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Baghdad Car, IWMN

Catherine May comes face to face with a suicide bomber's work

Written by . Published on May 22nd 2011.

Baghdad Car, IWMN

ART or artefact?

That is the question posed to visitors at the Imperial War Museum North (IWMN) when they look at Jeremy Deller’s ‘Baghdad, 5 March 2007’.

At its base level the Baghdad car is an ugly brutal heap of metal. Decontextualised in a museum, it is incredibly moving, but its power lies in the fact that it was not dreamt in the mind of an artist but by the violence and hate within a terrorist.

The car sits in the middle of Level One amongst artefacts from wars dating back to 1900. The difference between this and the museum’s other Iraq war collection is that the car was presented to the Imperial War Museum by Jeremy Deller, 2004’s Turner Prize Winner.

Car.JPG“It’s an exhibit”, Deller says in commentary, “It’s not beautiful in any sense”.  Deller sidesteps the debate over whether the car is artwork or exhibit. So does IWMN’s Head of Collections, Roger Tolson, “Ultimately, it’s a car that’s been destroyed by conflict”.

The car’s remains were originally taken from Iraq by Dutch curator Robert Klüijver for an anti-war event in the Netherlands. Deller then took it on a tour of the United States before presenting it to the IWMN.

Destroyed when a suicide bomber blew up a truck on Al-Mutanabbi Street at 11.45am on Monday 5 March 2007, the vehicle was one of at least fifteen vehicles severely damaged in the bombing. Thirty eight people were killed and many more were injured in the attack which no one claimed responsibility for.

Now residing in the IWMN, the car and two accompanying information screens offer visitors an insight into the attack. It’s a powerful experience, observing the destruction that one of countless bombs can have on material goods but also more poignantly the human impact of such an attack.

Car 3.JPGA walk around the exhibit allows visitors to see inside the car. Compacted down, the extreme force that did the damage is apparent on the car’s shell. The mechanics are a mess, the innards opened out. The people killed would have probably had their innards opened out as well, it’s this thought that adds to the power of the exhibition.

The attack’s effect on local people is shown through Raya Ama’s photographs taken two days after the bomb. Black and white images have been tinted purple and depict civilians sat on the debris. With 90% of all casualties in conflicts now being civilians, it’s a reminder of the harsh realities of wars in the Middle East.

In addition to the photos, interactive screens allow visitors to see posters created by the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition. A collection of poets, artists and booksellers formed the coalition and called for 130 posters to be produced. Al-Mutanabbi had hosted a book market for decades and some posters encouraged ‘Make books not war’, while others said ‘Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people’.

As to whether it is art, the answer is probably no. Whilst it wouldn’t look out of place in a modern art gallery, describing this as a work of art might imply there was a leap of imagination behind it. The people who created the work were terrorists, not artists. To say an artist put it here and therefore it is art would be at best a conceit.

Crusader.jpgCompare with Gerry Judah’s ‘The Crusader’, another exhibit on Level One, and it’s possible to distinguish between the manmade vision of destruction and direct result of war. Judah’s piece shows the beauty of the large white sculpture contrasting with the darkness of the subject matter (destroyed buildings on a crucifix).

At its base level the Baghdad car is an ugly brutal heap of metal. Decontextualised in a museum, it is incredibly moving, but its power lies in the fact that it was not dreamt in the mind of an artist but by the violence and hate within a terrorist. This thing is real, it was part of a deadly event.

Baghdad 5 March 2007 will join the permanent display at IWMN. 

Echoing similar themes of 21st century conflicts, War Correspondent opens on 28 May and will be the UK’s first major exhibition about British war correspondents. It will look at the people behind the news and will feature items such as the bullet that deflected into Kate Adie’s leg in Beirut and a burqa worn by John Simpson on an undercover mission in Afghanistan.

Both ‘Baghdad, 5 March 2007’ and the upcoming War Correspondent exhibition aim to challenge visitors’ perceptions of recent wars and offer a fresh perspective on the conflicts. For inquisitive minds, the Imperial War Museum North’s permanent collections are always worth a visit. And these two new exhibits are even more a reason to make the trip to Salford Quays if you’ve not been for a while.

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Nicola ArisMay 22nd 2011.

Very powerful piece. Go along. Think how the explosion did this to metal, think of the soft human body...terrible.

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