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Interview with Jeremy Deller on tackling the troubled legacy of Iraq War

Turner prize-winner to take the controversial show on a three-week tour of the US in late March

British artist Jeremy Deller, whose work encourages public discussion of social issues and who won the UK Turner prize in 2004, is presenting a rotating cast of more than 30 military veterans, journalists, scholars and Iraqi nationals discussing the situation in Iraq—while seated on a sofa in the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. The show continues through Armory week. Art:Concept (P94/607) and The Modern Institute (P94/801) are showing his work at the Armory.

Deller’s commissioned exhibition, “It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq”, gives visitors the chance to put questions to key witnesses and experts such as Donny George, the former director of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, and Nour Al-Khal, who worked as a translator for slain American journalist Steven Vincent. The remains of a car hit by a bomb attack on Al-Mutanabbi Street in central Baghdad, where 38 people were killed, is installed in the gallery to encourage discussion.

The second part of the project, co-sponsored by the public art group Creative Time, takes the venture on the road as Deller travels across the US for three weeks in an RV with an army veteran, an Iraqi artist and a writer who will document the journey from New York to Los Angeles. The road trip, like the museum intervention, is meant to encourage non-partisan public dialogue.

Deller’s exhibition is part of the Three M Project, an initiative started in 2004 by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, to jointly commission, exhibit and acquire works by artists who have not yet received significant recognition. “It Is What It Is” is at the New Museum of Contemporary Art until 22 March and then travels to the Hammer Museum (April-May), and the Museum of Contemporary Art (October-November 2009).

The Art Newspaper: As the sixth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq approaches on 20 March, there seems to be less media coverage of the conflict. Is your project a way to bring the Iraq War back into consciousness?

Jeremy Deller: The Iraq War is something that America is dealing with today and will have to deal with for years to come. Its legacy is immense.

TAN: Do you think that the world financial crisis has taken our focus off the situation in Iraq?

JD: I think it probably has, especially in the US where the media is just about what’s happening in your country.

TAN: Why is it important for you to bring people together who would normally not interact?

JD: To speak with someone who has been in Iraq, has fought there or has lived under a regime, is fascinating to me. I’m setting up a series of opportunities for people to meet and their conversations are at the heart of the project. You can read as many books as you want or watch films, but there is no replacement for actual experience.

TAN: Can you talk a bit about the significance of the title of the project, “It Is What It Is”?

JD: I was speaking to Jonathan Harvey, who is the army soldier we’re taking on the road with us, and I asked him how he deals with the grief, the stress and the trauma when something terrible happens like a friend gets blown up, and he kept saying: “It is what it is.” I kind of liked the term because it’s such a meaningless phrase, but you can fill it with tons of meaning if you’re talking about something very serious.

TAN: Have you ever travelled to Iraq?

JD: I was meant to go last year but a couple of people warned me off it because it was still too dangerous.

TAN: Why do you consider the project to be “post-activist”?

JD: I didn’t want this exhibition to be an anti-war show. It’s about getting an idea of the complexity of the situation and the variety of opinions that exist. It might be better to say that it’s “post-protest” art. I hate that whole self-righteousness of political art and that’s what I wanted to avoid.

TAN: Why is it important for you to distance yourself from the events that you orchestrate?

JD: If you’re writing a play you don’t want to be on stage where it’s being performed. There are enough artists in Britain who love to have their photos taken and they’re such a boring bunch. I don’t want to be one of those people.

TAN: What is interesting about your projects is that you act as a catalyst that sets off a chain reaction.

JD: Exactly, so that’s why I was hoping I could just set up the road trip and I would meet up with them at the end and ask how it was. I wanted the project to be self-sufficient. I’m only going because they insisted.

TAN: How does your current project relate to your Fourth Plinth proposal for Trafalgar Square (2006), and can you describe that proposal?

JD: Trafalgar Square is in the centre of a very imperial part of London, with references to British empire, royalty and military victories all around it. The proposal was to place a vehicle that has been destroyed in an attack on civilians in Iraq on the plinth for six months, which definitely would have been a jarring presence. When I didn’t get the plinth commission I thought I could use the car for the Three M commission.

TAN: How did you import the burned-out car from Iraq and where will the car ultimately end up?

JD: We made inquiries about travelling to Iraq to get a car, but it was looking to be really difficult, so we bought the car from someone who used it in an exhibition in Amsterdam. The car won’t be given to the museums because it’s not art.

TAN: Taking the proverbial cross-country road trip in a recreational vehicle is a cliched part of American culture. Was this on your mind when you organised the trip?

JD: No, but I thought it would be interesting to travel in this holiday RV with this destroyed car on a flatbed lorry behind us. It’s one thing to do something like this in New York, in a liberal museum environment, and it’s another to turn up at a truck stop in Mississippi.

TAN: Will you be documenting the road trip in some way?

JD: We are going to film it in a way that isn’t intrusive.

TAN: And will this become an artefact of the project to be exhibited?

JD: Yes, definitely. I’m keeping my mind open as to what will happen with the film. I think we will make little films every day to document our progress or lack of it.

TAN: The Iraq Museum, which closed in 2003 after it was looted and partially destroyed, reopened on 23 February. What role do you think culture can play in bringing stability back to the country?

JD: I don’t know about stability, but culture gives a sense of identity to people, like sport does. Iraqi civilisation is one of the most important in history, so the reopening must be a source of great pride. I think culture is something that can unite a country.

TAN: You have worked on at least four major projects in the US focusing on US cultural and political heritage. Why do you keep coming back?

JD: Because I keep being asked and they speak English in your country, more or less.

TAN: Do you have a particular interest in US culture?

JD: It’s a love-hate relationship, but over the last seven to eight years it’s been more hate than love. It’s a beautiful, endlessly interesting country, filled with really interesting, friendly people. It’s a stimulating place.

TAN: What, if anything, have you learned since the project began?

JD: I’ve learned how complicated the situation is, and this is something you can understand after talking to Iraqis for just ten to 15 minutes. If the US government had known how complicated the country was when it was planning the war they would have never done it, and that’s very clear now.

TAN: What is your view of Britain’s involvement in the war in Iraq?

JD: It was a massive mistake, They are going to pay for it.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Jeremy Deller tackles troubled legacy of Iraq War'