Visitors to the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth may be shocked by the imminent arrival of a charred and mangled car that was last driven on a suicide mission in Baghdad.
“There’s a central atrium as you come in, which has all the planes and missiles and so on, and it’s going to be right dead centre of that, so it’s almost the first thing you see when you walk into the museum. It’s an incredible statement for the museum to make,” says Jeremy Deller.
Deller, an artist not a military historian, acquired the car in a bid to install it on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. He was in 2008 shortlisted for the public art commission, eventually losing out to a less contentious piece by Antony Gormley.
“I wasn’t surprised when it wasn’t selected, because I was kind of amazed it was shortlisted anyway, because it’s such a provocative thing to put on a plinth in the middle of Trafalgar Square, such an ugly, horrible thing really to put on public display.”
Nevertheless, it did go on display. Last year Deller took the car to the US, where it spent more than a month at the New Museum, New York, before a three-week road trip saw it towed to Los Angeles. Two Iraq experts and a writer accompanied the vehicle on a series of meetings with the American public, who were keen to talk about the war.
“It also brought up a lot of questions about domestic politics in America, people were talking about what it was like living in the US, what it had been like living in the US during those years in post 9/11 America, and how that had changed the landscape for a lot of people. So it brought up a lot of things,” says Deller.
Despite the risks of taking a terrorist weapon to the American heartlands, the artist suggests this show was made for the road.
“When it’s in a gallery you always have this problem with people thinking it’s an artwork or you’re displaying it for art purposes, if you put it like that, whereas when its on the road, you just accept it for what it is, or not accept it for what it is,” he adds.
The name given to his stateside project was It is What it is. In the Imperial War Museum it will be called Baghdad, 5 March 2007. When proposed for the Fourth Plinth project, it was to be called The Spoils of War. Deller’s car has become more straightforward with each new setting.
The London war museum is, for Deller, “the best place it could be.” Having killed at least 20 people in 2007, the car will now be set in a non-art context as a testament to the effects of war on civilians. The artist hopes that its new home will continue to spark discussions.
“I think probably the public don’t realise that the Imperial War Museum is not a museum that’s out to glorify war,” he speculates.
“Maybe it was at one point or thought that it could be, but it actually has a different role, so they are taking risks in a way one might not expect.
“When I tell people in America about what’s happening to the car they can’t believe it. A similar institution in the US would never do this in their eyes. They couldn’t see it happening in the US.”
Indeed, it might not have happened here so soon, were it not for some degree of artistic intervention. “It’s unlikely that the war museum would have got hold of a car and got a car from Iraq if it wasn’t for me doing it first for an art gallery and then offering it to them,” admits Deller, describing his role as an artist.
“You’re just pushing at the edges of things and trying to make something happen – to precipitate something, is the best way of putting it.”
Well aware of the difficulties of acquiring spent military hardware, Deller is enthusiastic when asked about the current Fiona Banner installation of fighter jets in Tate Britain: “I really like them, especially the one that’s hanging,” he says. “It reminds me of a crucifixion, so you’re in a church and that’s the crucifixion at one end.”
But the biggest threat to public art commissions has come from the recent announcement of arts spending cuts, rather than a supposed axis of evil.
“I think it will threaten anyone who works with museums and galleries,” says Deller.
“Anyone who works with art in the public realm, in ways that the public can see art easily, that kind of art is going to be threatened because a lot of it’s funded centrally.”
He also points out: “These conversations aren’t just happening in the art world. They’re happening in all different areas of British life.”
So it may be timely that his next project celebrates exhuberance, humour and fighting spirit. “It’s the biopic of a wrestler called Adrian Street,” the artist explains.
“He’s a British wrestler from Wales. He was a miner and he sort of left the mines and wanted to become a wrestler in London and made this sort of career for himself and now he lives in Florida and still wrestles. It’s a film about him and his life.”
The first screening will be in Brazil in September. Clearly Deller, now an artist with a major project in a war museum, has a taste for the improbable.
Written for Culture24.