MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary outpost in Queens, occupies an outwardly unassuming space in a converted school building. The museum’s entrance is a squat structure of grey concrete, an exercise in brutalism so understated that I walked straight past it a few times before realizing I had arrived. But the contents of its cavernous whitewashed galleries on that grey day in February could hardly be described as unassuming.
Theater of Operations: Gulf Wars 1991-2011, an ambitious and sprawling exhibition, occupied PS1’s entire building from November 2019 through March 2020, closing right before the wave of institutional shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. This was my final trip to a museum before quarantine, and the experience has stuck with me, not just as a last blast in the outside world (all the way to New York!), but as a rich source of philosophical questions and moral quandaries that I now have time—maybe too much time—to mull over.
The United States’ 1991 military engagement in the Gulf War officially lasted only 42 days. But its aftermath, including the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, has resonated through the decades, heralding a slew of cultural changes that continue to haunt the world today: increased surveillance, drone warfare, and a 24-hour news cycle that profits off mass hysteria. By presenting an array of works by well-known Western artists alongside the perspectives of Iraqi artists who have received less international renown, Theater of Operations presented a startling juxtaposition of aesthetic and everyday experiences on either side of the continental divide. It charts the war’s divergent trajectories, from sanctions and the looming shadow of violence for artists in the Persian Gulf region to American TV pundits endlessly debating oil and terrorism alongside banal popular culture.The show was rife with contradictions, most visibly the aesthetic contrasts staged intentionally by the curators. But there was also the cognitive dissonance of learning about the war from the comfort of a sterile white box, seemingly detached from the outside world, and an acute awareness of the museum’s own uncomfortable relationship with its artists’ political statements.
I spoke with one of the curators, Ruba Katrib, who told me that the curatorial team had several goals for the exhibition. They aimed to highlight the toll of US intervention on the Persian Gulf region both during and after the wars, the transformation of military and media technologies, and the lived experience of Iraqi and Kuwaiti citizens, outside the broad stereotypes familiar to American audiences: “terrorists, oil sheikhs, and women covered in black from head to toe,” in the words of featured artist Nuha Al-Radi. In particular, the curators hoped to bring the work of Iraqi and Kuwaiti artists to the forefront and place them in opposition to Western art-world darlings like Thomas Hirschhorn and Martha Rosler, who have been showered with praise for commenting on the war from a safe, intellectual distance.
Katrib told me that because of the show’s subject matter, “the art press has not understood the show at all…it’s been the non-art press that has really gotten it.” Several reviews from the art world criticized the exhibit for being too blunt in its messaging, raising a debate about whether art sacrifices aesthetic depth when it pursues polemics. Other reviews have praised the show for giving attention to an under-examined history. However, this recognition of the exhibit’s political nature also invites critics to hold it to a higher standard of ethical scrutiny.
MoMA has been embroiled in controversy since it reopened after renovations in October of 2019. In anticipation of the museum’s relaunch, grassroots activists and artists began calling for MoMA board member Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, to divest from ICE contracts, private prisons, weapons manufacturing, and fossil fuels. When Theater of Operations opened at PS1 a month later, 37 artists featured in the exhibition signed an open letter calling for MoMA’s board of trustees to cut ties with its chairman, Leon Black. Black’s company owns Constellis Holdings, formerly known as Blackwater—a defense contractor infamous for its war crimes in Iraq. In the ensuing months, several artists continued to protest by having their work removed from the show. They pointed out the hypocrisy of MoMA mounting an antiwar exhibit without acknowledging its own relationship to American imperialism, demanding to know: how can the museum claim to radically critique recent history while remaining complicit in the present?
Walking into the labyrinthine exhibit, I could immediately see the curators’ wide-ranging approach and selections at work. There was a clear attention to sensory balance and catharsis: I first entered a darkened room with a jarring, sensory-overload video installation, followed by a gallery whose wide expanse of smooth white wall was punctuated by small, richly colored etchings of allegorical figures, and elsewhere encountered a palate cleanser of pieces which dated from the era but related only indirectly to the war.
One monumental work, Hanaa Malallah’s She/He Has No Picture, occupied a gallery near the entrance, serving as a chronological and emotional anchor. Malallah used burnt and torn canvas scraps to create a mural with portraits of people killed by American laser-guided missiles at a public shelter in Baghdad in 1991. Only 100 of the 408 victims had a photo, so the 308 others are represented instead by their names converted into a string of numbers, each letter replaced by its value in the Arabic system of numerology, interspersed with laser-cut brass plaques that reflect the viewer’s own face.
