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Art About War: MoMA PS1 Exhibition on The Gulf Wars

Ellen Levitt

Posted on February 17, 2020 19:18

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MoMA PS1, the premier modern art museum in Queens, NY, is showing a powerful exhibition of art about the Gulf Wars.

The Art of War is a famous historical treatise by Sun Tzu. I thought of this timeless document as my family and I visited the acclaimed MoMA PS 1 exhibition, "Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011." I realized that this powerful, haunting collection is "Art About War," and while there have been countless artworks since ancient times that have depicted warfare, this particular exhibition focuses on a recent series of wars that I have lived through but had not regarded as a major inspiration for artistic expression. 

But I was wrong, for the Gulf Wars and its many diplomatic dealings have apparently been a catalyst for various forms of art created by artists from Iraq, the US, Britain, and elsewhere. "Theater of Operations" brings together paintings, sculptures, mixed media pieces, films, photographs, and other works that run the gamut from abstract to gruesomely detailed, primitively styled to highly intricate, darkly humorous to heartbreakingly painful. 

Walking slowly through the many galleries devoted to this show, I recalled my frustration and confusion about the early Iraqi-Kuwaiti crises. I was a young high school teacher, trying to help my students make sense of this far-away war. A few of my students graduated and went to serve in the Gulf Wars, which made it more frightening and personal for me.

At MoMA PS1, I also gauged my teenaged daughter's reactions to the pieces of art we saw. They remarked a few times that what they had learned about the Gulf crises was rushed because "it was at the end of the term and we were getting ready for reviewing for the Regents" (NY State exams, and they were referring to the US History and Government exam in particular). Thus for teens and young adults, this exhibition is a way for them to gain insight into recent history; and for adults, this exhibition helps us to remember this near-yet-so-far series of events.

Several well-known artists are represented; such as Sue Coe, Fernando Botero, Richard Serra, Martha Rosler, Jenny Holzer. There are over 70 shown in the exhibition, including some as groups. Their individual fame is subsumed by the topic, seriousness, and historical depth. 

Among the pieces that touched and intrigued me was a painting by Thuraya Al-Baqsami, which uses old-style depictions of human to explore the pain of war; these mixed-media sculptures of people; this large collection of books that listed sources about Iraq and related topics; this Liberty Bell replica confusingly combined with ancient Iraqi symbols, and these toys soldiers forming a symbolic infinity symbol.

There were also horrifying pictures of mutilated bodies, both soldiers and civilians. There were explorations of torture methods which included loud rock songs. A helpful pamphlet was distributed to visitors. 

This exhibit is open through March 1st. See it and be overwhelmed.

Ellen Levitt

Posted on February 17, 2020 19:18

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Source: Daily Mail

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