Episode 2 Catalogue Essay

Baghdad Barbie in the Cradle of Civilisation
By Timothy Morrell

Among the extensive collection of provocative, militaristic and aggressive action dolls amassed by Priscilla Bracks is a particularly lavish representation of George W Bush. He comes in an expensive package that includes a large number of precision-made accessories. Clad in an aviator suit, this limited edition presidential doll commemorates Bush’s triumphal proclamation of the end of hostilities in Iraq, when he announced to the cameras on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on the first of May 2003 that, ‘In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.’

Any sense that Bracks may have transgressed the bounds of common decency with her cartoon commentary on the appalling debacle in Iraq evaporates on viewing this artefact. Commercial entertainment has assimilated the war (and the public misinformation surrounding it) to the extent that the parodies produced by Bracks for Making the Empire Cross virtually enter the debate on its own terms. Far from trivialising the subject, Bracks’ work reflects how bad things really are. The ludicrous ignorance and shortsightedness that led to the invasion of Iraq is almost inescapably comical, and nothing could underestimate the scale of the catastrophe more thoroughly than Bush’s untimely Hollywood-style attempt to resemble a victorious war hero.

Making the Empire Cross is a logical development of the way we are encouraged to view the war, as a simple exercise in proving that might is right, and the West knows best (tellingly, Bracks’ narrative, like the official version of events, makes little mention of oil). The philosophical justification underlying the invasion of Iraq is the assumption is that the world consists entirely of Americans and people who want to be Americans. This view is embodied in popular culture, and Australia conforms to it quite comfortably. The turmoil in Iraq has resulted from the complete failure of the U.S and its coalition of the willing to understand how things work in other societies. Our arrogance is a symptom of military and economic supremacy. We don’t need to understand them. Their role is to understand us. It was therefore believed by the invading forces that once the political and physical infrastructure of Iraq were destroyed the grateful inhabitants would automatically adopt foreign institutions, as if following a script dictated by the laws of nature. Not much thought was given to the possibility that the locals might resent seeing their country occupied by heavily armed foreigners. As it turns out, the coalition of the willing is not as welcome as American GIs bearing gifts of chewing gum and nylon stockings always seem to be when they liberate Europe in movies about World War Two.

The West’s bizarrely deluded assessment of Iraq was based on a view of the world that translates everything into Western terms. Following this example, Bracks has translated the story into terms of Western pop culture. The leading roles are played by plastic action hero dolls and the ubiquitous Barbie. In Episode 1 GI Joe kapows Jihad Joe, but then things start to look grim for the rock-jawed, pectoral-packed team leader of the master race. By Episode 2 the situation has degenerated into chaos and ‘it becomes clear on the ground that the only winners in this war are the armies of extreme adventure tour guides providing hard-core thrill seekers with the war zone adventure of a lifetime’. In her capacity as one of these tour guides, super-model Baghdad Barbie thus achieves an entrepreneurial coup in the cradle of civilization. Bracks mixes a disorienting cocktail of visual, economic and sociological references to evoke the madness currently raging in Iraq. Fantasies from Walt Disney, Roger Vadim, Roy Lichtenstein, pulp magazines and Las Vegas are morphed with the realities of mass-destruction and Haliburtonian war profiteering.

As a medium and a technique, the lenticular process used by Bracks for this project is eerily appropriate to the subject matter, which is not just the war, but also the mass media. Lenticular prints resemble the pixelated pictures on an old style television set. Laminating two pictures together allows a transformation to occurs when the image is viewed from different angles, which underlines the fact that the real picture is not a simple one.

The series of images illustrating Bracks’ Making the Empire Cross is one component of a more comprehensive work that exists as a website1 with pages devoted to downloads, news, behind the scenes and gossip. The gradual metamorphosis of public information services into a version of Entertainment Tonight is accomplished completely and abruptly on her site, giving a clear picture of where our news media is headed.

We like our news to be palatable. This doesn’t mean it has to be good news (although the manipulation facts in official war reporting has always tried to create as much good news as possible). To be commercially successful, the broadcasting of information is becoming increasingly simplified into attractively presented, tasty sound-bites. We have become accustomed to the announcers on news and current affairs programmes being more like a cast of likeable characters than reporters.

There is widespread uneasiness about this trend, and the Iraq war reveals why it is dangerous. Waging war for the cameras requires a plot than can be easily followed, and it was simplistic good guy vs bad guy thinking that helped to create the problem in the first place, when Bush informed the world in November 2001 that ‘You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror’.

Making the Empire Cross garishly illustrates the hopeless inadequacy of super hero vs arch villain as a tactical analogy for any major conflict, especially one between radically different cultures. As the consequences of believing in this folly play out in real time, Bracks presents her own version of events in episodes like a serialised adventure comic. Episode 2 offers the disturbing prospect of a world in which nobody can tell the difference.

1. http://www.making-the-empire-cross.com

By Timothy Morrell