Tea and sympathy
The MCA wants you to talk about Iraq.
It’s hard to look away from the car—or rather, what used to be a car—lying in a first-floor gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), where “Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq” brings together Iraqi émigrés, American soldiers, schoolkids and surprised tourists six days a week.
Caught in a March 2007 bombing in Baghdad, the car is now a rusted, twisted hunk of metal. It could be mistaken for an abstract sculpture if not for the photographs surrounding it: One shows Al Mutanabbi, the street where the bombing took place, some time before the incident—when it was thronged with booksellers. Another photo captures the street just after the bombing: Two rescue workers scream for help amid heaps of charred rubble.
Deller’s counterpoint to the car is a set of cushy white chairs surrounding a low table. The English artist, who implemented this project at museums in New York and Los Angeles earlier this year, wants experts on Iraq to engage museum visitors in a dialogue about the region. The MCA’s Tricia Van Eck and Diana Nawi coordinated an impressive roster of local presenters, including Donny George Youkhanna, former director of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, and Maj. Tammy Duckworth, an official in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs who served in Iraq and ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008.
When we attended “It Is What It Is,” curatorial staff served tea and Middle Eastern sesame-seed cookies while facilitating discussions with the experts and visitors. Some people hover briefly but don’t sit down; others stay for hours. “One of our speakers, [Iraqi-American filmmaker] Usama Alshaibi, says this is the Iraqi thing to do,” Nawi explains. “You invite someone to share sweets and tea with you.”
Cookies defuse tension remarkably well. Though a conversation with Chuck Tucker grows testy as it turns to U.N. sanctions and American bombings in Iraq prior to the 2003 war, Tucker—a retired major general in the Air National Guard who heads DePaul’s International Human Rights Law Institute—doesn’t lose his composure. Tucker participated in Deller’s project because, he laments, members of the military share less and less “common space [and] common language” with those who aren’t in the armed forces.
Speaker Esam Pasha, an Iraqi artist and translator who moved to the U.S. in 2005, describes what everyday life is like back home: “You yourself take it for granted that when you turn on the faucet, water will come out. When you hit the switch on the wall, the electricity turns on. In Iraq, it hasn’t been like that for the longest time. The major thing in Iraqi life is uncertainty.”
When we tell Van Eck even our brief exposure to “It Is What It Is” shook up our beliefs, the curator says, “What I’ve learned most from this experience is that America wants to make things simple, and issues are extremely complex.” It’s clear to her, however, that Americans hunger for more accurate information about Iraq than we’ve received during the past seven years. “Here’s an opportunity to have a first-hand experience,” she adds, “to talk to someone.”
“Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq” runs through November 15 at the MCA.