Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 @MoMA PS1

JTF (just the facts): A total of 310 works made between 1971 and the present installed across the entire MoMA/PS1 building.

The photographic and video works in the exhibition are:

  • Monira Al Qadiri (Kuwaiti, born 1983): Behind the Sun, 2013, video (color, sound), 10 min.
  • Michel Auder (American, born France 1945): Gulf War TV War, 1991 (edited 2017), Hi8 video and mini-DV transferred to digital video (color, sound), 102 min.
  • Sophie Ristelhueber (French, born 1949): A cause de l’élevage de poussière (Because of Dust Breeding), 1991–2007, pigment print mounted on aluminum
  • Alia Farid (Puerto Rican and Kuwaiti, born 1985): Theater of Operations (The Gulf War seen from Puerto Rico), 2017, found footage and audio (color, sound), 3 hrs., 53 min., 28 sec.
  • Tarek Al-Ghoussein (Kuwaiti and Palestinian, born 1962): 20 framed Polaroids documenting reporting on the first Gulf War, 1991
  • Rasheed Araeen (Pakistani and British, born 1935): Heroes, 1991–1992, photographs, newspaper, and acrylic on plywood
  • Judith Joy Ross (American, born 1946): 14 gelatin silver prints on printing-out paper, gold toned, 1990; 14 gelatin silver prints on printing-out paper, gold toned, 2006–07
  • Jean-Luc Moulène (French, born 1955): La Guerre – 17 janvier 1991, 1991/2019, print on paper mounted on aluminum; Munitions – Paris, 18 février 1991, 1991/2019, print on paper mounted on aluminum
  • Elia Suleiman (Palestinian, born 1960): Homage by Assassination, 1992, 35mm film transferred to digital video (color, sound), 27 min., 37 sec.
  • Samir (Iraqi and Swiss, born 1955): (It Was) Just a Job, 1992, video (color, sound), 5 min.
  • Allan Sekula (American, 1951–2013): War Without Bodies, 1991/1996, nine color photographs, mounted and framed, of military air show and Gulf War victory celebration, El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Santa Ana, California, April 28, 1991; two copies of text booklet with illustrated covers; U.S. Army field bed
  • Louise Lawler (American, born 1947): WAR IS TERROR, 2001/2003, silver dye bleach print; No Official Estimate (Sun/Sol), 2004/2007, six chromogenic color prints with text on wall: “650,000 / 56,640–62,362 / 654,965 / 34,452 / 30,000” [Different calculations for Iraqi civilian deaths as reported by various media outlets in 2006 and 2007]; Civilian (adjusted to fit), 2010/2011, photographic image on adhesive wall material
  • Harun Farocki (German, 1944–2014): War at a Distance, 2003, video (color, sound), 58 min.; Serious Games III: Immersion, 2009, two-channel video (color, sound), 20 min.
  • Susan Meiselas (American, born 1948): 24 digital c-prints, 1991–92; 1 digital c-print, 2007; 1 video, 1991, 7 min., 19 sec.
  • Hiwa K (Iraqi/Kurdish, born 1975): The Bell Project (Iraq), 2007–2015, video (color, sound), 26 min.; The Bell Project (Italy), 2007–15, video (color, sound), 35 min., 42 sec.
  • Dara Birnbaum (American, born 1946): Transmission Tower: Sentinel, 1992, eight-channel color video (2 min., 48 sec.), nine-channel stereo sound, Rohn transmission tower, custom-designed hardware and brackets, and computer for synchronization
  • Cory Arcangel (American, born 1978): Bomb Iraq, 2005, disk image of found Macintosh TV personal computer containing a custom HyperCard program, and various personal computing peripherals
  • Paul Chan (American, born Hong Kong 1973): Baghdad in No Particular Order, 2003, single-channel video (color, sound), 51 min.
  • Oday Rasheed (Iraqi, born 1973): Underexposure, 2005, film (35mm transferred to digital), 74 min.
  • An-My Lê (American, born Vietnam 1960): 29 Palms: Infantry Platoon (Machine Gunners), 2003–04, gelatin silver print; 29 Palms: Mortar Impact, 2003–04, gelatin silver print; 29 Palms: Security and Stabilization Operations, Iraqi Police, 2003–2004, pigment print
  • Martha Rosler (American, born 1943): six photomontages from the “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series,” 2004
  • Deborah Stratman (American, born 1967): Energy Country, 2003, video (b/w, color, sound), 14 min., 30 sec.
  • Deep Dish TV: Shocking and Awful: A Grassroots Response to War and Occupation, 2004, 12 videos (color, sound), 28 min. each
  • Michael Rakowitz (American, born 1973): Return, 2004–ongoing, mixed media installation
  • Tony Cokes (American, born 1956): Evil.7: iraq.deadly.chronology, 2004, video (color, sound), 4 min., 40 sec. Evil.8: Unseen, 2004, video (color, sound), 7 min., 54 sec.; Evil.16: (Torture.Musik), 2009-2011, HD video (color, sound), 16 min., 27 sec.
  • Sean Snyder (American, born 1972): Untitled (Archive, Iraq), 2003–05, installation of mounted digital prints; Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars, 2005, video (color, sound), 13 min., 9 sec.
  • Jamal Penjweny (Iraqi and Kurdish, born 1981): Saddam is Here, 2010, 12 color photographs
  • Thomas Hirschhorn (Swiss, born 1957): Touching Reality, 2012, digital video (color), 4 min., 45 sec.; Hotel Democracy, 2003, mixed media installation
  • Jalal Toufic (Lebanese, born 1962): The Return of the Dual-Use Memorial, 2016, installation
  • Jon Kessler (American, born 1957), Shock and Awe, 2005, CCTV camera, monitor, steel, ink jet print, tape, and density filters
  • Sherko Abbas (Iraqi, born 1978): The Music of the Bush Era, 2017, two-channel video (color, sound); installation with objects
  • Ala Younis (Jordanian, born Kuwait 1974): National Works, 2012/2019, digital video (color, sound), 7 min., 45 sec.; Plan (fem.) for Greater Baghdad, 2018, inkjet prints, acrylic, and painted resin
  • Francis Alÿs (Belgian, born 1959): Color Matching, 2016, video (color, sound), 5 min., 1 sec.
  • Urok Shirhan (Iraqi and Dutch, born 1984): Remake of Paul Chan’s “Baghdad in No Particular Order,” 2012, two-channel video (color), 35 min.
  • Jananne Al-Ani (Iraqi, Irish, and British, born 1966): Shadow Sites II, 2011, single-channel digital video (color, sound), 8 min., 38 sec.
  • Phil Colllins (British, born 1970): baghdad screentests, 2002, single-channel digital video (color, sound), 48 min. (Not displayed at the request of the artist.)

