When the bombs started falling on Iraq, British artist Jeremy Deller was sitting in America glued to the television.
“I watched as much as I could stomach,” he says from his home in London.
A conceptual video artist who won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2004, Deller has been obsessed with Iraq ever since. He considers himself lucky to live in the United Kingdom, he says, where news media were “a lot more skeptical during the buildup and afterwards, and more probing of our leaders.”
Now Deller is taking his obsession for a ride. He'll depart from New York City in a recreational vehicle towing a mangled hunk of metal that looks more like a half-chewed dinosaur skull than what it really is: the twisted remnants of a suicide bomber's car that killed 38 people and wounded hundreds at a crowded book market on Al-Mutanabbi Street in central Baghdad. The street is named after a famous 10th-century poet whose name translates as “he who passes himself off as a prophet.”
Joining Deller will be Esam Pasha, an Iraqi artist who worked as a translator for Coalition Forces, and Jonathan Harvey, a former American soldier and psychological operations specialist. When Deller parks the RV on the street near Virginia Commonwealth University, he hopes to inspire informal public discussion, with onlookers encouraged to have one-on-one conversations with these men about their experiences in Iraq.
Deller says the project isn't political, and that taking it into the public realm is a “strange idea, really, because you lose control of an artwork, which should be interesting. We have no idea what will happen.”
Creative Time, a New York nonprofit devoted to public art, is presenting “It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq.” Artistic motivations aside, it's difficult to see this as an objective, nonpolitical program, considering Deller hand-picked participants after interviewing Iraqi refugees he characterized as “almost evangelical … feeling it was their duty because their voices were not being heard in the U.S.”
But he says people who attended the project at the New Museum in New York were often surprised by what they found. “Many came expecting an anti-war show, but its not anti-war, or pro-war either,” Deller says. “They expected their own ideas to be reinforced, but it's more complicated.”
Jeremy Deller will speak Friday, March 27, at 11 a.m. at the VCU student commons, 907 Floyd Ave., and “It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq” will take place from 1 to 5 p.m. in the Park Plaza area of campus.