Damaged goods

Peter Watts on an attempt to bring the Iraq war home to Britain.

Baghdad, 5 March 2007
Imperial War Museum, London SE1

In the middle of the Imperial War Museum in London, surrounded on three sides by lethal, gleaming weaponry capable of committing the most heinous damage, sits a rust-red object barely recognisable as a car, destroyed in Baghdad in 2007 and brought to London by the Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller.

The explosion, a suicide bomb, destroyed al-Mutanabbi Street on 5 March 2007. It killed 38 people and injured another 100. Nobody claimed responsibility. Deller acquired the car - one of 15 damaged in the blast - from a Dutch curator who was organising an anti-war event. Deller's intention was more ambiguous.

Accompanied by an Iraqi citizen and a US soldier, he took it from New York to Los Angeles on the back of a truck, stopping each day in different towns to discuss the object and the war with anybody who was interested.

In the UK, the car was originally intended for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, but it has found a more natural home at the Imperial War Museum, an institution that subtly questions the nature of war from an awkward position - in sympathy, yet removed from the military establishment it ostensibly celebrates. It will enter the museum's permanent collection as one of its first acquisitions from the second Iraq war, straddling a curious line between art and exhibit.

The car is one of the first things you see when you enter the museum. It sits on a plain plinth directly beneath the sleek, overhanging gun
of an immense German Jagdpanther. The car has been squashed to waist height and the heat of the explosion has stripped it of paint and given it the texture of weathered leather. There is a gaping hole where the engine should be and a gash in one side where the impact of the blast struck the door. It is displayed simply - "blandly", Deller concedes - along with a booklet that chronicles the facts of the explosion, how the car was acquired, the history of car bombs and the story of Britain in Iraq.

Three passages stand out. The first is a quotation from Naeem al-Daraji, who witnessed the explosion, which was aimed at a book market in the academic district of Baghdad. "Paper from the book market was floating through the air like leaflets dropped from a plane," he said. "Pieces of flesh and the remains of books were scattered everywhere."

The second is the information that, at this stage in the conflict, 90 Iraqi civilians were dying every day. The third is the statistic that, at the start of the 20th century, civilians accounted for 10 per cent of war casualties; today, they make up 90 per cent.

For an object so stark and simple, it is thought-provoking, jarring, powerful and effective in a way that film footage of war zones cannot match. But despite this, it is strangely impersonal and almost inhuman, distanced from the personal horror stories that must have accompanied its macabre creation.

Deller originally titled the piece It Is What It Is, an expression borrowed from the US army as "a more sophisticated way of saying 'shit happens'", and he says he hopes to position himself within the tradition of war art. Yet he observes that "most official war art is concerned with the experience of the British soldier, whereas this has nothing to do with that - it's about the civilian. It's not about what it's like to be in the army; it's about the messiness of war and what it's like to be on the receiving end."

For details visit: iwm.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter