Rethinking geopolitical events: to understand Britain’s Iraq war, turn to art

By Alan Ingram, University College London

In March 2018, a remarkable object – a winged bull deity made from brightly-coloured date syrup cans – appeared on the Fourth Plinth at the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square. A work in the series The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist by the artist Michael Rakowitz, the bull, or lamassu, is a replica of a figure that guarded the Nergal Gate of the Assyrian city of Nineveh some two and a half thousand years ago, but was destroyed by Daesh militants soon after its rediscovery in 2015. The lamassu also evokes the damage to Iraq’s cultural heritage that followed the 2003 invasion of the country in which Britain was a key player, while expressing an uncanny solidarity with similar figures that were excavated at the initiative of the British archaeologist and geographer Austen Henry Layard in the middle of the nineteenth century in what was then called Mesopotamia, and which are today exhibited in the British Museum. In 1849 Layard received the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for ‘important contributions to Asiatic Geography, interesting researches in Mesopotamia, and for his discovery of the remains of Nineveh’.

                The appearance of the lamassu is an important event in a public and political culture that has struggled to acknowledge Britain’s colonial relationship to Iraq or its role in the disastrous 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of the country. While the 2016 report of the Chilcot Inquiry was more trenchant than many expected, its remit was focused on British government decision making. The consequences of the war for Iraq and for Iraqi people and its antecedents in the colonial period hardly figured. By contrast, the lamassu draws its viewers into what are referred to as ‘the Iraq wars’ in ways that are by turns striking, subtle and complex, inviting multiple reactions and reflections and questioning the public spaces and institutions amid which it sits. At the same time, the lamassu is only one of dozens of artworks and exhibitions that have engaged critically and creatively with the war and with Britain’s role in Iraq and relationship with the country. Crucially, and although mediated through artworld institutions and discourses, the experiences and the critical and creative agency of people of Iraqi heritages have been much more visible in art than in official, political or media accounts of the war or in official memorials. An exploration of their work alongside that of other artists and curators, I argue, provides an essential counterpoint to other accounts, draws us into an appreciation of geopolitical events as multiple as well as singular things, and challenges us to imagine Britain as a postcolonial country.

                The idea of the event is a fundamental building block for geographical understanding and geographers have been important in helping us to think about events in political and philosophical terms. What emerges from this work is a sense of a geopolitical event not just as a disruptive or dramatic transformation of the world, but also of ways of sensing and making sense of it (Clark 2014). The shock or surprise of occurrences like the end of the Cold War, ‘9/11’ or the Anthropocene, and the challenges they pose for understanding, are part of what makes them ‘events’. Events can overwhelm our capacity to grasp and process them, or slip by on a subliminal level. Events typically come to be experienced and understood differently by different people in different ways, to the extent that they may disagree dramatically on the nature and parameters of the event, or even whether it was an event at all. The Chilcot Inquiry sought to establish an authoritative account of Britain’s Iraq war, within tightly defined parameters. By contrast, the many, diverse artworks that have emerged out of Britain’s 2003 Iraq war challenge a settled sense of where the beginnings and ends of that event may lie and of what the event itself might be, while reinforcing an underlying sense that it must still somehow be reckoned with as ‘an’ event. They can help us to think about the war, and especially Britain’sIraq war, as a geopolitical event.

                Artworks are especially interesting because they can be thought of not just as documenting or ‘representing’ events but as ‘reassembling’ them (to borrow a term from Deleuze 2015; also Bennett 2012), allowing us to encounter them in a way that differs from ordinary experience. In this way of thinking, artworks are more like experiments in which we may participate, allowing ourselves to be affected in ways that may challenge our existing body of experiences and frames of reference. As I argue, artworks can be thought of as ‘evental assemblages’ in at least three ways: they may be ‘about’ events; they may themselves ‘be’ mini-events; and they may engender and participate in ongoing events. This threefold relationship is illustrated by British artist Steve McQueen’s project Queen and Country, which proposed a series of commemorative stamps to remember British service personnel killed in Iraq, reflecting wider concern about the management of the war and the armed forces, but also gathering together soldiers’ families around a shared concern and intensifying public dissatisfaction with the government. While it focused on British service personnel, the project was dedicated to all victims of the war. Other works, like the lamassu in Trafalgar Square, or the wrecked car from a 2007 bombing of a book market in Baghdad that was displayed in the Imperial War Museum in London by Jeremy Deller, or the Babylonian tower constructed by Dia Al-Azzawi that was exhibited in the Great Court of the British Museum, gesture more directly towards the consequences of the war for Iraq itself. Each one similarly relates to an event, stages an event, and engenders subsequent events as people are moved to notice, reflect upon and react to them.

These and many other works are important in their own right, but considering them collectively brings us to an important critical argument for engaging geopolitics through art whenever we can. If many accounts of Britain’s Iraq wars tend to start from, and circle back towards, conventional British reference points; if the event is understood as having been ‘an’ event to the extent that it is principally a problem of and for the British government, British administrators, the British military or British society, then artworks offer alternative versions of that event and of the world beyond what we can find in news reports, political speeches or public inquiries. For example, while much public discussion centres on the role of Britain in the making and unmaking of Iraq, works like Rakowitz’s lamassu and Azzawi’s towerhint at how Iraq has been implicated in the making of Britain as well as European culture more generally (Bahrani 2013). These kinds of insights emerge most fully not when we consider ‘Iraqi’ or ‘British’ art in isolation, but when we don’t attribute too much solidity to these frames, see things in relation to each other, and trace their relationships to time and space. Artworks might not do the actual work of changing the world, but they do ask us to imagine how it might be otherwise, or at least understand how it came to be the way it is.

There have been several important Iraq-related exhibitions in Britain since 2003, but they have tended to reflect the diversity of experiences of the war and responses to it only partially, and to touch only lightly on the long and unequal relationship between the two countries. More ambitious exhibitions might be challenging to realise, but my book offers an imaginative exercise in which dozens of artworks that have emerged out of Britain’s 2003 Iraq war are considered together, developing new perspectives on that event, and suggesting new ways of thinking and researching art, geopolitics and events through and in relation to each other.

About the author: Dr Alan Ingram is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at University College London. His work is based in political geography, with reference to three overlapping areas of interest: geopolitics, biopolitics and aesthetics.

Ingram A (2019) Geopolitics and the Event: Rethinking Britain’s Iraq War through Art Oxford: Wiley RGS-IBG Book Series

Also see:

Ingram A (2016) Rethinking art and geopolitics through aesthetics: artist responses to the Iraq war Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 41:1 1-13 https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12099

References

Bahrani, Z. (2013). Regarding art and art history. The Art Bulletin 95 (4): 516–517.

Bennett, J. (2012). Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affects and Art After 9/11. London: IB Tauris.

Clark, N. (2014). Geo-politics and the disaster of the Anthropocene. The Sociological Review 62: 19–37.

Deleuze (2015). Logic of Sense. London: Bloomsbury.


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