I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate
– Rev Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 April 1963
I’d heard of the MoMA PS1 long before I moved to Long Island City. Once I did so I had no excuse not to visit when my girlfriend suggested we check it out on a frigid Sunday afternoon. She’d previously visited during her first few years in the city for their annual Halloween party; from what she described I anticipated the same standard modern art exhibits featured at MoMA’s flagship location, which occupies almost an entire city block on West 53rd Street after the recent renovation. Nothing could prepare me for MoMA’s current exhibition hosted at Ps1, titled Theatre of Operations: The Gulf Wars, 1991-2011.
I wasn’t sure what to expect before entering. I briefly hoped for a collection of voices “from the other side”—Iraqi artists and writers, whose perspectives could both temper and inform American understandings of the war. I hoped for symbolic monument against oppression and violence, decrying U.S. interventionism, the type being erected across the American South addressing legacies of slavery and the Jim Crow era. I hoped that for once, Iraqis and the victims of American warfare would be centred rather than American troops and the relatively unaffected American civilians. All my hopes were in vain.
The gallery was packed with images and memorabilia from the Gulf Wars, the legacy of which America has not even begun to reconcile with. How, then, was this gallery to depict the brutal violence and carnage wrought by American forces? This question was partly answered by the warning signs placed outside of many of the interior rooms. “Graphic Images Not Suitable for All Viewers,” they read ominously.
The exhibit, which occupied the entirety of an old public school building, can be seen as a perverse education project; making the American public aware of the sheer violence perpetrated using their taxpayer dollars. Yet the execution of this project reveals deeper and more insidious notions about whose bodies—and dignities—are worthy of basic human respect.
Inside the galleries, I saw image upon image of dead Iraqi corpses, mangled and torn amongst the wreckage from war. On opposite walls were portraits of American veterans, their eyes empty, their psyches presumably suffering from PTSD. Whereas the focus on the Americans was their inner turmoil, the dead Iraqis had been reduced to their bodies. They had been transformed into relics of war.
I wandered amongst the gallery’s visitors: liberal types, dressed in the subdued fashions one encounters at understated boutiques in SoHo, sporting hundred-dollar haircuts, gasping at the violence executed supposedly on their behalf— after all, “we live in a democracy, unlike the Iraqis,” was a common refrain heard during the onset of the 2003 invasion. I wondered how they felt walking among images of destruction. I wondered how many had been in support of the war, when The New York Times and CNN published stories depicting the suffering of Iraqi women living under an intense Islamic patriarchy, Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction threatening global security, and conflating the ‘Axis of Evil’ with the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, as justification for the invasion. I wondered if they reflected on this when they saw the oversized gold chain with the CNN logo hanging from it, as part of Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s piece titled, “Necklace CNN”? I wondered how many knew that the UN—yes, that bastion of human rights— imposed sanctions so severe that they resulted in mass starvation and death among Iraqi women and children. Perhaps the entire exhibit should have been the footage of Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, answering ‘yes’ to PBS Frontline’s question: was the death of a half million Iraqi children as a result of UN sanctions worth it? What about the younger generations, who, like myself, grew up in a state of perennial warfare; would their understandings of the war even by challenged by the artworks’ milquetoast statements?
We left the gallery to patron the museum’s coffee shop, where I drank an overpriced turmeric “latte,” a pretty unappetising appropriation of South Asia’s haldi dood, which my grandmother would make for me when I was sick. I overheard a perfectly manicured, middle-aged woman at the next table over greet her salad with, well this will help me forget about that, presumably referring to the exhibition, a remark which crystallised my growing animosity towards the exhibit and caused me to abandon my drink and leave.
My second visit to the gallery—motivated by a need to determine whether my criticism was reactionary or justified— coincided with the U.S.-Taliban armistice facilitating the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, which has been occupied for nearly twenty years. The occupation of Afghanistan was never subject to the same media attention as the war in Iraq; possibly, for this reason, we will never see American art on the subject. I joined a guided tour. The guide pointed out that the 1991-2011 was a rough time span of twenty years, but the art procured for this collection was as recent as 2019.
What does it mean to reflect on conflict still ongoing? We first looked at an entire room dedicated to Michel Auder’s piece entitled Gulf War TV War, emphasising the role of the 24-hour news cycle in dramatising the conflict. The guide was quick to point out the TV anchors’ mispronunciation of names, possibly a product of liberal concerns about phonetics. Numerous pieces of art from the early 90s emphasised the disconnect between the reality of the war “at home” and on television; Jean Ive Boulem’s photograph of an undisturbed French street at the onset of the intervention is an on-the-nose illustration of this point. Boulem, a French artist, had no connections to the war at all, save his citizenship to a Coalition nation. Why display his art, then, as opposed to those making a nuanced statement about the nature of the conflict?
I wondered, though, how these artworks expressed any significant statement about American warfare. Since the Cuban Missle Crisis, it’s been apparent that fallout from any armed conflict in the ‘global south’ would scarcely affect the first world. Why, then, is nearly the entire first floor of Ps1 dedicated to reinforcing this point? Perhaps it was the fact that this is, in actuality, revelatory to white liberals, that caused my discomfort.
