The event forms the centrepiece of Florian Gottke’s fascinating Toppled, a (mainly) pictorial study of the destruction, desecration and mutation of many of Iraq’s plentiful statues of its former dictator. Though Gottke remembers seeing photographs of the British destroying a Basra monument in 2003, it was not until 2005 – while researching Hussein-related material for an art installation – that he began to focus on the iconoclasm perpetrated during the Occupation of Iraq. ‘The images I found were so fascinating that I could not stop searching and I spent hours in front of the computer hunting for more […] I started to look carefully at all these images, grouping photographs of the same statues, ordering them chronologically and tracing connecting themes. This close reading revealed an astonishing amount of information,’ he writes.
For example, he reproduces (small, and grabbed) nearly one hundred and fifty pictures relating to the destruction and fate of the Firdous Square statue. We see the, err, liberators arrive and the crowd gathering; we see Corporal Chin undiplomatically ‘hooding’ Hussein with the Stars and Stripes, before substituting an Iraqi flag; we see the crowd beating the deposed Saddam with the soles of their shoes; we see them ride on his severed head as it is dragged through Baghdad; the following morning we find the same head abandoned on a kerbside; our last glimpse is of it trundled away through the streets on a cart.
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Gottke documents similar episodes across Baghdad, and in Karbala, Kirkuk, Basra and even Hussein’s hometown Tikrit (where he finds pictures of locals kissing and cleaning the broken monuments). He also gathers photographs detailing the effigies’ varied afterlives. Once dethroned, they are frequently seen beaten, pissed on or mocked by passers by. More commonly they appear as backdrops for the Marines’ touristic snapshots. Other statues, or their remnants, have ended up in army museums: the Gordon Highlanders in Aberdeen proudly display a decapitated head; while Taunton’s Royal Marines returned with a whole statue (’If we hadn’t brought it back, it would have been destroyed,’ said one). At Fort Stewart in Georgia they are still to unpack the huge bust liberated from Baghdad’s Al Salam Palace. Gottke’s picture research is nothing if not diligent – he finds further traces of Hussein statuary in sitcoms, video games and children’s toys.
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Perhaps this might all appear somewhat peripheral, an iconographical diversion from the real business – invasion, subjugation, and expropriation – of Occupation. But from amongst Gottke’s collated written testimonies and reports, it is possible to sense something of the importance that was attached to the Coalition’s iconoclasm. For example, a BBC account of British activities in Basra concluded that ‘the statue of Saddam is in ruins. It is the key target of the whole raid.’ Meanwhile, in Baghdad a US army captain was ordered to delay destroying a statue until a Fox TV crew arrived. Most famously, the Firdous Square episode appears to have been – to a degree – choreographed for the benefit of the foreign media based in the overlooking Palestine Hotel. ‘American and British press officers were indeed actively looking for the opportunity to capture the symbolic action of toppling statues and have the media transmit these to the world,’ writes Gottke. As such, Toppled’s events and pictures correspond tellingly and damningly to the Retort group’s analysis of our ‘new age of war:’
‘No one, surely, came close to anticipating that the opening of the 21st century would be structured around a battle between two such virulently reactionary forms of world power…and that both sides would see so clearly that the battle is now to be fought by both bombs…and images.’ (Afflicted Powers – Retort)
Toppled by Florian Gottke (Post Editions) €25