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Homeland Security: Erik van Lieshout Searches for the Iraq War

By Brooke Kellaway

Four years after the Iraq War started, Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout and his friend and editor Core van der Hoeven set out on a mission of their own: to track down evidence of the war and gain clarity on the motives behind it. When in Los Angeles for a residency at the Hammer Museum, they noticed little talk among people they met about the ongoing conflict, so they set out for other locales to see if they could read the pulse of Americans on Iraq. Their travels—documented in shaky video all along the way—took them to the “rough nature” of New Mexico, where they thought people would “be more ‘real’,” and to the border checkpoints and holy sites of Israel. The three journeys make up a project that includes Guantanamo Baywatch and the 26-minute video Homeland Security, which is on view in the Walker exhibition The Living Years: Art after 1989.

The videos document the details of their travels as two tourists remarking on idiosyncratic aspects of their surroundings and interviewing various locals they encounter during the final two legs of their journey. Building this personal reportage of wartime from less-exposed vantage points than those presented by mainstream media, the video traverses uneasy territory—which is made rockier by van Lieshout’s portrayal of otherness through stereotypes, bawdy jokes, and other unfiltered banter. What results is a cleverly constructed, biting social commentary that insinuates the site of violence as an entanglement of misread and misrepresented subjectivities and histories.

The viewing environment of van Lieshout’s video is no less agitating. It is screened in a dark room in which chairs are built into the sloped floor. The installation approximates the kind of TV-den setting where one might imagine a family watching the evening news—although it’s not as relaxing. The seating forces a physical awareness of the viewer’s position in the space—less he or she tip over, lose balance, or fall on the way in or out. These twin notions of comfort and dis-ease appear to be part of van Lieshout’s aim. “People ought to be overwhelmed by my work, and confused, because it is cheerful, intimate, and yet somber; they can then enjoy the latent humor,” he said in an interview in the catalogue for his 2002 solo exhibition at the Groninger Museum in Rotterdam. “Nonetheless something should linger so that they can head straight for the pub to drink away the comfortable associations.”

On uncertain seating and featuring unsettling commentary, Homeland Security incites—particularly amid amplified temperaments during wartime—an accounting of attitude and action. Viewing the work today, nearly a year after the final departure of US troops in Iraq, and still in the heat of political debates about the ongoing US military presence in the Middle East, van Lieshout’s Homeland Security is indeed timely.

Continuing our series Lowercase P: Artists & Politics, van Lieshout discusses the making of the video.

Brooke Kellaway

For Homeland Security, you spoke to people you’d come upon in New Mexico about geopolitical issues. How is talking politics with people in the US different than it is elsewhere?

Erik van Lieshout

It’s totally different than, for example, in the Netherlands. People in the US are more “politically correct” or polite. They’re much more afraid to be offensive.

Kellaway

For many, the questioning of dominant systems of power has been long advised against or generally not tolerated. You get sued, you get an “F,” you get excommunicated, you get fired, you get beat up, you get put on lists. For a country so “free,” there’s a terrible amount of fear. People seem to prefer to talk about celebrity news and leave rigorous political opinionating to Candy Crowley or Jon Stewart. But it’s interesting how politically charged art, especially yours, can generate heated conversations about world affairs and bring up issues the mainstream media and everyday conversation typically evades.

When Homeland Security was first shown at the Walker the year you made it, in 2007, at the opening for the Walker’s exhibition Brave New Worlds, how was it received? Do you remember some of the viewer responses and conversations you had?

van Lieshout

Yes, a lot of people came up to us. In the video, the comments about the Iraq War and the problems in the US were so accurate at that time. So people came to me and started talking about how they felt.

For the exhibition, there was also a panel discussion about how artists get into the world and find out what is happening—how artists can behave and enter the world as if it were a white canvas. The panelists regarded me as an example of how you can enter blankly into the world. Of course, I was flattered by these remarks.

Kellaway

Especially working within a politically tense situation, what do you think it is about “calling it art” that often grants access to and even protects artists who are dealing with highly controversial subject matter?

van Lieshout

I don’t call it art. I am the one who is very concerned whether it is art or not. Yes, it is true, art has more freedom. But art is also, in the Western world, quite a harmless zone to operate in. Except when one makes a cartoon of Mohammed that is published. The only thing one can do is to go as deep and direct as possible into the shit. The artist invents strategies, I think.

Kellaway

In New Mexico, and then in Israel, how did you respond to people who asked what you were doing with your camera?

van Lieshout

Most of the time we were very serious and told the people who asked that we were working on a documentary about the US state of mind, and that we were interested in what people thought about being in war.

While in Israel, this case was more of an in-a-nutshell question and the discussion concentrated more in the fights about land and culture with the Arabs and the Jews. We were amidst a neighbor-to-neighbor war in Israel, while the whole situation of the US at war with Iraq was very abstract. So we directly asked the biggest questions: “What do you think about the war?” or “Do you think its good to have so many soldiers in the Middle East?” and “What do you think of George Bush?”

