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Hordes of Babylon 

Thursday, May 8 2003

When we were making the law, when we were writing the literature and the mathematics, the grandfathers of Blair and little Bush were scratching around in caves.

—Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, former Iraqi minister of information

Not many truly artistic moments have arisen from the war in Iraq, apart from the discovery of a small trove of artworks by aging New York sword-and-sorcery paperback illustrator Rowena in Saddam’s midnight-at-the-oasis love shack. “I utterly hate Saddam Hussein. I loathe everything he is and everything he stands for,” the artist stated while pleading for the return of her original paintings. “I don’t like the idea of them being in that country.” But the scuttlebutt in sci-fi fan-boy newsgroups has been running skeptical, with the implication that the paintings are knockoff copies — Mr. Hussein earlier displayed his contempt for intellectual-property laws by appropriating fantasy artist Jonathan Earl Bowser’s paintings as the cover and illustrations for the former Iraqi leader’s 2001 allegorical romance Zabibah and the King — and that Rowena is merely seizing the day.

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The former Iraqi minister of information and President Bush dolls As seize-the-day types go, it’s hard to top the above-quoted Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Rupert Pupkin of Propaganda and a (presumably) living example of just how far you can go with a positive attitude. Indeed, if you have a broad enough definition of art — say, “the exercise of willpower in an attempt to impose one’s imaginative vision on consensus reality” — the former minister of information emerges as the single most courageously creative figure of the recent conflict (though the Ayatollah Rumsfeld runs a close second). This perceived aesthetic credibility has been attested to by numerous artistic types of my acquaintance, and is evidenced by the positive popular reaction to al-Sahaf’s obdurate utterances, as well as several peripheral merchandise enterprises on the Internet — including a talking action figure (www.herobuilders.com — currently with a one-month waiting list) and a more comprehensive site at www.welovetheiraqiinformationminister.com.

The latter site, which expressed genuine dismay at the minister’s being slighted by the Death Deck’s selection committee, features regular rumor updates and a growing library of jewels from the poetics of denial, including such steadfast assertions as “They are not in Baghdad. They are not in control of any airport. I tell you this. It is all a lie. They lie. It is a Hollywood movie. You do not believe them” and “Most of you probably saw the American movie Wag the Dog. I hope you remember it. Some of their acts that took place at dawn yesterday and today are similar to what happened in Wag the Dog.” It seems that French poststructuralist Jean Baudrillard, who got in deep shit for his widely misinterpreted 1995 volume The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, has had a greater impact than anyone outside of Art Center suspected. As for merchandise, many of al-Sahaf’s oratorical specimens are made available here, emblazoned on mugs, mousepads, T-shirts, etc., including the indispensable “I now inform you that you are too far from reality” long-sleeve. (Caveat emptor: The “God will roast their stomachs in hell” barbecue apron is flimsy and overpriced.)

Many of the former minister of information’s statements are less likely to generate cognitive dissonance — “I speak better English than this villain Bush,” for example, or the indisputable observation at the start of this column. The major traditional art story emerging from Iraq has been, of course, the tragic but too predictable looting of the priceless cradle-of-civilization antiquities from the National Museum in Baghdad. Undoubtedly, much of this collectible booty will wind up in some future Western museum once whatever creepy millionaire tomb raider’s descendants are assured of their tax kickbacks and immunity from prosecution.

In the meantime, check out some of Our Side’s earlier acquisitions in “The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353,” a spectacular and sharply focused co-production of LACMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (to be fair to the creepy tomb raiders, some of the artifacts included here do come from such in situ institutions as the Inner Mongolia Museum of Hohhot and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar).

The timing of this exhibit is ridiculous. The show — years in the planning — basically outlines the artistic record of the Mongol conquest of the Middle East, culminating in the fall of Baghdad in 1258 to the greatest pre-corporate terrestrial empire in history. It opened Sunday, April 13, as U.S. troops made their anticlimactic advance on the stronghold of Tikrit, having only just liberated Baghdad a few days earlier. While general popular interest in Middle Eastern arts and crafts is understandably heightened, the exhibit offers more than just an opportunity to expose oneself to the cultural history of our new friends: It carries a deep and surprisingly optimistic message about the ability of art to adapt and survive — even flourish — in the wake of political chaos and devastation.

 

Inventively laid out with faux vaulting and arcades reminiscent of Islamic architecture, “The Legacy of Genghis Khan” traces the incursion of the Mongolian conqueror into China, Russia and — primarily — the Middle East, the porous hemispheric culture that this empire engendered, and the hybrid art forms that it left behind. The history is complex and fascinating, and rather than recount it here, I instead suggest that you allot yourself several hours to spend absorbing the subtle cross-fertilizations delineated — the overall effect is equivalent to an excellent art-history book or class (except the art is actually physically present), and co-curators Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni are to be commended for the exhibit’s depth and focus, and for not talking down to their audience.

More than 200 pieces were assembled from 40 collections — not including LACMA and the Met — and many of them are timelessly breathtaking in their formal beauty and craftsmanship. The wealth of illuminated manuscript pages alone — many of them from the Jami’ al-tavarikh, an encyclopedic history of the world including both Old Testament stories (Samson and Jonah are particularly dynamic) and Iranian dynastic folklore re-populated with Mongol-featured figures in distinctly Chinese landscapes — is an absorbing show in itself. Pictures aside, the calligraphy is exquisite — particularly the pages from the now-dispersed Anonymous Baghdad Koran. Textiles, which probably played the major role as viral messengers between the far-flung regions of the empire, are represented by dozens of examples of elaborately patterned silks woven with gold-wrapped thread — including a substantial series of coral-and-deep-red panels with a gold twin-rooster medallion pattern, designed to decorate the interior of a royal Mongol tent. Ceramics include lustrous fritware vessels and glittering ornamental tile work, often colored with gorgeous time-smeared turquoise pigment — my favorites being the two too-poignant Frieze Tiles From Natanz, with their borders of paired birds methodically decapitated by later hard-line iconoclasts.

My deepest impression, though, came from the metalwork — particularly the various vessels made of brass, and intricately inlaid with silver and gold. There are numerous eye-boggling examples, including a pen case with an astrological motif, a number of enormous candlesticks, a bucket signed by the artist Muhammed Shah al-Shirazi, and a gigantic fluted basin. The inlay is impossibly fine and alternates between figural and decorative. There’s one serious problem: While the surviving filigree is clear from a normal point of view, it leaps to life if the viewer crouches down to catch the reflected overhead lighting. If any artworks currently on view in L.A. deserve to be prostrated before, it’s these dazzling testimonials to art’s ability to absorb, adapt and transcend whatever governmental retardation with which it is currently, temporarily burdened.

THE LEGACY OF GENGHIS KHAN: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353 | LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000 | Through July 27

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