July 17, 2010

An Iraq Soap Opera

I got to see Rachel Khedoori’s ‘The Iraq Book Project’ at Hauser & Wirth London this week. http://www.hauserwirth.com/exhibitions/667/rachel-khedoori/view/

(an excerpt from the publicity)
‘The Iraq Book Project’, Khedoori's ongoing documentary piece, consists of a chronological compilation of news articles found online using the search terms 'Iraq’, ‘Iraqi’ or ‘Baghdad’. The articles begin on 18 March 2003, the start date of the Iraq war, and in theory, can continue indefinitely. Presented as a series of large books on tall tables, the articles are sourced from a wide range of news services based all over the world, translated into English and formatted to flow together seamlessly; the only separation between the articles is the emboldened lettering of the titles, date and source. For this project, the gallery will be turned into a research centre with articles being compiled, printed and added to the books throughout the duration of the exhibition. ‘The Iraq Book Project’ is an attempt to find words for an indescribable event, highlighting the way in which perceptions of an event change depending upon time and place.

Seeing this show was an unexpected coincidence with my conversations with Derek Beaulieu re: conceptual poetry (since the show I intended to see was shut). I have had a couple of very similar submissions for the Text Festival from different artists and it has made me wonder given that there are so many versions of this choose-a-subject-google/findtext-amass-result process how is the quality of the artistic act understood. The case in point as experienced is quite disappointing in the Hauser & Wirth space. The visual rhythm of the books on the tables has a minimalist pleasure but this is undermined because there is no intention that this should be rigorous – the books are there because that is how the work is expanding rather than because of a proportional aesthetic – so one book which was not quite in line with the others became the transgressive focus of attention. (Carolyn Thompson, who was with me, had to straighten it in the end). In addition, because the concept generating the work is immediately stated, I found that I was much more fascinated with the mystery of what the only other book in the room was – namely the paperback being read by the young invigilator in the corner of the room (sadly it turned out to be Ian McEwan).

My response to this work was probably the opposite of what the artist intends; while it attempts “to find words for an indescribable event”, the books include endless words that are describing the event and what the viewer actually does is bring their own perception of Iraq to the work. That is something that all artworks do but I found myself irritated by this dialogue between my response to Iraq and an artistic gesture that fundamentally abrogates the artist’s responsibility and turns the ‘indescribable event’ into a structure more akin to a soap opera.

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