Exclusive: It Is What It Is, But What Is It?

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When I met with Nato Thompson last week to discuss Jeremy Deller’s new project, It Is What It Is, I had one question: is it art? Apparently, I was not the only one. Before I started the interview, Thompson, who co-curated the show on behalf of Creative Time, admitted that the question had followed him since the inception and that he didn’t think it was particularly relevant or compelling.  Had my experience at the show been different, I would have rolled my eyes and asked him why it was in an art museum. But after checking out the exhibit, I was conflicted enough to listen to his explanation.

It Is What It Is is part of a series of commissions sponsored by the New Museum in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum.  Called “The Three M Project”, the commissions are meant to draw attention to artists who have not yet broken into the American mainstream.

Deller’s project was conceived in response to the enormous gaps in our understanding of the Iraq war. To address his concerns, Deller organized a six week series of conversations at the New Museum with academics, soldiers, Iraqi refugees and other people who have directly experienced the war. These informal sessions allow museum goers to listen to personal stories and ask questions in the hopes that they will leave with a more robust and nuanced perspective on our relationship with Iraq. After the New Museum, Deller, Thompson, Iraqi artist, Esam Pasha and Sergeant Jonthan Harvey will travel across the country in an RV, conducting similar conversation sessions in over one hundred locations.

I attended my first conversation with skepticism. In a description of his project, Deller argued that an art galllery is a clean, neutral space for a political conversation. I couldn’t imagine anything farther from the truth. Maybe the aesthetic is clean, but galleries are still socially charged spaces and potentially alienating spaces.

After waiting for Esam Pasha for over an hour, the Iraqi writer, artist and translator arrived to recount his experiences to a handful of people that included three french tourists, a pair of bejeweled elderly women, a dutch guy and teenagers of dubious origin. I had no idea what to expect.

Remarkably, the conversation unfolded in just the way the artist intended. Pasha began the session by describing the underground art scene in Baghdad and its relationship to the Embargo. We talked about the dangers of being a translator and his ambiguity about Iraqi cuisine. In the two hour conversation, I learned that Iraq’s diversity extends way beyond Sunni, Shia and Kurd to include  a patchwork of ethnic minorities. They also, according to Pasha, have the world’s biggest community of satanists. As far as I know, CNN failed to mention this.

On my way home, I realized that I had never considered Iraq in terms of art, cuisine, college students or first dates. Since the very beginning, my ideas about the country had been illustrated by bombed out buildings, abstract religious groups, armored vehicles and abandoned soccer fields.

During the interview with Thompson, I recalled my conversation session with Pasha, saying that although I was moved, I wasn’t sure if holding it in a YMCA would have changed my reaction. He responded that the real objective of the project was to get people talking, something that we do with increasing infrequency. “Some of the power in this project,” he explained, “is just the physical proximity to somebody that’s experiencing intense material.” When he began attending the the conversations, Thompson was both shocked by how little he knew and at how much he learned through listening. He expressed his hope that other participants could have similar experiences without becoming too focused on the question of whether or not the project was art.

In an interview, Deller explained that It Is What It Is was “about war in the way that a war museum is about war. But, a great war museum is one that is neutral. As much as possible, we’re just presenting information.” Before attending the conversation, I was troubled by this claim of neutrality and remained undecided afterward. Thompson conceded that discussing war without bias was impossible, but by presenting so many perspectives without a particular political agenda, they hoped to remain as neutral as possible. He continued that this attempted neutrality had actually caused problems “both with the extreme right and the extreme left. On the left, they [were] disappointed that we [didn’t] address the failure of the Bush administration and on the right they understand any question-asking as criticism.” It will be interesting to see how these reactions vary as they take off across the country this spring.

Ultimately, my question went unanswered. I am still not sure if It Is What It Is belongs in a museum, even as an example of very heady conceptual art. That said, it addresses such an important cultural problem, that I might agree that the question is irrelevant. I think that Ken Johnson might have gotten it right in a recent New York Times review of the exhibit.  After wrestling with the project’s status as art, he closes with this — “Mr. Deller’s project is not nothing. Its potential for doing good and raising consciousness is great. If it isn’t art, that is not a bad thing. It is what it is, as the title says, and what it is is an educational program. To call it art is to pretend it is something it isn’t.”