Speaking of one-dimensional representations of the war, the next piece we looked at was Karen Finley’s poem, The War at Home, hand-painted in cursive across one of the gallery’s walls. The piece decried American militarism and the invasion through the spectre of Finley’s own guilt, yet curiously gendered blame: “invasion is only OK when done by the white men/As a woman I have been invaded by men… No one defended me.” The guide made sure to emphasise how Finley’s message could be applied to current instances of U.S. militarism. The War at Home seemed to be a simple manifestation of white guilt suffused with an emphasis on distinguishing between white men and women, perhaps as a way of absolving the shifting culpability to the former. Further on in the gallery. the Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous female activists notably criticised by Zora Neal Hurston for their lack of racial diversity 1, had their piece entitled Estrogen Bomb showcased, which depicted a colossal pink ‘pill’ colliding with the Earth; femininity, the artwork claimed, would end wars and suffering worldwide. How do we reconcile these “girl-power” messages, displayed with no context and without a hint of irony, with the reality that white feminism was used to legitimate the post-9/11 invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan?
Upstairs, Dara Birnbaum’s signature video sculpture—proudly proclaimed by the guide to be most complex and intensive installation in the exhibit—fetishised the material tools of war through the meticulously arrangement television screens representing the arc of a surface-to-air missile. In a room filled with images of Abu Ghraib hung a large painting of a nude Iraqi man, genitalia exposed, and a pop-art drawing of the infamous “hooded man” photograph with “STOP BUSH” scrawled underneath. These images, and Thomas Hirschhorn’s needless slideshow of massacred civilians, pointed to a blatant disregard for Iraqi dignity and a need, by the perpetrating side, to awash themselves in images of devastation and gore. Suffering, which we are both complicit in and removed from, is commodified.
I’ve left out the art pieces from Iraqis we saw—Nuha al-Radi, Shakir Hassan al-Said, Ali Talib, Rasheed Araeen, to name a few—which were dispersed sparsely, yet nearly every instance of an Iraqi artist either included a suffix, “British-,” “American-,” etc., or featured their struggles to create art as a subject in and of itself. There were a few exhibitions—only thirty-six Iraqis and Kuwaitis were featured in the show 2— by Iraqis living in Iraq, though their presentation at the gallery was more to memorialise the author than commend the art. The cause-of-death of a female Iraqi sculptor, whose work was featured less-than-prominently at the gallery, was emblazoned on her piece’s descriptive plaque, which both invalidated her artwork and transformed her existence into commentary: look at the artistic potential culled by the war, such loss!
Violence does not constitute art. Is it reparative when artists from Coalition nations are featured more prominently than Iraqi artists? What does it say that Kuwaiti artists are given an equivalent voice to Iraqis, victims of both Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical despotism and the United States’ warmongering? What does it mean that every time the United States warmongers, it will result in an art exhibition expresseing white guilt?
Art museums such as the MoMA have warped views of what constitutes narrative justice because they are complicit in acts of warmongering and the American military-industrial complex. In the summer of 2019, as the Whitney Museum of American Art celebrated its biennial, protestors gathered outside of its Meatpacking location to protest against board-member Warren Kander, whose company supplied “nonlethal” weapons used against Palestinian civilians. Kander is still involved with the MoMA.
Guilt felt by the individual is valid, especially when such guilt motivates one to correct a past wrong. Guilt expressed by an institution, particularly one that is embedded in the networks of capital and ideology motivating violent injustice, is not just useless, but dangerous.
The United States has to contend with legacies of nearly exterminating the original inhabitants of this continent; of barbarically subjugating an entire race of people used as dispensable labour; of overthrowing numerous governments of sovereign peoples and exploiting their natural resources and bodies. A perpetual cycle of guilt, however, achieves nothing but the symbolic ablution us of our sins; after all, we recognised that we were in the wrong, right?
A dying empire producing art expressing guilt feels hollow; empty. With devices that can both capture and broadcast images in real time everywhere, conveying the brutality of warefare far better than any newsmedia coverage or journalistic account, art which only surfaces these images that we were too cowardly to look at feels contrived, an exercise in callous self-pity.
Perhaps the saving grace of Theatre of Operations is Dia al Azzawi’s Mission of Destruction, temporarily on loan from a private collection. Azzawi, a London-based Iraqi artist, works within a conceptual framework he terms “The Land of Darkness,” utilising somber, muted tones to signify Iraq’s black, fertile soil—the cradle of civilisation—and the devastation of his home country. Mission of Destruction, painted between 2004 and 2007, decries the impact of U.S. occupation. On the right, a cadre of American soldiers with guns drawn confronts a harrowed crowd of Iraqis on the left. It’s collossal size and blackness suffocates the viewer, who is only offered respite in the brief pale section at its middle, where a man in white lays suspended in the middle of the canvas, asleep; or dying.
At the end of February, Theatre of Operations closed its doors for the last time. The curated artworks were dismantled and shipped out, including Mission of Destruction, which was given back to its original owner, possibly never again returning to the public eye.
MoMA Ps1’s next exhibition returns to a more conventional tone, showcasing the works of 20th century European and American modernists. For however brief a moment, the institution had attempted to reflect on the legacy of American imperialism. Its failure should not prevent others from doing so.
- Richards, Judith Olch; Hurston, Zora Neale; Martin, Agnes. “Oral history interview with Guerrilla Girls Zora Neale Hurston and Agnes Martin” Archive of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, May 17 2008
- Peter Schjeldahl, “The Art of War in ‘Theatre of Operations,’ The New Yorker, November 15 2019