Visual art has, in general, been slow to respond to the challenge of the occupation of Iraq and the “war on terror” – but now things seem to be changing.
This year we have seen Mark Wallinger’s brilliant installation State Britain, based on Brian Haw’s protest in Parliament Square. It is the favourite to win this year’s Turner Prize.
The Royal Academy’s summer exhibition features a charcoal drawing by Michael Sandle depicting Tony Blair and Cherie Booth being expelled in disgrace from Downing Street.
Now the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) has weighed in with Memorial to the Iraq War. Deliberately timed to coincide with Blair’s departure, the ICA has invited 25 artists from many different countries, including Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, the US and Britain, to exhibit works which could serve as memorials to the war or are proposals for such memorials.
The idea of a “memorial” to a war that is still going on is obviously open to challenge and, indeed, is challenged in a written piece by one of the invited artists. However the aim, explicitly stated in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, is “to show to a wider public that contemporary art is more capable of social and political engagement than perhaps they thought”.
The idea of a memorial is, perhaps, a vehicle for facilitating this. As a literal public monument only one work here makes a real visual impact – Iraqi Stars by Marc Bijl, featuring three large five-pointed stars, one green for Iraq, one white for the US coalition, one red and black – for blood and anarchy.
But many of the works, although not really viable memorial proposals, nevertheless ask the viewer to engage thoughtfully with various aspects of the war.
The first piece we encounter is Nate Sloman’s installation, Never Ending Story, consisting of old broken petrol pumps. This establishes from the start the central role of oil, but it also, more subtly, evokes the history of the US’s oil-and-car economy.
Jeremy Deller’s Twin Cities is small and simple, almost minimalist, but it makes its point effectively. It presents outline maps of Britain and Iraq with Iraqi cities marked on the map of Britain and corresponding British cities marked on Iraq – Aberdeen/Kirkuk, Mosul/Derry.
Also moving are Collier Schorr’s three sketches focusing on soldiers who have been maimed and crippled – a perennial feature of war always neglected by the media, but dealt with by artists from Rembrandt to Otto Dix and George Grosz.
The proposal I liked most – though it is completely unrealisable – is from US artist Sam Durant.
It suggests collecting war debris in Iraq and shipping it over to London and Washington, where it would be piled up round public buildings – beginning with Downing Street and the White House.
This is accompanied by an illustrative photomontage and a famous quote from the Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin about the “angel of history”.
On the downside, there are some pieces which approach the subject so obliquely that they barely register – and there is nothing here to match the power of Wallinger’s State Britain, let alone great anti-war art of the past such as Goya, Picasso or Dix.
But this relative failure is not cause for condemnation. Masterpieces will not come to order and the effort by artists to engage with the war should be applauded and encouraged.
Memorial to the Iraq War runs at the Institute for Contemporary Art, The Mall, London, until 27 June. Go to » www.ica.org.uk for more details. John Molyneux will be curating an exhibition of left wing art at » Marxism 2007.