A multi-media exhibition opening in London brings together the reflections of 25 international artists on Iraq, asking them to imagine an eventual memorial to the ongoing conflict.
By Patrick Jackson
Entering the elegant, sunlit upstairs room, tastefully wallpapered with an Islamic tile pattern, you discover a child's jigsaw puzzle of Mesopotamia set out unfinished on a table.
A silent TV screen shows a fairy-tale vision of Baghdad complete with flying horse, before moving to a slideshow of the modern city in peacetime. The picture-postcard scenes are bathed in a toy-like air of unreality.
Linger awhile and the nursery effect begins to dissipate: the TV cuts to combat soldiers and destruction, the wallpaper tiles turn out to be rearranged US and British banknotes.
What on first sight looks like a matron's room across the corridor is, in the artist's imagination, a dispensary for inhaling human ashes.
Horror is suggested, rather than shouted out, at the exhibition in the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) but does the gravity of the subject demand something stronger?
Iraqi artist Rashad Selim, who is based in Europe, liked most of what he saw when he visited for the BBC News website, yet came away with the feeling he had seen only aspects of the war.
"The artists catch the Western self in the mirror, they catch the absurdities but, while the pieces are very potent, I have not seen any work here that captures the magnitude," he says.
Most striking for Selim was a piece of performance art by Jerusalem-born artist Yael Davids.
Viewers are confronted by half a dozen two-metre (six-foot) foam panels, each of which is blank except for pre-cut holes. Through these, unseen performers push their lips for up to 20 minutes at a time.
The effect is of a row of living, dumb mouths entombed in a wall.
Davids had mixed feelings when she was asked to contribute to the exhibition, she told the BBC News website.
On the one hand, she liked the idea of a memorial to the war because it implied the conflict could have an end but, on the other, she had always been wary of judgmental "black-and-white" attitudes to the Middle East in the West.
She feels for Iraq, she says, because there is a "small parallel" with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: "The armies should be withdrawn from Iraq with the same urgency that the settlements should be removed from Palestine."
One title for her piece at the ICA is A Line, A Sentence, A Word.
"Here you see all this energy directed at uttering a word, a sentence, but still there is the impossibility of talking or saying something," says Davids, as her performers huddle behind the screens, their drying lips clamped to foam.
Insult to injury?
Now adding the finishing touches to a London exhibition of his own, along with Baghdad artist Hana Mal Allah, Selim once thought of commemorating Iraq's war dead by flying kites in the city, bearing the names of the dead.
The project in the post-invasion autumn of 2003 had to be scaled down, but he was still able to get the kite-making workshops up and running with the help of Baghdad artists. Some 500 people turned up to fly them from Saddam's old parade-ground, "reoccupying the sky with our dreams".
Creating a memorial for the war is a daunting task, he says. "You can read Iraq as a state of total dystopia: it is everybody's worst fears come true."
What interests him about the ICA show is how some of the artists involved seem to "deal with Iraq itself as a monument to folly".
After The Riot, a video by Eril Van Lieshout, which appears largely to be a road trip around the US by a couple of genial, foul-mouthed Dutchmen in pursuit of American values, means for Selim "the absurd, banal reality of the life lived that has cost us Iraq".
The Iraqi artist muses whether the Dutch film could work on big screens at Firdus Square, Baghdad.
"I wonder again with the reality of the destruction, the grief, the trauma, whether it might add insult to injury or whether it would just crack everybody up?" he says.
"Baghdadi humour is famous but now it's stretched mortally thin."
To the ziggurat
The exhibition's curator, Mark Sladen, says he is not in a position to comment on how the exhibition might be perceived in Baghdad.
In any case, he adds, it was conceived primarily for a British audience "though it does have an international resonance". He said there were no plans to put it on tour after its run of barely five weeks in London.
Given that nothing on show would pass muster as a conventional, permanent memorial to a war, does he not think that the title Memorial To The Iraq War may be a bit misleading?
"It was never the intention to come up with a definitive memorial to the war," he replies.
"This exhibition is designed to make people think about the conflict."
Asked what kind of memorial he would propose, Rashad Selim suggests using the Coalition's military machine to build a ziggurat - a stepped pyramid - out of blast walls and barbed wire, then employing Iraq's orphans to create a hanging garden.
