Memorializing Iraq

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Art, Articles

Some of the most famous monuments have never been built. Vladimir Tatlin’s monument to the Third International, a tilted spiral that was to have been larger than the Eiffel Tower, never made it out of the design phase. Architect Louis Kahn toiled long and hard on a “Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs” for Battery Park, but the large, inscription-less glass columns went the way of many other proposed Holocaust memorials in New York City: unrealized.

Some monuments are engineering nightmares. Others succumb to financial difficulties. Then there are the political debates that frequently ensue about whether a certain structure properly conveys the proper message. Maya Lin’s breathtaking monument to the U.S. soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, now such a draw to Washington, DC, almost didn’t get built. The two black granite walls, inscribed with the names of fallen U.S. soldiers, were not patriotic enough, cried some critics, adding that the monument was hidden from view in a gash in the ground as the U.S. government remained embarrassed about the venture. Some detractors even pointed to Lin’s Asian heritage as a strike against the project.

To get around the problems that block the creation of so many monuments, the artist Joseph DeLappe has come up with an ingenious way to memorialize the many civilians who have died in the current Iraq War. He has invited artists and architects to submit their proposals for a monument to a website where they will be judged by jurors and the public. The website will then be the monument to the 81,632-1,120,000 civilians who have died. In a world increasingly dominated by Facebook and Google and YouTube, such a virtual monument may well have as much longevity as anything made of concrete or granite.
Virtual Art

Joseph DeLappe is an artist comfortable with the virtual world. When I interviewed him, he was walking on a treadmill in the New York City artspace Eyebeam in a recreation of Gandhi’s famous Salt March of 1930. Every step of the 240 miles he is taking corresponds to the journey of his Gandhi avatar in Second Life, a virtual world of meet-ups, suburban dream homes, and commercial spaces. In another work, “Dead-in-Iraq,” DeLappe enters the Pentagon’s on-line training video game, America’s Army, and types in the names of U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq, one by one, above the bodies of his fallen avatars.

DeLappe began to think of a memorial to Iraqi civilians in early spring 2004, when all 5,200 entries for the World Trade Center memorial were posted online. “To give access to this entire grouping of proposals was really intriguing,” he says. “It was almost a year since the Iraq invasion had started. My first thought was: I bet there will be no process like this to memorialize all the Iraqi civilians in the Iraq War.”

He sent out 50 emails to artists soliciting ideas for such a memorial. Roughly half of these artists have sent in their ideas. After a much wider distribution of this request, more than 70 proposals came in and are now available on the website for the public to see.

“The goal is to create a repository of these ideas,” DeLappe says, “and to recognize the fact that there will not be likely an official memorial to the civilian casualties. Some artists have not proposed anything because they want to see something happen. But there is a possibility to develop this into an exhibition or a book.”

Still, DeLappe is comfortable with the memorial remaining virtual and not having a specific result, namely a winning entry. In the first round of jury review, each juror will put together individual lists of top ten proposals. But DeLappe wants to set up the website to accommodate future submissions and future reviews. And the public’s ratings will coexist with the professional evaluations. “It’s an imagined process and an imagined memorial,” he explains. “It should have a nebulous conclusion in the same sense. Consider the issue. It is so untenable and ungraspable. We don’t have any firm numbers on the civilian casualties. It’s such an under-the-radar issue in the United States. Not having a final result is conceptually on the same level as the issue itself.”
The Proposals

Some of the proposed monuments in DeLappe’s project follow the approach of Louis Kahn in using abstraction to convey the ungraspable. Barry Assed, for instance, proposes an 8-foot-by-16-foot granite slab in black and grey tones. “The interior separations of the shapes will simulate cuts and tears allowing light to pass through creating a feeling of hope that this war will come to an end,” he writes. In a similarly abstract design, Almir Surkovic imagines a narrow white nautical shape, perhaps an unwinding funeral shroud.

Athanasia Karaioannoglou nods toward the landscape art of Andy Goldsworthy (illuminated in the transcendent documentary Rivers and Tides) by recommending that every March 19, the date of the invasion, the river that runs through Baghdad be colored red. “The glow of candles on the riverbanks offsets the solemn glow of red underwater lights in the river,” she writes. “For an entire day, the river is red as the lights maintain their vigil. Yet as the day draws to an end, the lights are off, the candles are blown out and life goes on. Life has to go on.”

Michael Magrath, Lot’s Tribe, 2008, all rights reserved,
By making his sculptures out of salt, Michael Magrath manages to achieve both solidity and impermanence. His Lot’s Tribe: Salt Witnesses stood in downtown Seattle as “sudden incursions of unwelcome reality into our daily lives, until the rains and vandalism finally took their toll.” He proposes to bring his witnesses to the major cities of countries that supported the invasion.

Beverly Naidus’s memorial takes place in a tent. “There are two cots in the tent,” she writes. “One day per week there are real people lying in the cots for two hours. The bodies lie opposite to each other. One with his/her head at the foot of the other. One of the people is a Vet and the other person has lost someone (not a soldier) due to war. Performers could also read the story of a Vet and the story of someone who has lost someone to war. During the rest of the week when the cots are empty, we will hear audio – stories of Vets and stories of people who have lost someone (not a soldier) due to a war.”

Some of the memorials are almost baroque in their conception. Alyssa Wright proposes mapping Baghdad onto Boston and then providing people with backpacks outfitted with a Global Positioning System and stuffed with confetti. When a person walks into a part of Boston that corresponds to a place of violence in Baghdad, the backpack explodes and sends confetti all over the place. “Like a mixture between smoke, shrapnel and the white blossoms of a cherry tree, this fog of war completely engulfs the wearer,” she writes. “Each piece of confetti is inscribed with the name of a civilian who died in the war, and the circumstances of their death.”
Diversity of Responses

The diversity of approaches is remarkable:

* A three-panel painting of an aerial attack on civilians in homage to Diego Rivera.
* A representation of a wall destroyed by a bomb attack.
* A billboard proclaiming This War Is Unjust.
* A thin copper strip that encircles Baghdad.
* Photographs of a model in various locations wearing a T-shirt saying Kiss Me I’m Iraqi on one side and Kill Me I’m Iraqi on the other.
* Test of tubes of blood substituting for the profits of major oil companies as represented in a bar graph.
* A garden in the shape of Iraq.

Not all the proposed monuments are sculptural or even visual. Some artists submitted music. There is a proposal for a somber dance piece. In another proposal, families that have lost someone in the war participate in kite-making workshops and produce kites that memorialize their loss.

And, in keeping perhaps with Joseph DeLappe’s frequent modus operandi, some artists have stayed entirely within the virtual world. There is a proposal for a MySpace page created for each civilian casualty and a proposal for a virtual procession of Iraqi avatars through a computer-generated version of the famous Ishtar Gate (once in Babylon and now in Berlin). One artist encourages users to download a diamond icon for use in Google Maps to represent civilian casualties.

It is not difficult to find pictures of the famous monuments that have not been built. Tatlin’s tilted spiral often shows up on the cover of books on revolutionary art. Kahn’s Holocaust memorial has a certain renewed lease on life thanks to the Internet. But Joseph DeLappe’s website devoted to proposed monuments to the Iraqi civilians who have died in the war is something altogether different. A monument in itself, the website reveals what is so often hidden and so little memorialized: the people who have been obliterated twice over, first by bombs and then by indifference.

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