Kellaway

Homeland Security was made four years after the 2003 Iraq invasion, and shortly after [President George W.] Bush had sent 21,500 additional soldiers over there. How did the political situation at that time inform the development of this work?

van Lieshout

Just before starting this project, we were doing a residency in Los Angeles for six weeks, which resulted in the video Guántanamo Baywatch. At that time, the US was at war but we were so surprised that there was no sign of it. Bush had sent thousands of soldiers to Iraq, and the whole media was fixated on Iraq, but being out on the streets of LA we could not find any indication of it. We thought people in LA would be concerned about what was going on and about their soldiers, but everybody only talked about the Olsen twins and about Britney Spears, who had just cut her hair. A lot of the talking was about shopping—for example, where you buy your new skinny jeans.

I liked this very much but after a while I got bored—as did Core—and we wanted to go to the countryside. We thought the people there would be more “real”—I mean, less superficial. So we took a road trip to Taos, New Mexico.

Kellaway

What was interesting about going to that part of the country?

van Lieshout

We really wanted to see more of the US, like the Grand Canyon and the high desert in New Mexico. Compared to Holland, where the scale is small and there are so many inhabitants, the scale of the landscapes around that area is immense. There’s so much space that we couldn’t capture it in a video camera. There are these very deep carved canyons and red stones. It’s rough nature—Marlboro cowboy nature. I was curious what to find there. We saw tanks on trains. We had snowstorms and spent time relaxing in our hot tub. We cooked all kinds of stuff. We saw Indians. We got hot stone massages. We went into a labyrinth made from stones designed so that when you go inside, you make a spiritual journey. Also there are natural springs with hot water coming out the ground. And we saw one rabbit.

Kellaway

Did the political climate seem different there?

van Lieshout

Although there wasn’t much of a sign of war there either, people were much more concerned, and we talked a lot more about what was going on in Iraq—especially with older people, and also farmers and hippies, who felt very sad about the war. There were protest marches and so forth. [Donald] Rumsfeld was living in Taos! I made a huge banner showing Rumsfeld getting laid by Condoleezza Rice and took it into one of the demonstrations. The people were a little shocked.

Kellaway

At what point did you decide to shoot the next part of the video in Israel? What was the plan when you arrived?

van Lieshout

In Taos, it was still hard to really find the war. So we decided to go to the war. Since Israel was—and is—the “little brother” of the US, and the US takes care of its little one, we went there.

We drove around all of Israel’s borders. When we went to one of the borders of Jordan, they didn’t let us in with our rental car. So then we went north to some holy places, then to Ramallah and Nablus, where we met many Palestinians. Then we went down to Eilat in the very south of Israel (which is a total holiday city from the ’80s). And next we went into the Sinai desert. After all of our circling around , we then thought, “Fuck it, we’ll go to Gaza.”

But this was absolutely not possible. We talked with journalists and to many taxi drivers. We offered money, etc., but nobody wanted to help. So we just stayed in the car with the camera and drove around as far as we could go to get to the border. We passed all of the checkpoints, and then we were there near the border. There was only wire. We drove one kilometer and saw three jeeps coming toward us. We had to stay in the car and follow them. They knew we had a camera. We followed the jeeps for 15 minutes and then we were on the normal streets again. We showed our passes and papers, and then we were able to go on. It was extremely dangerous, but the Israeli police are very careful with journalists and those with cameras. They can’t just shoot us out of the car. We also behaved like tourists. This was good.

Kellaway

What surprised you most about being there?

van Lieshout

The extreme beauty of the Sinai desert. The air and the colors are really different than anywhere else in the world. It’s where Jesus walked around, you know, so this is the kind of country the whole world has been fixated on for centuries. It is very spiritual, but it is indeed very intense. The spiritual experience we had was different than the one in the stone labyrinth in New Mexico—that was more about love. This spiritual experience was more a universal one—about god and nature.

Also the border of Gaza. The fear. It was terrifying. In 2007, borders were mostly known as these kind of themes, and I think I thought of them in that way too until I got over there.

And the trip to Nablus and Ramallah. We did it one day, since you can’t really film there—they’ll just aggressively take your camera and smash it on the floor. So we were tourists—drinking tea everywhere we went and shopping in between. We went by totally destroyed houses. The city was under curfew. People couldn’t go on the streets after 7 o’clock in the morning. It was quite an intense day.

Kellaway

At what point did you know the work was ready to finish shooting and start editing?

van Lieshout

I think it was more or less after being arrested at Gaza. We knew we wouldn’t come any closer to the war.

Kellaway

Why did you title the work Homeland Security?

van Lieshout

Homeland security is the first thing you see when you enter the USA.

Conversations in an Election Year

Based on the belief that artists’ voices are vital in the conversation about creating a better society, this series of discussions is interested in politics with a lowercase p—concerns about power, inequality, and participation—and ways that artists’ personal values interface with it.

Still from Erik van Lieshout’s Homeland Security, 2007

Erik van Lieshout, photographed during installation of Brave New Worlds, 2007

Core van der Hoeven on screen in Erik van Lieshout, Homeland Security (2007)

Seating for Erik van Lieshout’s installation of Homeland Security (2007) in Brave New Worlds

Still from Erik van Lieshout’s Homeland Security, 2007

Still from Erik van Lieshout’s Homeland Security, 2007

Still from Erik van Lieshout’s Homeland Security, 2007

Erik van Lieshout, Homeland Security (2007), as installed in the 2007 exhibition, Brave New Worlds

Still from Erik van Lieshout’s Homeland Security, 2007

Still from Erik van Lieshout’s Homeland Security, 2007

Still from Erik van Lieshout’s Homeland Security, 2007