Museums in New York City rarely present exhibitions that focus on international politics or the political expressions of foreign artists. They have commented on the political in America, as recent nuanced and cogent exhibitions dealing with African-American art movements, women’s rights, and gun violence, for example, attest. But foreign politics doesn’t seem to capture the interest or attract the numbers required to justify a costly exhibition.
The exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 at MoMA PS1 is thus a brave effort, and a necessary addition to an art world program that falls short of internationally-themed and timely exhibitions. In a striking coincidence, this show on the consequences of American interference in Iraq comes at a time when the country is convulsed in the largest protests it has seen since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Much of the current social unrest in Iraq can be viewed as a legacy of the American presence there. (See a related article, “Inside Iraq’s Protests: Students Are Defiant in Their Demands.”)
MoMA PS1’s chief curator Peter Eleey and curator Ruba Katrib make it clear in interviews that Theater of Operations serves “to remind people of the importance and significance of conflicts. It’s not a show about the war but a show on the arts made in response to the war. It’s about the telling of art in the context of its own and by what already exists—the shared history of the region and history of the West.”
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Featuring 88 artists—including six Kuwaitis, 30 Iraqis and 30 Americans—the works selected capture multiple reactions to this 20-year period of military events. These aren’t works simply about the visuals of the war, but about the toll on the landscape of invaded land; the disappearances of people; the torture of captured Iraqi soldiers; and the implications of international economic sanctions against Iraq, which affected creative production and constrained artistic output owing to the limitations of material.
Invasions Shown Live
Theater of Operations has been installed across the whole of MoMA PS1, a vast space that fills a former school building. (MoMA PS1 is a showcase for contemporary art in Queens, N.Y., curatorially separate from the main Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.)