The irrigation and lighting of this monumental garden, he adds, should come about in celebration of the return of water, electricity and the other everyday things his country lost.
Memorial To The Iraq War runs at the ICA 23 May-27 June 2007. Selim's exhibition, Sophisticated Ways: Destruction Of An Ancient City, runs 6 June-6 September 2007 (see website for details).
Your proposals for a memorial to the conflict in Iraq:
Jounaidi TALEB, Bezons France
A child bringing a fish out of its bowl to liberate it, or smashing an egg to free the bird. I think this is a good analogy for the good intentions, the disastrous consequences, and how naive this endeavor was.
Hopefully it will emphasize the need to think before acting.
Omar Ismail, Dubai, UAE
I made a christmas tree last year adorned with poppies and small gifts wraped with images of war. The tree has christmss crackers with images of war all over along with memorial poppies worn in Canada for remembrence day. The tree was thrown out of the show as being too violent and not in the spirit of Christmas! My presentation was called, Merry Christmas from Mesopotemaia... Lest we forget!...
asma arshad mahmood, Mississauga Ontario Canada
You take a piece of ground in America, that is pure beauty, and with fabulous views, And like the war cemetery in France over Omaha Beach (D Day) erect a memorial and grave stones and fill the graves with the deceased from Iraq. Then take Bush and Blair and make them visit it once a week.
David Langley, Stockport England
A statue of little child crying beside his father who is blindfolded and hand tied behind by the attacking army with barbed wire around them.
Tehsin Ullah Jan, Peshawar, Pakistan
Huge, massive portraits of Bush/Cheney constructed from photos of veterans torn bodies and bloody body parts. Make it hurt, to view these two arogant, selfish, defiant, yet weak men.
martin h. chilcutt, kalamazoo, michigan usa
I think that the memorial should be a little more respectful than what some have suggested. I think the memorial should be a US soldier in full gear bending down to help a poor Iraqi child on the ground. The setting on the soldier's side is a regular suburban street with his house behind him, and on the child's side is a Baghdad street with a burning building. Behind the soldier are his mother and a father in regular clothing, but behind the child (and in front of the soldier) there are a group people jeering at the soldier and throwing things at him. That would be a testament to the fact that, even though the American soldiers are trying to help the innocents in Iraq, many wish for us to leave. It also shows the conflicting backgrounds that each side comes from, and even though the soldier tries to carry the child to his idea of "freedom", the people behind the child rebel because the soldier has destroyed everything that was once their normal lives.
Sam Rosenfeld, Stamford, CT, U.S.A.
Oversized Depleted-Uranium statues (made from depleted uranium) that have tiny inscriptions on the bottom - 'Thankyou for viewing this piece of war art, enjoy your radiated lingering death'.
Byron Lawrie, Alexandra Heads, Australia
A fitting memorial to the ?ongoing? conflict in Iraq would be a grouping of heroic bronze sculptures depicting all of the great leaders who have had a hand in authoring Iraq's fate. Beginning with Iraq's creator, Winston Churchill and his puppet, King Faisal, and ending with Iraq?s despotic Saddam and his nemeses, George Bush and Tony Blair -- all will be depicted standing knee deep in large pool of quicksand. Viewers of the memorial gather around either transfixed by powerlessness, or indulged in cacophonic argument, all the while unaware that great mythological beasts are closing in from all sides, eager to feast on their distracted prey.
Gary Callahan, Long Beach, California, USA
An OIL painting of George Bush sitting at a roulette table in "Osama's Casino" in Baghdad with a stack of red chips (the color of blood) and a stack of green chips (the color of money).
Shirley Medwedeff, Friendswood, Texas, U.S.A.
On a large pedestal, a grouping of average Iraqi citizens: a man (possibly an oil worker, in a hard hat?), a woman (sans burka, possibly with a lab coat and stethoscope - a doctor?), a young man and woman reading a newspaper ("free press"), and some small children flying a kite or riding a bicycle. This FREEDOM Memorial would commemorate the new Iraqi self-government, their newfound voting rights, the freedom from tyranny, and a new hope for democracies in the MidEast. Wars are horrible, and no one "likes" war - but any freedoms purchased over centuries have come only as the result of those who have laid down their precious lives for even more-precious freedoms for their people.