In addition to the photographic works, the exhibition includes 176 works in other media, including collage and assemblage works, sculptures, prints, drawings, paintings, artists’ books, posters, and installations. (Installation shots below.)

In conjunction with the show, MoMA PS1 has published a companion catalog (here, 275 pages, 100 color and 20 black-and-white illustrations, 9 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches, $45 hardcover), edited with by Peter Eleey, with texts by Peter Eleey, Ruba Katrib, Kate Fowle, Zainab Bahrani, Jean Baudrillard, Serge Daney, Nuha al-Radi, Riverbend, Rijin Sahakian, Nada Shabout, and McKenzie Wark.

Comments/Context: Curated by PS1’s Peter Eleey and Ruba Katrib, this important exhibition examines the effects, both in the region and elsewhere, of American military intervention in Iraq between 1991 and 2011. Through works by 82 artists and collectives, it gives shape to a destructive entanglement, the rationale for which has taken many forms over time and that continues—largely out of America’s public consciousness—today.

The show addresses big subjects, including the difference between how both the Persian Gulf War (1990–91) and the Iraq War (2003–11) were experienced on the ground and how they were viewed from afar; in what way, and by whom, their victims’ suffering should be articulated; and how these wars and their aftermaths have impacted life both in the Middle East and in the West. Along the way, it also considers what a truly global contemporary art history might look like.

Because Collector Daily’s focus is lens-based art, this review will be considering the show from that perspective, giving less attention to non-photographic works, however major. In fact, though, many of the works here address how the wars were presented (and sold) in the media, and many of the exhibition’s themes are illuminated by how, or whether, the artists included employed photography or film.

The show—which takes as its starting point Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War waged against Iraq in response by American-led coalition forces—opens with a 2013 video by Monira Al Qadiri that splices together 1991 footage shot by a Kuwaiti man who drove his car into the oilfields set on fire by retreating Iraqi forces. With its apocalyptic images of oil wells burning under a smoke-filled sky and its sense of immediate danger, the film stands in stark contrast to a nearby photograph, dated the day the Gulf War began with the bombing of Baghdad, by Jean Luc Moulene. The work, which shows a quiet Paris street, perhaps more effectively than any other piece in the show, emphasizes the impossibility of understanding terror from a place of safety.

On American television, news coverage of the attack—featuring night-vision images of “smart” bombs dropping on a shadowy, seemingly depopulated city—ensured that the war stayed comfortably remote. As explained in Haroun Farocki’s chilling 2003 video War At A Distance, such images were supplied to news outlets by the military, which also imposed a ban on disseminating pictures of dead bodies or coffins.

Responding to presentations of the war as a bloodless, video game–like conflict, New York-based filmmaker Michel Auder created Gulf War TV War (1991) by videotaping newscasts off his television screen. Other American artists noted the growing power of mass communication to smother dissent, including Dara Birnbaum, whose Transmission Tower: Sentinel (1992) incorporates clips from George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention, undercutting them with images of Allen Ginsberg reciting the anti-war poem Hum Bom! and footage of student protests.

With new satellite technology making it possible for networks like CNN to broadcast internationally, artists in the Arab diaspora were watching the same footage as artists in America. In Cairo, Kuwaiti artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein shot Polaroid photographs off the television throughout the Iraqi invasion of his country and the subsequent war; thrice-removed representations, they simultaneously convey his engagement with, and his distance from, the events depicted.

