War Artist: Steve McQueen and Postproduction Art

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INTRODUCTION

Since it opened in 1917, the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London has been acquiring art in various ways. Most of the museum's art collection deals with the two world wars, and drawing and painting are the favored media. There is an emphasis on art as a document or record, although this does not preclude experimental work. Since 1972, the museum has specifically commissioned art related to contemporary conflict involving British forces. Currently the Art Commissions Committee of the Imperial War Museum has eight members and is chaired by sculptor Bill Woodrow. Gill Smith, the secretary of the committee, recently explained to me how artists are commissioned:

  The process which the Committee adopts for selecting and commissioning
  artists is that a short list of artists is drawn up. This will
  comprise any artists who might have written in to express an interest
  in a future commission as well as artists (not necessarily always
  established) who the Museum would like to have represented in their
  collection, or whom the Committee believes might present a good
  approach to a particular subject. The list is narrowed down to some
  6-8 artists.... Prior to [each] interview, the artists are sent a
  short brief but the Committee does not at this point necessarily
  expect an artist to know exactly what the result of a commission might
  be. A period of research, which would normally involve a visit to the
  "combat zone," is undertaken and a proposal submitted at a later date
  to the Committee for their agreement before the final work is made.
  The Committee very much realizes that commissions of this sort must,
  to a certain extent, be artist-led in order to achieve the best
  results. (1)

In recent years, commissioned artists have been sent to Northern Ireland (Ken Howard, 1973, 1977); the Falkland Islands (Linda Kitson, 1982); the Gulf (John Keane, 1991); Bosnia (Peter Howson, 1993) and Kosovo (Graham Fagen, 1999/2000); Afghanistan (Paul Seawright/Langlands & Bell, 2002); and most recently, Steve McQueen was sent to Iraq (2003). (2)

For McQueen to create significant work in response to the war in Iraq is easier said than done. In late 2003 he visited the war zone and spoke with British troops in and around Basra. However, plans to film in Baghdad were disrupted by the security situation. Such practical limitations were no doubt compounded by creative considerations. For what can an artist create that differs substantially from the work of Victorian artist-reporters, or contemporary media professionals like photojournalists or editorial cartoonists? And what can an artist learn about a complex war situation after a brief visit, under official supervision? Not a lot, feared Nico Israel, whose 2004 article for Artforum about artists in Iraq specifically mentions McQueen's lightning tour:

  Given McQueen's filmic track record, he will almost surely produce
  something provocative and weighty, but can McQueen really learn that
  much more in seven days "on site," in the presence of Defence Ministry
  representatives, than, say, George W. Bush can learn talking turkey
  with US servicemen? (3)

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He concludes:

  Is tourism-as-art ... part of the same set of forces as art-as-tourism
  (biennials, fairs, etc.) with the same power structures undergirding
  them? If so, the more difficult subsequent question--how and whether
  it is possible to avoid being embedded, either as a tourist, artist,
  or journalist (even art journalist)--remains to be answered. (4)

That McQueen managed to subsequently produce something "provocative and weighty," despite the multiple problems outlined above, is worth further examination and discussion.

QUEEN AND COUNTRY

After the short, abortive trip to Iraq, McQueen returned home to Amsterdam. There, he came up with a new idea that did not require extended time in the war zone: an installation based around commemorative stamps for British soldiers who had lost their lives in the conflict. …