Patricia Koenig, Rancho Park California United States of America
I would propose a large work, either a room-sized sculpture or a painting covering an entire wall. At the center would be the statue of liberty riding a horse with George Bush's face, dragging Saddam Hussein's head behind. They lead a column of American soldiers who look like they are attempting to ford a river, and yet, only one bank is visible, it could be the ocean or perhaps the Red Sea. But the sea is not made of water, rather of Iraqis. The soldiers all wear great packs that bow them over, and are weary but alert and fearful, with their weapons drawn. They point their weapons at the Iraqis who are so close to them and to each other as to be at point blank range, but the soldiers look past the Iraqis out over the ocean. The Iraqis close to the soldiers respond to their presence in various ways. Some are celebrating, others angry, some are attacking the soldiers, others have been killed by them. Still others are using the soldiers as a destraction to kill each other. The further they are from the soldiers the less the Iraqis notice them. The ones closest to us (and furthest from the horse) are simply going about their daily business.
Gabriel Heller, Minneapolis, MN U.S.A.
A gasoline pump with red fluid pouring out of the spigot.
Marion C. Medwedeff, Friendswood, Texas, U.S.A.
The map of Iraq with the word DEMOCRACY written across it with blood and people carrying the Koran in one hand and a sword in the other hand killing each other and at the same time stabbing children, women, and others (non-believers) who are sitting on the side of them with no weapons
Jamal , phoenix, AZ, USA
A tower rising high to the clouds for those who want to get off this earth!
I think we should gather up the DU weapons that have been fired into Iraq by Britain and the US and build two deformed, stillborn babies, say 5 metres tall. One to be placed in London, the other in Washington, as a reminder of the long term impacts that these weapons will have on Iraq and its people.
Mark Wheeler, Planet Earth
I think a mixed bag of troops mired to the shoulders in a giant cow plop would fit the situation we have placed or troops in very well. For those who don¿t know a cow plop is a byproduct of bovine digestion.
Mad Sandy Almond, Orlando Florida USA
i think make statue shows that the world must help iraq and they must shut their mouths. And if they want to say something they say a truth and not selling story to world that shows iraq a bad country. we must begin with press... that shows the false news about iraq. we need statue shows that the world left iraq to live in peace and enough put the oil on fire and laughing. we need statue says to world stop enough to kill people in iraq and especially press. we want statue shows that iraqis are good people and what happened now is plan put by dirty hands. pls stop playing by blood of iraq.
ali, iraq, karbala
Well, it would be foolish to divert funds from post-war reconstruction efforts towards a memorial, so let's think of what we have on our hands... hmm... I guess we've got tons and tons of bodies. Let's also borrow the aforementioned idea of formaldehyde. Okay, so we unearth all the bodies of dead Iraqis and 18 year old US Soldiers and soak them in preservative. We also have to make sure we contort their faces into horrid displays of agonizing pain before they harden up. Then we hire a team of engineers to construct a giant pyramid of bodies in the middle of Washington, DC. It will be our final litmus strip. When not a single politician or citizen is impacted in the least by our towering pile of flesh, we will know that the United States is entirely soulless.
Adam, Washington, DC
A map of Iraq covered in blood. In the background there should be an orphan, a widow and a picture of an Iraqi man sweating to represent the typical hard working Iraqi man earning his living. Surrounding these characters are coalitions troops pointing their guns at them, religious scholars turning their backs to them to represent their ignorance and lack of allegiance to Iraq and politicians playing with american dollars. A final message in dark red bold letters at the bottom of the portrait reading: "The nation of Iraq will prevail"
A good memorial is to make a statue with the head of Saddam and Bin Laden under the shoes of iraqi childeren
ahmad, den haag - Netherlands
Bush and Blair with blood stained hands mingled together while a faded face of Saddam with children around him in disbelief. The message by Bush and Blair should be like "We can't find the oil but we have the blood"...
Y. Kakuntha, Lusaka, Zambia
A gigantic block of black marble, with a inscription on every side. Fist one would read: "We must kill for a better future.", second: "No one wanted this...", third: "Oh, my God!" and the fourth: "We bleed." And on the top side of the bloc, last inscription would read: "I am you. Forgive me."
Ivica Milaric, Novi Sad, Serbia
How about a big banner reading MISSION ACCOMPLISHED?