On the opposite wall, black and white geometric drawings by the American conceptual artist Sol Lewitt complement the somber atmosphere without competing for attention. Lewitt’s signature technique provides detailed, numerical instructions for drawing that can be followed without the artist present, usually drawn directly onto the wall, and eventually erased or painted over. He uses the technical and creative labor of the people remotely assembling his works to play with questions of authorship, standardization, and ephemerality in the way society values art. The two artists face each other across the gallery in monochrome harmony, but the visual dialogue between the works also generates a subtle tension between the personal and mechanized aspects of art and war: who gets the luxury of seeing minimalism, detached rationality, and calculated precision as aesthetic choices, when for others they represent the imminent threat of dehumanizing violence?
As the exhibit went on, this affective and philosophical contrast in artists’ relationship to wartime culture became increasingly evident, just as the curators had intended. American and European artists, who experienced the war primarily from a distance, tended to lean into the brash, garish imagery of early-2000s popular culture and political commentary. In his essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that the media’s oversaturation with images and discussion of the war—especially its framing as a “war” in the first place, implying a level of organized combat occurring far away from civilian lives—actually prevented people in the West from understanding it as a real and immediate atrocity. In line with Baudrillard’s thinking, the exhibit’s Western artists showcased their understanding of the wars as a site of capitalist corruption and technological alienation, but in doing so contributed to the very information overload their works sought to critique.
French photographer Jean-Luc Molène’s La Guerre - 17 janvier 1991 (which translates to War - January 17, 1991), for example, shows a seemingly ordinary day on a Parisian street, with the title and a few subtle splashes of red the only hint of conflict. Similarly, American artist Cory Arcangel’s “Bomb Iraq” is a simple desktop computer game that prompts the player to launch missiles at a blank blob of a country, demonstrating how the impersonality of drones makes it possible to carelessly end lives. These artists sought to confront the war’s banality in everyday European and American life, but simultaneously created new artifacts of that detachment. When they did confront the brutalities of war on the ground, American and European artists overwhelmingly portrayed the violence through the trappings of military technology—armored soldiers, guns, and bombs. Even a work like Tony Cokes’ Evil.16: (Torture.Musik), which places the viewer in a room blasting American rock music at top volume alongside neon lights and projected text, describing and simulating a method routinely used to torture Iraqi detainees, wields its high-tech political commentary like a blunt instrument.
These detached, sardonic pieces created an uncomfortable dissonance when placed alongside poignant, vulnerable works produced by those living through the wars on the ground. Prominent in Iraqi artists’ work, but almost entirely absent from that of Western artists, was the long period of sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations. The presence of American troops on the ground in Iraq had clearly violent (if unequal) implications for both countries, whereas the sanctions had no effect on Westerners’ access to daily necessities or creative resources. The celebrated Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s massive full-room installation Hotel Democracy, a towering structure comprising two stories of miniature hotel rooms, contemplates democracy’s contradictions from a cerebral distance with the aid of images culled from mass media—along with the luxuries of time, space, funding, and the ability to purchase 44 television sets. The piece radiated an imposing but impersonal gravitas. During the sanctions period in Iraq, however, even pencils could be hard to come by. A new creative medium proliferated known as dafatir, which are small notebooks crammed with drawings, paintings, and collage. Dafatir are portable, easy to conceal, and diaristic, presenting deeply moving personal accounts and explosive imagery with limited space and materials. Some dafatir used accordion-like pages to create a single continuous image and narrative up to five yards long. After viewing works like Hotel Democracy, which had already been displayed and received extensive publicity prior to this exhibit, it was gratifying to see the dafatir accorded due respect and breathing room, fully unfurled and claiming whole galleries to tell their stories.
What is the goal of an exhibit like this? Many of the works were visually striking, and the political stance was relatively clear, but for whom and for what did this exhibit happen? Was it an academic exercise? An activist one? If it aimed to speak truth to power, how did it make sure someone was listening? How was it trying (and succeeding/failing) to reach its community in Queens and beyond? I don’t have satisfactory answers to these questions yet, and I don’t necessarily expect the museum to, either. The experiential and social value of museums can’t always be distilled down to rational, practical, or utilitarian answers. But I’ll continue to ask these questions until I begin to get a response that at least approaches satisfactory—which, for now, I can’t quite say about MoMA.
