Green Zone / Red Zone

Abdel Abidin, Common Voices, 2006. Video installation and 10 stacks of paper cards. Courtesy Nat Muller

The Hague
Green Zone / Red Zone
October 20, 2007–January 31, 2008

The Hague, seat of government of the Netherlands and home to the International Criminal Court, does not immediately conjure up images of a contemporary arts hub. Still, it may well be that its particular situation renders it a compelling locale for a venue focusing on arts and politics. Gemak was born out of a partnership between the Hague’s municipal museum and the Free Academy and opened its doors to the public on October 20, 2007, with the exhibition ‘Green Zone / Red Zone.’ The opening exhibition took Iraq as its primary referent in investigating the myriad ways in which control is exercised within urban settings.

The tone of ‘Green Zone / Red Zone’ was set by two works one encountered on entry: Dutch artist Marc Bijl’s Triumph: Proposal for an Iraqi Memorial (2007), originally commissioned by London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts for its 2007 ‘Memorial to the Iraq War’ (and reproduced especially for Gemak), and a car wreck from a suicide car bombing in March 2007 on Baghdad’s Mutanabi Street, painstakingly imported from Iraq to the Netherlands. The juxtaposition of Bijl’s statuesque piece and an object of war devoid of traditional “art value” (save for its placement in a gallery space) seemed an encounter between two seemingly disparate discourses. Bijl’s sculpture, a deconstruction and material interpretation of the Iraqi flag in its original colors, was a fourmeter-high, three-star structure with the original flag’s “Allahu Akbar” scrawled in graffiti on the green star. A white star sported a reference to the army, under the epithet “To serve and obey.” As much as one might have wanted to read Triumph’s comment as an ironic one, the sheer monumentality of the piece ran the risk of encouraging a monolithic literal reading.

The car wreck, on the other hand, offered a more nuanced set of questions for audiences to linger over: Is it ethical to place the detritus of a mortal attack in an art space? Is it ethical for the viewer to admire its sculptural forms of contorted iron? What do the decontextualization of an object, by stripping it of its historical locus and narrative, and its subsequent recontextualization, by placing it in a foreign environment, mean? In the end, what saved the wreck from falling into the trap of spectacle and artistic instrumentalization was the fact that it wasn’t appropriated by an authorial artistic or curatorial voice, and that it was free of exploitative news-media packaging.

Personal narratives figured heavily in the Open Shutters Project, which featured the stories and photographs of eight Iraqi women. Even those inclined to be skeptical of the artistic value of “humanitarian art projects” — the United Nations Development Programme was one of the funders of Open Shutters — had to admit that the photographs and accounts succeeded in blending a distinct poetics with the gravity of their subject (gender issues, terror, confinement). The project’s flaw lay in its presentation: why did the Open Shutters organizers opt for an Orientalist ornamental design, which clustered the photos and narratives together in a visual spread that resembled the imprisonment of a harem, complete with minimalist bows and arches?

Most works in ‘Green Zone / Red Zone’ didn’t deal directly with questions of territoriality and control as described in the show’s mandate, but rather investigated loss — of discourse, of meaning, of language — within a context of protracted violence and strife. In that sense, the exhibition’s title was misleading. Adel Abidin’s video installation Common Vocabularies (2006), for example, was a case in point. A looped onechannel installation showed us a young Arabic-speaking girl struggling to pronounce a dictionary of war: “massacre,” “suicidal,” “ration share,” “elections,” “terrorist,” “fucking bad luck,” “improvised explosive device,” “hegemony,” “occupation,” “reconstruction.” The repetition of those seemingly random words, by a girl too young to know their meaning but old enough to be consciously exposed to them on a daily basis, became a rehearsal in depleted semantics. Accompanying the installation were stacks of takeaway cards with the words written in Arabic script, their phonetic Roman transcription, and their English translation. The cards’ uniformity and disposability signaled the incapacity of language to express the traumas of war but simultaneously reminded us of the short-lived and expendable news value of those words.

Installations by UK-based Iraqi artist Rashad Selim sought to recover meaning within multilayered compositions. Chaos was framed by the semblance of (a past) order in the found debris that constituted Souvenir from the Ministry of Justice (2007), while in The Flower of Baghdad (Ministry of Interior) (2007), viewers were offered a tableau that took the map of Baghdad as its base, with a flower pattern ornamenting the Green Zone made of the smallest Iraqi coin denomination. This flower, which blooms around a highly controlled and surveilled patch of green amid the red, is only accessible to those who can afford it, and in that sense it doubles as Baghdad’s anus of consumption and commodification, designating the nasty and wry economy of war. In that respect, Hana Mal Allah’s textured canvases dialogued well with Selim’s installation pieces. In Manuscript of Mutanabi Street (2007), Baghdad City Map (2007), and Omen of the Burning City (2007), Mal Allah designed a cartography of obliterated memory and unmappable loss by combining shreds of burned cloth, geometric patterns, and patches of paint.

A similar preoccupation with texture was to be found in Iraqi-Dutch artist Nedim Kufi’s Song of the Rain, which combined a poem by the Iraqi poet Badir Shakir Al Sayyab with silk-screen prints, as well as in the huge photomontage canvases of British duo Peter Kennard and Cat Picton Phillipps. Kennard and Phillipps’s fusion of blown-up media images (featuring, among others, a more-than-life-size Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), with newsprint smudged with paint and charcoal, effectively bled and oozed out of their frames. At times, the pieces verged on hyperbole and sensationalism; yet the strongest works in the series, such as Presidential Seal (2006) and Control Room (2006), articulated a landscape that vividly captured the chaos and underlying power dynamics of war.

‘Green Zone / Red Zone,’ though skillfully connecting different genres and discourses, did have its flaws. As mentioned, the exhibition didn’t necessarily do what its title suggested. Moreover, the copious amount of documentary film, such as Paul Chan’s Baghdad in No Particular Order (2003) and material from the Independent Film and Television College in Baghdad, seemed superfluous to the exhibition, there as filler. And appropriate contextualization for the works on display, in the form of proper labeling, would have been appreciated — by this reviewer, at least.