In March British artist Jeremy Deller took the shell of a burnt-out car to the New Museum in New York. The vehicle had been hit by a bomb attack in central Baghdad in which 35 people died. Members of the public were invited to ask veterans, journalists, scholars and Iraqi nationals about the situation in Iraq for a project entitled: “It Is What It Is”. Deller then took the remains of the vehicle on a three-week road trip from New York to Los Angeles in a project co-sponsored by the public art group Creative Time. He was joined by Jonathan Harvey, a US soldier who served in Iraq; an Iraqi artist, Esam Pasha who worked as a translator for the US army and now lives in the US; a curator from New York; a writer and a road manager. The Iraqi artist, Esam Pasha, sent us his account of the journey.
From the first day until the last day of the trip three weeks later, people had conversations and arguments with us about the whole Iraqi issue. Many ranted at us. There were a lot of good conversations on all levels. People asked me about everything big and small. Like how Iraqis spend their days and how they let their children go to school through streets full of shooting and car bombs. And even what kind of tea they drink. I was happy to talk about the things that people don’t hear about in the news.
One of the best and longest conversations we had was in Washington, DC. We met an Iraqi activist who was enthusiastic about the project but upset by the fact that we didn’t have a political agenda. It is this that made the journey successful: having no slogans for or against the war, just real conversations about what happened and is happening on the ground in the war zone.
This man said: “You have to put your cards on the table. Are you for the war or against it? I will put my cards on the table and tell you I am against the war.” Both Harvey and I explained that our project is not about making this kind of statement. It is just talking about Iraq through the experience of an Iraqi artist who lived his life there and an American solider who served there. That’s why the exhibition is called “It Is What It Is”. “There is more to Iraq than just war—the history, the culture and life in all its details,” I told him. Again he said: “The war in Iraq is immoral and has to stop. You have to stand against the war, it doesn’t make sense to talk about other issues in Iraq at this time.” It took more than 40 minutes until he said: “I understand the importance of what you are doing and I think it is good”.
That was the first of many other encounters with activists. They usually wanted to turn our project into a demonstration against the war. Of course each of us on the trip had his own opinion about the war. None of us kept it secret. But protest was not the point of the exhibition. If we had had a slogan like that, people that agreed with us wouldn’t have had a reason to stop and talk to us. And those who disagreed, wouldn’t want to waste their time either.
After Washington, DC, we went to Richmond, Virginia. At night we slept in hotels and in the morning we would set up our tent and talk to people. Then, in the evenings we would leave for another city. From Virginia we went to Philadelphia, where we met with Harvey’s parents, and then to Cincinnati, Ohio.
There were a lot of wonderful places along the way that I had never been to in the few years that I have spent in this country. And more people on the streets that have interesting points of view and are eager to discuss them with someone that has experience of the war in Iraq. In this they were unlike most of the crowds inside conference rooms and museums who usually have preset opinions and just want to argue their case.
The six of us on the trip had different reasons for being there. Mine was to promote Iraqi culture and history. To bring it closer to people so they would know that Iraqis are not an hateful enemy. They are people that love freedom just as much as the countries that justify putting tanks and barbed wire in Iraq to liberate it. It was in Iraq that the first law in history was written. The first word before that. I was trying to represent my country as best I could.
In Richmond, Virginia we spoke to Cory, a US soldier who had served in Iraq. He approached us with his girlfriend. It’s not unusual for soldiers not to talk to their families about their experiences in a war zone. With us they feel free to relate their stories and experiences and even make dark jokes that civilians don’t really understand. They feel more understood. It seemed to Harvey and me that Cory’s girlfriend was hearing his stories for the first time. Then the three of us talked about the technicalities of war. I felt like I was standing in an US army base in Baghdad.
Cory explained how, on one occasion, there were snipers shooting at him and his fellow soldiers and one of them kept trying to shoot him over and over again with no luck. “He was good at hiding himself where we couldn’t find him.” Eventually the US soldiers dropped a bomb on three buildings and there were no more shots. It turns out this is how the US army dealt with snipers in Sadr City in 2007. They simply dropped bombs on the buildings that had shots coming out of them. “You bomb a whole building to get a sniper?” I asked him. “It’s self defence, we were defending ourselves,” he said leaving me wondering if he was trying to convince me or himself. “Yes, it’s like if I broke into your home and when you try to kick me out I shoot you in self defence,” I said. “Yes” replied Cory.
Finally we made it to Los Angeles and the car was put on display in the Hammer Museum.
On this trip we met all kinds of people. The car made a big impact and everyone was curious so they would ask questions and get involved in conversation. Ironically people out in the streets seemed to get the idea more than people in museums. They understood the meaning of the project, whereas in a museum people tried to speculate in an artistic manner. Some would think the bombed car is the work of art. Jeremy kept telling them the car is not the work, it is just an exhibit. It was so exiting when people in the streets talked to us and disagreed with us and even sometimes ranted at us. Much more interesting than those people who just stated the obvious and tried to be understanding without caring enough to have questions.
So was this journey a work of art? I believe art is all about reaching out to people. And this is exactly what we did for three weeks. Connecting America from east to west with a distant country with wounds as deep as its history goes.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Taking the war in Iraq to the American people'