by the aforementioned destroyed car, as well as by some photographs of the aftermath at Al Mutanabbi Street, on the right. My initial problem with this presentation was that the makeshift living room could barely sit 10 visitors –including the daily guest expert. This made up for frequent situations where a small group (let’s say 4, 5 people) would gather around the guest expert and really get into a conversation, immediately alienating the rest of the audience, who floated between Deller’s maps, the few photographs and the bombed car, quickly losing their attention and/or heading back to the elevator. The conversation ended up feeling rather objectified and exposed to the voyeurism of the non-participating audience. I sat down for a few minutes listening to an Iraqi Architect, he was involved in a discussion that ranged from the casual to the hyper-specific and often diverged to unexpected or mundane details and scenarios. It was a weirdly unsatisfactory experience, albeit a remarkably unusual one.

Deller, Thompson’s and Pasha’s recent “Report from the Road” conference at Cooper Union’s Great Hall gave highlights on the second part of the project, revealing a much richer context and disclosing the limitations inherent to the presentation of human and intellectual exchange -based projects inside any gallery/museum frame. Recalling their experiences from the road and showing images and videos collected along the way during their many conversations, the group filled the void that many sensed inside the gallery space, presenting a bigger picture of moms, veterans, homeless, pacifists, right and left -wing activists and Christian groups that –I suspect– would have been filtered out by the glass and iron mesh of the New Museum. This unbound, non-partisan and grassroots approach to facilitated conversation really reflected Deller’s vision of the phenomenology of everyday culture as an autonomous form of Art. The artist’s distance from artistic convention eventually brought the conference to an awkward/funny impasse when Thompson tried to whisper something like “Tell them about the Art...” in Deller’s ear eliciting a reaction that, in my opinion, was among the highlights of the evening. Refusing to focus on the properly “artistic” aspects of the work, Deller claimed his right to an evidently well-pondered and strategic un-artistic presentation, inviting the audience to consider what can be gained and what is at loss by defining something as “Art” or “Not Art” and by working outside the precincts of the Art World.

Jeremy Deller, "New Commissions: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq," 2009. Detail.

Marco Antonini

Marco Antonini is a New York based independent curator and writer. He has collaborated with some of the most reputable organizations in New York, including ISCP, Elizabeth Foundation, LMCC, ISE Foundation, Japan Society, Triangle Arts and the Dumbo Arts Center.

A freelance educator/lecturer at MoMA, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, MoMA PS1 and 3rdWard Design Center, his articles, essays and interviews have been published on Flash Art International, Cura, Whitehot, Museo, BMM, Contemporary, AroundPhotography, Arte&Critica and NYArts. He has lectured on various topics for the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa (Venice), Japan Society, ISE Foundation, City College of New York/CUNY and the Rhode Island School of Design.

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