Paul, Dubai, UAE
The magnificent ruins of Persepolis, with a US Helipad built on top. Actually, that sounds familiar...I guess art imitates life.
Nick Ould, Peterborough, UK.
Two tanks of formaldehyde. One filled with Iraqis the other filled with soldiers. Cut them in half lengthwise for the "classic" touch.
Seán, Dublin, Ireland
A beautifully patinated larger than life bronze statue of three identical men turning in a circle each stabbing the other in the back and stomach. I think this would aptly express not just the Middle East, but belief-inspired aggression worldwide. It could be called "The Triumph of the Righteous".
Stephen Pusey, New York, NY
A statue of Saddam Hussein, the great leader that Europe loved to hate, but missed dearly after his death.
HaifaMan, Haifa, Israel
A block of glass, made up of many individual sheets of glass, each of which had been deliberately smashed and then painstakingly reconstructed. The war was started deliberately, but it shattered lives at random and unpredictably. With will and effort the pieces of the country can be put together again.
Mike, Wicklow, Ireland
Probably a group of small Iraqi children putting together a jigsaw-map of Iraq, but in the background there should be army-people with blood on their hands, pointing guns at the children whilst trying to destroy the jigsaw of Iraq to get at the oil in the box below. It would show the real reasons in which America and England whent to war in Iraq.
Hanan , London, England
Large statues of Blair and Dubya with their heads empty where their brains should have been with a Cross of Jesus behind them. In the background would be all the dead bodies we have created in this war. Below the art would be: "Muslims Die Because of Christian Ignorance"
George Dill, Escondido, CA, USA
A picture of one of the thousands of poor dead Iraqi children, killed since the invasion, displayed as prominently every day on the BBC news site as the poor and equally tragic, missing Madeleine McCann might be a good start. Or do we "throw away" disposable people now?
I think the US and the UK has to start a brand new war TV channel as a memorial for the Iraqis, which would frequently update the future strategies, current fataIities and continuously cover 24X7 the various direct and proxy wars it has been fighting to gain world dominance at the expense of all those lives butchered worldwide
hanif thotathil, Bangladore, India
There are some nice and interesting suggestions, however, below. Nevertheless, rather than put all this mental energy into constructing a, practically speaking, useless memorial that might be built in the future, why not go and live in Iraq today and actively help in some way or put pressure on our ambitious and power-hungry politians at home to improve the situation in Iraq or get out, again today! I am offended by the perverse suggestion of 'Vidal' of "soaking" the Holy Qur'an. I don't fathom how you can think of such things as art at all. The aforementioned is simply an excuse to defame the holy book of Islam which I and every Muslim believes to be the literal Word of God. People seem to despair at not being able to halt the current suffering there, turn to art and then pretend they're helping Iraqis. I mean, who are you kidding?
Mohammed Tariq, Manchester,UK
My memorial as an artist living away from the conflict of war would be a wall of glass facing a wall of glass tongues and silence, all war situations and conflicts need more transparence hence glass as a material is my choice and the glass tongues would be all the unheard and untold unseen human elements of war. The images of war through the media of photojournalism and the glass screen of television are now too much like wall paper, too removed from the reality, much greater images cannot be found to give us the impact of war .Therefore artists can show more through association and memory which is only what we can try to imagine as one has to feel the situation in order to make a memorial to conflict.
mary veale, Grenoble, France
One of the great Buildings in the UK eg Buckingham Palace should be altered so that it stands as a lasting memorial to the greatest mistake the British have ever made. Obviously, it will need to bear the names of the Iraqi people who have died in the conflict and the people of that country should be allowed to stay free of charge at the Building as an apology to them from the British people.
Peter Coleman, Brighton England
Iraq's memorial should be an ancient treasure chest to represent, a 'Pandora's Box' opened by the West for the power, wealth and oil they hoped to find inside; the warlike and divisive religions that fail to agree, should be represented by the innocents (the future) worldwide, that are slaughtered in the name of Peace in the Middle East.
The memorial should be a giant ziggurat that is hollow inside. Strategic windows would display the passing of time and leave the room only fairly lit. The walls should be a mural made of cloth from the clothes of those who have died, with the floor tiles that have individual pictures of victoms that make up a larger picture that is of a translucent sphere.