Not all the images of the Gulf War were as sanitized as CNN’s—a graphic photograph of a dead Iraqi soldier burned alive in his vehicle, taken by the American photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke and rejected by US news outlets, appeared after the war in the European press. A clipping from the British Observer featuring the picture is paired with British-Iraqi artist Dia al-Azzawi’s painting Victim’s Portrait (1991), a rendering of the soldier’s face that replaces the burned flesh with patches of vivid color in what seems like an act of holding and recovery.

Some of the most powerful works in the show were made by journalists, among them pen-and-ink drawings made in Iraq between 2004 and 2017 by Guardian reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and watercolors by American painter Steve Mumford, who acted as an embedded artist with US military units there from 2003 to 2008. The exhibition devotes a room to pictures taken by photojournalist Susan Meiselas, who made several trips to Northern Iraq as part of a team collecting evidence of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 Anfal genocide of the Kurds. Her photographs showing the excavation of mass graves are not for the faint of heart.

Though the Gulf War lasted only a month, the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations in 1990 stayed in effect until the start of the Iraq War in 2003. In the show’s second section, devoted to these years, the difference between art being made within Iraq and the art being made in the world beyond becomes even more marked.

With the exception of Oday Rasheed’s 2005 film Underexposure—a semi-fictional narrative, shot on stock acquired from looters, about an Iraqi filmmaker trying to make a movie during the American occupation—the photographic and video work in this section is largely by Western artists like Paul Chan, who traveled to Baghdad in 2003, filming the city and its inhabitants for his video Baghdad in No Particular Order. In Iraq, where print and electronic media and even lead pencils were forbidden under the embargo’s rules, artists such as Kareem Risan and Rafa Nasiri made handmade albums known as dafatir (“notebooks”), while the great Nuha al-Radi (1941–2004), whose 2003 book Baghdad Diaries recounted the effects of the first Gulf War on ordinary Iraqis, abandoned ceramics for the junk assemblages she called Embargo Art.

In 2003, America invaded Iraq again, its justifications for the invasion even more tenuous than for 1991’s Desert Storm. In his catalog essay, Eleey points out that while the 3500-4000 noncombatants died in the first Gulf War, it is believed that our sanctions between the wars were responsible for the deaths of some 350,000 children, and that since 2003, the Iraq War has killed 200,000 civilians.

One of the questions asked by the exhibition is how one might illustrate such carnage. In Hanaa Malallah’s painting Ruins Roar (2015) it’s represented by an expanse of burned scraps of canvas. In Thomas Hirschhorn’s Touching Reality (2012), a person scrolls through the artist’s collection of photographs of mutilated corpses. And in Louise Lawler’s No Official Estimate (Sun/Sol), 2004/2007, six identical photographs of a patch of sunlight on a wall are each accompanied by a different estimate of the number of Iraqi civilian deaths since 2003.

Occupying US forces had access to film and cameras, and Sean Synder’s grid of snapshots taken by military personnel and contractors, culled from image-sharing websites, shows both moments from the soldiers’ quotidian lives (in touristy snapshots of zoos and street signs) and their indisputable power over Iraq’s citizenry (in pictures shot from behind mounted guns). In 2004, the release of incendiary amateur photos of Iraqi detainees being abused at Baghdad’s Abu Gharib prison provoked worldwide condemnation; the show includes Judith Joy Ross’s 2006–2007 black-and-white portraits of anti-war protesters at rallies across the US. Nearby, Martha Rosler’s 2004 photomontage Hooded Captives, from “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series,” reprises her series protesting the Vietnam War for a new era of atrocities, while Tony Cokes horrifying text video Evil.16: (Torture.Musik), 2009-2011 describes how music played at intolerable levels was used to torture prisoners.

The last section of the exhibition focuses on art made after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Here, the leitmotif is return—Farocki documents attempts to relieve PTSD in Iraq war veterans with the same technologies used to train them; Urok Shirhan’s Remake of Paul Chan’s “Baghdad in No Particular Order” (2012) replaces Chan’s outsider’s view with similar video shot by her father in Baghdad before the Iraq war; Michael Rakowitz restarts his Iraqi grandfather’s import/export business; and Kurdish artist Jamal Penjweny’s wonderful 2010 photographs of Iraqis holding photographs of Saddam Hussein’s face over their own faces points up how Iraqis continue to be defined by the image of the late dictator.

Though as rich and many-textured as the rest of the show, these last rooms are haunted by past failures and uncertain futures. The Iraq War ended in 2011; however, American troops recalled to the region in 2014 to combat ISIS are still on the ground there today. And because of Donald Trump’s travel ban, several of the artists in the show were unable to come to America for the opening (others, Katrib told ARTnews, have had no wish to). Approaching its subject from multiple viewpoints, this wrenching show performs the vital task of countering simplistic narratives, even as it demonstrates how new technologies and media platforms, now more sophisticated than ever, may be used to either dismantle such narratives or promulgate them.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices, and given the large number of artists included, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Frank Lebon, One Blood

Frank Lebon, One Blood

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Little Big Man Books (here). Softbound with dust jacket, 10 x 7 inches, 292 pages with numerous color photographs. Includes a text ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter