'It Is What It Is': An Interactive U.S.-Iraq Exhibit on Wheels

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 2009

Live and in person, for one day only: a real Iraqi and a real American soldier, together for a limited engagement, just off the Mall on a stretch of gravel near the Smithsonian Castle. They're next to a 40-foot RV and the bombed-out carcass of a car (don't be alarmed; it's part of the show).

The Iraqi and the American are roadtripping across the country in the RV, towing the crushed vehicle on a flatbed. Yesterday they made their first stop, in the nation's back yard, standing in the chilly gray drizzle, trying to talk to passersby about the twined fates of Iraq and the United States. The rusted skeleton of the car, collateral damage from a 2007 bombing in Baghdad, is a good conversation starter.

"I mean, do they hate us?" a woman in gray slacks asks Esam Pasha, an Iraqi artist who worked as a military translator in Baghdad before seeking asylum in the United States in 2005.

"How are the people doing?" asks a soccer mom.

"They've developed a thick skin from decades of war," Pasha says.

"Is Obama's plan good for Iraq?"

"There's big potential and big expectations."

The conversation continues all day in the off-and-on rain. Pasha, 32, and Jonathan Harvey, a 31-year-old Army reservist, are the living, breathing artwork in a mobile exhibit titled "It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq," created by British artist Jeremy Deller, whose medium is people rather than paint. Deller, obsessed by the conflict in Iraq, conceived the project to spark dialogue about a conflict that continues even though it's been bumped from the news by the economy. Over the next three weeks, Deller and his "art" will make a dozen stops on the way to Los Angeles, all the while towing the car, which was acquired from a Dutch curator who first obtained it in 2007 for an event in Amsterdam.

Yesterday's stop was the first of the trip -- a test drive of tricky, unpredictable, interventional art.

In the morning, Pasha and Harvey try to make eye contact with pedestrians hunched under umbrellas, as Deller observes from the perimeter. Harvey was born in Philadelphia, deployed to Baghdad in 2008, and was job-hunting in Anchorage before auditioning for "It Is What It Is," whose title comes from the popular military phrase invoked when facing an intractable situation. Pasha is 6-foot-3 and bearded, wears an artist's beret and Nike shoes, and smokes hand-rolled cigarettes. He's put down roots in Connecticut and doesn't see himself returning to Iraq. The country belongs to a younger generation tasked with rebuilding, he says.

As foot traffic picks up in the afternoon, the car turns heads. A family of four halts its museum tour to stare blankly at the frame. Two teenagers from South Korea snap close-ups of the car's jagged door. A girl in a pink skirt poses in front of the car, her face twisted in mock horror, and this reminds Pasha of seeing an Iraqi girl in a similar position, her face twisted in real horror. A street vendor walks over and starts an hour-long conversation about dictators. ("Why invade Iraq? Why not Africa?")

Many ask: Is it getting better?

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