Jim, Chicago, USA
How about a WMD? Oh, sorry none were found... oops! I doubt any memorial is going to stop Iraqi people from suffering at the hands of this war and its not going to stop the war, so what's the point? Why is it we need memorials to remember the injustice of a war, are our memories so short?
How about a blood-soaked koran? The daily suffering is not caused by the allies but by islamic militants, shia and sunni, slugging it out for dominance. This is endemic and will continue whether the allies stay or leave. The invasion gave Iraqis a perfect opportunity, power, time and money, to start from scratch; but the islamists prefer their daily carnage. I just pity the non-muslims in iraq who are increasingly victimised by the rest.
BB, Frankfurt, Germany
I think a giant "Peace" puzzle, that everybody could contribute to the putting together of would be symbolic. If we should see things we love as 'already broken', as in Eastern philosophy, then we knew that the 'peace' in Iraq would at some point be broken. I may be unclear here, but basically I think that we should attract and want peace more than anything else and the conflicts would lose momentum.
So if everybody put a little effort into putting the "peace" puzzle together... they may unknowingly add to the bringing of more peace in the world.
Theresa, New York, USA
I think the disparity between what some of the non-Iraqi artists created and what is suggested for a memorial by Iraqi Rashad Selim speaks for itself. What is most evident is that Western artists are primarily satirizing the US/UK occupation of Iraq while it seems Iraqi artists might actually attempt to memorialize what has been lost in this war; lives and infrastructure.
N. Campbell, New Orleans, Louisiana
As oil is the pivot of the war in Iraq, it is hoped that manufacturers of energy-saving devices such as light bulbs, etc, could inscribe the names of as many of the Iraqis killed in the war, each name on each bulb, to depict that those who were killed in the war, soldiers or civilians, died as martyrs, to give a new light and a new hope to a new Iraq nation.
Ron Lim, Toronto, Canada
a perfect memorial for iraq would be to get the invading forces out!!! ...stop the violence, stop the suffering of innocents, america and all other forces get lost!! thats the true voice of the iraqi people
i would propose the noise that produces the war, believe it's very shocking... in fact i am artist...
ever carvajal, caracas-venezuela
A mobile exhibit that travels between public and bureaucratic offices, set up on the lawns out front. Art that can't be forgotten because it's not restricted to a museum. A memorial that the government can hear outside its window.
Rebekah, NY, USA
I think that a bronze memorial of a Shiite & Sunni traditionaly garbed couple, facing each other arms outstretched holding one baby between them would be the initiation of healing which as community we all are responcible for... it is humanities war, and it might as well be humanities healing....
gregory Parascenzo, SALT LAKE CITY ,UT usa
A Memorial To Iraq, entitled: SHEKINAH / SHOCK 'N AWE (Shekinah = vengeful goddess; Shock 'n Awe = Blair-Bush geopolitical wars) Objects displayed: A urine-soaked koran; a blood-soaked bible; a plundered Iraqi antiquity plastered in Mickey Mouse stickers; naked mannequins piled one on top of another; Bush and Blair puppets mutually entangled in string and draped in stars, stripes and union jack... tattered children's clothes pegged onto a line, retrieved from dead Iraqi children.
Vidal, plett, south africa
Ishtar's Gate, half ruined. But that might require real talent.
Patrick Powell, San Jose, CA
I agree with the reader who said the perfect memorial at this point would be to simply bring the soldiers back. However, the exhibit at the ICA--indeed, any discussion on a future memorial for that matter--is indicative of the people's desire to end the conflict and therefore a profound form of protest against the conflict. I just wish more politicians were art fans & had the sensitivity of spirit to see the truth in the artistic act. I'm just left thinking, whether you agree with a particular exhibit or not, the world would be a better place if more people expressed their thoughts and feelings through art. Alas, too many "artists" make the world their canvas, with blood their paint and guns their brushes. I'm also reminded of the performance art-style protests against the Vietnam War launched by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Many people at the time felt they weren't making any significant contribution, in fact downplaying the seriousness of the issue and not proposing any concrete solutions. But it is the fact that they were acting on their beliefs, exploring ideas through a non-violent, artistic medium that was so powerful. All these years later, I don't see that any better solutions have been proposed. Hey, war IS over if you want it - it is so simple that humanity makes it impossible.
Mary, Butler, Pennsylvania USA