A few things stood out alongside the art pieces while I wandered around the exhibition. One was the relative sparseness of labels throughout the show. While the current thinking around gallery text is that “less is more”—that most visitors are more engaged by a brief open-ended description than a lengthy analysis—I was surprised to find that many pieces had no label at all. I was fortunate enough to attend a tour by one of the curators, during which I learned, among many other things, that etchings of a dove that I had taken for granted as a generic peace symbol were in fact a bold antiwar protest for which the artist faced severe consequences. Most of the people at the museum that day seemed to be, like me, part of an academic tour group, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether an unaccompanied visitor would come away with the same contextual understanding. Although visitors can venture over to the bookstore to peruse the exhibit’s companion essay collection, the valuable context it contains is largely absent from the gallery walls.
Artwork with labels, artwork without labels, lengthy essays separated from the art—as someone who works in a museum, I realize all this talk risks devolving into fussy industry navel-gazing. But there was one more thing that stood out to me in this exhibition: the periodic appearance of no art and no explanation. That is to say, a blank patch of wall or a dead TV screen with a tiny placard indicating only that “this work has been removed at the request of the artist.” While PS1 has been a sister institution of MoMA since 2000, the staff I spoke to ardently stressed that the two museums have separate boards and governance structures—implying that PS1 has no control over (and is not controlled by) the toxic philanthropy of Fink and Black. However, PS1’s response to protestors reveals the limits of the museum’s autonomy. Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz’s requests that the museum pause his video were repeatedly ignored; when he visited in January to pause it himself and display a statement explaining his decision, the museum quietly removed his sign and restarted the video. Similarly, when artist Ali Yass announced his plan to tear up his drawings, the museum removed them from the exhibition before he got the chance, stating simply that “there are no circumstances under which MoMA PS1 would accept the destruction of artworks.”
The museum’s censorship of Iraqi artists protesting the very issues the exhibit claims to confront is particularly disappointing. These incidents also raise further questions about power dynamics in museum spaces, since PS1 is a non-collecting institution (meaning they exhibit artists’ works but do not purchase them), supposedly offering artists ownership of their own creations and a platform for their political voice. Ironically, the exhibition’s run has been an unintentional demonstration of imperialism in action—how difficult it can be for a historically powerful institution to cede the hegemony it is accustomed to holding, even in service of its own stated moral principles.
Later, scrolling through a PDF of the exhibit catalog, I was struck by how unsatisfying the tiny pixelated images were in contrast to the real thing—especially for an exhibit predicated on breaking down the dispassionate distance created by technological, televised warfare. The striking effect of a tiny notebook unspooled into a tapestry of time and experience, the stark side-by-side juxtapositions of works from opposite sides of the world, and the inescapable physicality of the war as portrayed by Iraqi artists could only be captured by seeing the pieces in a physical, in-person setting. But I also couldn’t escape the feeling that something was missing from the exhibition. Given the museum’s limited hours, there weren’t many visitors that day, and as we all drifted slowly around the cavernous building in a reverential silence, it felt more like a mausoleum than a space for ongoing critique and creation, resting on the laurels of having made a statement. Each time I passed by a blank space with the simple label “this work has been removed at the request of the artist,” I thought about the explanations they could have displayed—the artists’ urgent, ongoing response to the very injustices portrayed throughout the exhibit—and how much more dynamic this would make the exhibit feel.
Theater of Operations closed as scheduled—the first weekend of March—but many other exhibits around the world have not been so lucky. What was already a soul-searching moment for museums, which have long approached public engagement with the mindset of “if you build it, they will come,” has been made all the more urgent by the pandemic. Questions about representation, financial ethics, the museum’s responsibility to its local community, and the uncertain future of live arts in a digital age are now impossible to avoid. But the world’s response to the loss of its in-person experiences, and the enthusiasm with which the public has greeted museums’ quarantine outreach projects, provides a clue to a way forward. Museums are at their best when they engage openly and productively with pressing contemporary issues, not simply by holding objects up for display. After all, why should the public trust a museum that argues for its own survival on the basis of art’s political power but won’t even answer to its own artists? If museums want to carve out a role in the 21st century as a worthy home for art, community, and public discourse, they need to demonstrate their value as a space where creative choices can have real, physical and political consequences.
LUCY DUDA B’20 is ghostwriting Baudrillard’s posthumous sequel, “The Pandemic Did Not Take Place.”