By Jason Foumberg
Why do we know so little about the reconstruction plan in Iraq, such a huge undertaking? Perhaps it is sadly natural that a war initiated on false pretenses is followed by more secrecy, and that world domination happens undercover rather than in broad daylight. The United States has a peacekeeping plan for post-invasion Iraq, which includes a 600-million-dollar embassy in Baghdad’s green zone. Peacekeeping and diplomacy, though, seems to have little to do with foreign relations and global stewardship, and more to do with making the best of a colonial enterprise. This is why when the architectural plans for the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad were released on the Web by the Kansas City-based architectural firm Berger Devine Yaeger, a U.S.-contracted company, in May (and then almost immediately removed by order of the State Department), interest in the project grew rapidly, not only because of the oddly grandiose scale of the embassy compound (which includes lush green lawns and shopping malls), but also because of the State Department’s swift censure.
Also telling, notes artist Jimmy Baker, is how the U.S. Embassy is coming in under budget and on time, surely a rarity for government-funded projects. Baker and his wife, Jill, got hold of the accidentally released blueprints, and like many others who found them on the Internet, felt the impulse to hold on to them, perhaps in order to internalize what exactly these plans meant for U.S. citizens and the world at large. Jill, who works for an architectural firm in Cincinnati, and Jimmy, an artist with a penchant for death-metal culture, together decided to flesh out the blueprints and to give them vision where otherwise they would remain hidden.
The result is an exhibition of partially imagined architectural elevations sited in Baghdad’s desert landscape. Sleek, Modernist-style edifices and manicured lawns contrast with the blazing sun and Hussein-era public sculpture. The Bakers have added an emotional layer to their renderings of the embassy, casting the sky in dark browns and reds like an impending fire storm and distorting some of the picture perspectives so that three-dimensionality and flatness get mixed up. The video-game effect, says Jimmy, is intentional. As a fantasy, perhaps it’s the only way that we can make sense of something so distant but which is also ominously impending for Iraqi citizens.
Also included in the exhibit is a 3-D model of the compound, created in gold, black and glossy translucent resin. It definitely echoes Jimmy Baker’s interest in the gothic style, and it’s refreshing to see his delight in darkness extend beyond celebrity goth culture and into a political realm where things are looking more grim and gothic than ever. Once the compound is revealed, it will likely look much different than the Bakers have inferred. Yet this will not necessarily make their vision obsolete. Rather, it will still represent the desire of the blind to grasp for familiar forms in the dark.
Steve McQueen, a British artist, shows his new film this month, which similarly gives vision to a densely shrouded project. The economy of coltan, a shiny black mineral found mostly in Congo, and used primarily in the batteries of consumer electronics, is McQueen’s starting point. Although “Gravesend” has strong documentary features, the fact of wars, rapes, environmental damage and political corruption involved in the coltan trade is absent. This is, of course, on purpose, mirroring our almost complete lack of knowledge on the subject. Instead, McQueen tightly focuses his lens and microphone on a few scenes, and these are all rendered with beautiful acuity: a mechanical arm processing the mineral in a clean, shiny laboratory, whirring as it ambulates; the black pebbles clacking in the hand of a miner who washes them in a muddy stream; an orange and red sunset behind black silhouetted smokestacks at an industrial port.
McQueen deliberately grants a picturesque clarity to these otherwise horrific conditions, which have been likened to the diamond trade, but no overt morality play is worked into the narrative. Rather, we are shown snippets of local life, as if it were a tourist video naming off all the bite-sized pleasures to be had, ignoring the misfortune of the gutted land and culture beneath it all.
McQueen’s main concern in Gravesend is not the devastating reality of the coltan trade, its consequences or the lives that it is churning through destructive economic machinations. Rather, McQueen uses it as a ploy to test our own placement within a scheme that is so distant from our lives yet it is one that we come in contact with daily in the form of mobile phones, DVD players and other coltan-consuming electronics.
The story in “Gravesend” is our reception of the problem, not its motivations or its implications. Insight granted via obfuscation is often the name of the game for contemporary artists. There’s no easy corollary between “us” and “them,” and this isn’t a documentary. Rather, it’s easy to get tripped up on the tiniest details and ignore the bigger picture. Somehow this seems safer, more feasible if we are to continue on such a self-assured path of righteousness to unimpeded progress and so-called civility.? An effective metaphor for this apparently necessary (but convenient) ease of dissociation comes not in the film itself, but in its presentation. In the gallery, viewers enter a totally blackened area. It takes a matter of minutes before one’s eyes can adapt to it, and once they do, the thrill of inhabiting a secret bigger than oneself, of making this darkness your own, reflects a need to make accommodations for comfort even in the most uneasy way.
Jimmy and Jill Baker show at Western Exhibitions, 1821 West Hubbard, Suite 202, (312)307-4685, through October 6. Steve McQueen shows at The Renaissance Society, 5811 South Ellis, (773)702-8670, through October 28.