In his 2013 installation Iraq/Iran, Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi artist, comments on Western culture’s lack of understanding when it comes to the two named countries and, by extension, the entirety of Eastern/oriental culture. The artist uses a bright green neon sign to write out the names as one – the letters I, R, and A are fully lit in a handwritten style, while the last letter of the word flickers rapidly between N and Q. The speed of the flashing is meant to be nearly indistinguishable to the viewer, creating a blurred combination of the two words. The size of the artwork – almost a full 25 square feet – takes up an entire wall of the small, dimly lit room, engulfing the viewer in neon light. The media is meant to be a format that is quickly recognized and easily interacted with. Neon signs are constantly screaming messages and opinions, a characteristic that Bilal uses to his advantage when conveying the loud, blaring inaccuracies and confusion that Western culture commonly exhibits in its representation of the two very different countries. The piece suggests that, to Western civilization, the countries are merely a letter apart.
The piece, while simple and single-faceted at first glance, alludes to much deeper issues than perceptions of the two specific countries. Bilal chose the countries because of their political perception and ‘popularity’ during the time the work was produced, as well as the convenience factor provided by their similar spellings and widespread mispronunciation in Western culture. The artist’s description of the work describes the broader scope of the project:
Orientalism is a large focus of this work and brings to discussion the Western world’s depiction and imitation of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East Asian culture and people, shaping perceptions of the Eastern world. As the conceptual term gained traction in the world of literature and art history, it sparked a discussion about the colonialist attitude with which Western countries produce images and propaganda of the East. Many representations are built upon the intentional assumption that Eastern culture is wildly different from that of the West; being stagnant, strange, underdeveloped, and even dangerous. The biased representations are meant to develop an ‘us vs. them’ attitude, to alienate other cultures. The conceptual commentary behind Iraq/Iran dives far deeper into the long history of Western culture’s patronizing opinion of the East than current events concerning Iraq and Iran, it merely uses the recent political environment as a jumping-off point to tie into the larger picture of Western Imperialism.
The cultural and political clashes within the Middle East have become a subject for many Middle Eastern artists to draw from and spread messages about. Material Speculation: ISIS is a work done by Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari from 2015 to 2016. The piece focuses on ISIS’ destruction of Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh and statues from Hatra, in which she 3D prints handcrafted models of the destroyed artifacts in a clear resin, embedding a flash drive within containing information about her research, process, and a file of the 3D model. Morehshin is opposing the terrible acts of violence with peaceful creation, preserving the spirit of the artifacts in the best way she can. Both Bilal and Morheshin are striving to speak messages in a peaceful and nuanced way about the rifts being forced between cultures in the Middle East, both by internal and external forces. This dedication to raising questions about issues through nonviolent, thoughtful means gives a refreshing perspective, inspiring those who see the works to find constructive ways to point out the problems they see in the world. Perception of the artists’ gaze on these issues required patient thought and contemplation, a breath of fresh air amongst the rash, assumption-saturated reports given by the media through news networks and online articles.
As the clashes between cultures become more serious and at a grander scale, reporting networks scramble to be the first to deliver information, however they can. This scramble can lead to inaccuracies in the reporting, but even more importantly, many networks will not hesitate to mix up the details a bit to provide a more sensational story than the truth of the issue. This lack of sufficient quality reporting is a large part of the misinformation influencing the views of the Western world. As a result of this misinterpretation mixed with the immense distance separating the Western and Eastern worlds, Western culture is far removed from the reality and depth of insight required to truly understand Eastern culture. John Gerrard’s 2011 work, Infinite Freedom Exercise, explores this concept through a computer-generated soldier standing in a vast landscape in southern Iran. The soldier completes a series of motions from typical military exercises, while the camera rotates about him, revealing the landscape as the exercise progresses. The piece is intentionally reminiscent of a video game, providing a limited insight into the world on the other side of the screen. The piece runs for a full year, with the sun and terrain rendered in real-time, however, the viewer can come and go as they please, only looking at the piece for a second if they so desire. In part of his commentary, Gerrard is bringing up the disconnected and limited view that the general public has when thinking about the war and turmoil in the Middle East. Western culture is entirely removed from the experience and plays the part of a mildly-informed bystander with no understanding of risks, implications, and reasons that accompany the events in the Middle East. Even though the United States military has influence and lasting effects on the outcomes of conflicts in the Middle East, they are controlled from afar by government officials safe and sound in North America. This ties directly into Bilal’s messages about the perception of Eastern culture: how can the United States effectively relieve the violence in the East with such a warped understanding of the cultural inner workings that drive many of the issues?
Specific aspects of the chosen media may also provide insights into the intentionally hidden messages within the installation. Using a neon-lit sign was no mistake – it is possible that Bilal chose neon to imitate consumption and advert-driven Western cultures: Neon ads clamor for attention, offering only a loud opinion with no interface for discussion, communication, or understanding. Immediate first-glance interpretation is the key characteristic here, and speaks volumes about the news networks, television programs, and propaganda saturating the social and political environment of Western culture. It’s an additional layer that offers direct commentary on how the Western public’s opinion on the East is formed. The choice of green light is also no coincidence. The color green is present in both countries’ flags, but also has roots in social and political events from the time the piece was released:
The Green Zone is an area in Baghdad which held Iraqi officials, including Saddam Hussein, before the United States’ 2003 invasion of the area. The area is officially known as the International Zone, however, the more common, military-originated name points to green representing military safety. The Green Zone is the most heavily fortified area of Iraq’s capital, and in contrast to the Red Zone (an area outside Baghdad, as well as any non-military-influenced dangerous areas), was under U.S. military control. This association is directly Imperialistic and, again, paints Eastern culture as less civilized and quite literally unsafe if not under direct supervision of a 'greater' civilization.
The Twitter Revolution is a series of protests held using social networking, but more specific to this project, the Green Revolution was social networking protest in response to the 2009 Iranian presidential election. The social media platform was used to broadcast and communicate the physical protests going on around Tehran, which official news networks failed to do. The suppressed people of Iran were able to voice their own opinions and image about their culture and the injustices they experienced without the lens of Western news networks and writers to blur the message.
Despite the seemingly simple implementation of the art piece, each aspect was carefully crafted to speak about a number of issues by tying together social events, public opinion, and historical inaccuracies in a minimalist way. The piece provides a discussion that causes the viewer to hesitate before oversimplifying or misconstruing Eastern culture and gives them a chance to dispel their confusion between the two countries.