Testimony to War: Art from the Battlegrounds of Iraq
Francis Di Tommaso
Francis Di Tommaso, the director of the Visual Arts Museum at the School of Visual Arts, curated Testimony to War: Art from the Battlegrounds of Iraq, which was on view there in March.
As one year of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has folded into the next, the initial sense of national emergency has faded into a state of uneasy complacency. The war is over there; its significance is not immediate in the lives of most Americans. Its real costs and real consequences in human terms are known only to that small fraction of our citizenry that is or has been in Iraq and Afghanistan, that has waited anxiously at home for loved ones, or that has no reason to wait anymore. Even more remote to us are the millions in the region for whom this conflict has meant upheaval, dislocation and, in all too many cases, the end of their lives. “War is not sterile,” writer and Iraq veteran Brian Turner posted in Home Fires on The New York Times Web site. “We should be angered by news reports that simply tell us that a bomb blew up in a market in some exotic-sounding city in Iraq and that 13 people died and 28 were wounded. Why? Because the numbers, over time, numb us. They are abstractions of humanity. We need the human content. We need to know their names and know more about their families, about their lives.”
This exhibition attempts to provide a measure of that human content through the art of five Americans who have experienced the war. Its purpose is to put faces on those directly involved in the conflict and to make the reality of their daily existence more understandable in our own. We are frequently reminded that we are a nation at war. So should we not know what this war actually looks like?
Artist Steve Mumford and photojournalist Lucian Read went to see, and returned several times to paint and photograph what they saw from day to day, from month to month, with the troops and in the midst of civilians, in the city and out in the country. The results are extraordinary narratives in pictures, and also in these artists’ words, of what it is like to live in a nation gripped by war. We see, in specific detail, the comfortless, dangerous work our troops do, its harsh circumstances, and the discipline and courage with which our troops perform their duties. The pictures show us the wearing monotony of a soldier’s life, randomly punctuated by savage violence. We see terrifying combat and its appalling aftermath. An intense camaraderie is evident in faces depleted by battle, yet alive with the consuming thrill of having survived it. We also see aircrews, support units, medics and chaplains—all dedicated to their missions, determined to make their efforts count. And then, of course, there are the civilians, especially the women and children, haplessly caught in the middle. We see how they go on with their war-torn lives in a fractured society, daily summoning fortitude, and resourcefulness difficult to imagine.
Mumford’s paintings and Read’s photographs bear witness in the way that is most significant: their pictures render visible—almost palpable—a reality that we otherwise could only vaguely envision. The reticence of the government and caution of the news media to show this reality is misplaced. The marines Read photographed wanted him to record their lives—and yes, even their deaths. For if we don’t see their hardships, their struggles, their successes, and their many sacrifices, all these remain invisible, reduced to abstractions.
For Mumford and Read to make these pictures in a war zone took exceptional nerve and resolve. Look at some of these scenes and consider where the artist had to stand, or crouch or lie flat to shoot his photograph or make his sketch. It is an enterprise all the more remarkable for the fact that they assigned themselves to it, with no agenda other than conveying what they saw.
Peter Buotte, Aaron Hughes, and Ryan Roa, the three artists in this exhibition who went to Iraq as soldiers, created their works upon returning home. Rather than documenting the war they fought, their art captures the war as it lives on in within them, shaping their consciousness, and informing their creative output. These artists offer perspectives based on their experiences; their works elicit contemplation; they ask viewers to engage conceptually with the conflict.
A year into his deployment to Iraq, Aaron Hughes, then a sergeant, looked up to see a bird flying above him, seemingly unaware of the barbed wire surrounding them both. The image stayed with him. Later, as an art student in Illinois, he stepped into an intersection one day and began to draw the bird on the pavement—stopping traffic, stopping everyday life in his community, in an attempt to make people pause momentarily and consider this symbol of peace. His video captures the moment, only a few minutes long, before life resumes and the traffic rolls on, gradually erasing all traces of the bird on its barbed wire perch.
Americans of all persuasions share a relationship to their flag. But troops in a war zone wear the flag figuratively and literally on their sleeve. A small patch attached to the upper right shoulder of the uniform, it is a constant identifier, and an almost intimate presence in their lives. For Ryan Roa, a former staff sergeant who participated in the invasion of Iraq, the flag shoulder patch he wore serves as a point of departure for dialogues on the definition of freedom, a central consideration in his work. Now, years later, he has patterned an interactive sculptural piece in the shape of that patch: an elevated platform on which one stands to hear recordings of Americans from all 50 states, voicing their notions of what freedom means.
For Major Peter Buotte, who is now on the eve of a second deployment, the flag on his uniform has always connected him to the work he did with pride and purpose as a Civil Affairs officer, rebuilding schools and restoring infrastructure. At the same time, the flag felt “like a bull’s eye painted on our backs,” inspiring his series of target-shaped American flags. This theme is reflected in Take One and Remember, an installation with target-shaped magnets equaling the number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq. Viewers are invited to take a magnet and reflect on the lost life that it represents.
This exhibition is purposely apolitical, but it is not neutral. The works within it take aim at indifference. They are meant to stir awareness, to provoke reflection on this great human drama of our time. It will be up to us to draw our own conclusions from these five artists’ testimonies to war.