Suppose you are chosen from among your fellow citizens to tell the story of the Iraq war in a single image. One image, to represent the thousands that have flickered like tattered phantoms through the history of the last four years.
In every war that Britain fights, the Imperial War Museum selects an artist to render that one image. Steve McQueen was chosen for the task at the start of the Iraq war, and he struggled for months to come up with it. Then he realized that it didn’t have to be just one image. It already was many.
He imagined the faces of Britain’s war dead printed in the serrated frames of postage stamps. Peering out from under a stack of bills. Stuck on the envelopes of birthday cards. Lying silently in sheets in desk drawers.
But the artistic rendering of the war still painfully underway for 7,100 British troops in southern Iraq has proved as controversial as the conflict itself.
McQueen, 37, winner of Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize for visual artists in 1999, went to the Ministry of Defense in 2005 for help in obtaining photographs of the dead. The ministry refused to provide the addresses of families of the 115 soldiers who had died by that time, forcing him to go on without its official sanction.
“One of the junior ministers said to me, ‘Why don’t you do landscapes?’ ” McQueen recalled this week as an exhibition of his sad stamp collection, “Queen and Country,” opened in Manchester with an emotional visit by families of the dead.
“I said, ‘What do you mean, landscapes?’ I said, ‘Are you ashamed of these people?’ ”
Ministry officials say that’s not the point.
“We always try to commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of people who give their lives in combat, but we tend to balance that against overly personalizing the loss of one person, or a couple of people, and the kind of distress that causes families in general, across the services,” ministry spokeswoman Tricia Croasdell said Thursday.
“We don’t want to give the impression that any one person’s sacrifice is greater than another,” she said.
The Imperial War Museum, which is independent from the Defense Ministry, maintains collections of tens of thousands of paintings and millions of photographs of Britain at war.
But only a few are the works of officially commissioned contemporary war artists like McQueen.
The museum’s collections have rendered the most painful of war’s images on canvas, in photographs and in the searing voices of veterans recalling the sound of gunfire and of their fallen friend’s last breath.
There are snippets of music: A “Marche Grotesque” set to the sound of rolling tanks; old oil canvases swirling with the mist of cannon smoke as it settles over corpses; a photograph of a gear-laden paratrooper setting off resolutely from a Falkland Islands beach.
It is perhaps a testament to the raw wound that the Iraq war represents in today’s Britain that McQueen’s snapshots of the dead, captured smiling in the full bloom of life, have proved so disturbing, too distressingly individual.
McQueen, who has been lauded for his unpredictable, evocative images captured mainly on film, had hoped to again use film as a basis for his Iraq war project.
He carried a camera with him when he set off to southern Iraq with British troops shortly after the beginning of the conflict in 2003.
But by the time he arrived, the worst of the fighting against Saddam Hussein’s army was already over, and the insurgency was not yet a day-to-day reality. His six-day trip to Basra was filled with visits to schools under reconstruction and smiling soldiers introducing themselves.
Frustrated, McQueen sought permission to return to Iraq with U.S. forces and visit Baghdad. But once the kidnappings of foreigners had begun, project sponsors could no longer obtain insurance for the trip.
His art was becalmed. He tried to imagine a war he couldn’t see. He did his taxes.
His inspiration came when he was preparing to affix a stamp to the corner of his tax return envelope.
When he was rebuffed by the Defense Ministry in his quest to contact families for photos, he turned to Alex Poots, director of the Manchester International Festival, which is sponsoring the first exhibition of McQueen’s latest work at the historic Manchester Central Library.
Poots hired a full-time researcher to track down the families, win their support and collect photographs for the stamps.
The response was far from the distress the Defense Ministry had predicted. Of the 115 families contacted, 98 responded with photos, four declined and 13 didn’t answer. Eighteen British soldiers have died since then. McQueen chose not to include them because he considers the pain too fresh.
McQueen assembled the photos like sheets of large stamps, each embossed like a regular postage stamp with a tiny silhouette of Queen Elizabeth II as a reminder that each died, as the title of the work says, for “Queen and Country.”
The sheets are laid out vertically in drawers in a large cabinet of English oak. They can be pulled out individually like a stamp collection. McQueen disavows the comparison, when it is proposed, to a drawer in a morgue.
“It’s not that at all. Death has nothing to do with it. It’s very celebratory,” he said. “For me, it’s not antiwar, it’s not pro-war. It is what it is. It’s a reflection on our participation in the war in Iraq. Because in some ways, when you talk about the men, women and children who have died, you somehow have to look at the costs of that.
“And if it’s a stamp, it’s not like something hanging on the wall of a museum, gathering dust. Because what happens is everyone can participate in this art project,” McQueen added. “The real artwork is when you go to the post office, buy a stamp. You put it on an envelope, that stamp can end up somewhere in New York, or Rome or Mali. When you’re going out to work, picking up an envelope on the floor, and you’re seeing this soldier stare back at you.”
Sunday’s opening was a showing for families only. More than 200 family members poured into the library from as far away as Denmark and Germany.
“I was devastated. It was an extremely hard three hours,” Poots said. “You had people coming in ashen-faced, crying, very silent. That’s what was really creepy. People who were just coming in with grief. People said, ‘How does this piece work?’ And we would explain that, well, the first soldier who fell is on this side, on the left, and it works its way chronologically around.”
‘Such a tribute’
Soon, relatives were finding their own way around the cabinet; pulling out drawers, calling McQueen to show him -- here, here is my brother. Can I tell you who he was?
McQueen’s job then became listening to the stories the faces on the stamps didn’t tell.
“It’s wonderful, such a tribute, and it makes me feel so proud,” Carol Jones, the mother of one of the dead, Sgt. John Jones, told the Independent newspaper. “How wonderful it would be to receive a letter through the post with John’s face on it.”
So far, the government has said it has no plans to issue the photographs as postage stamps. McQueen says he was told that if the government did, the process could take until 2009 or longer. In response, he argues that Britain’s cricket champions got stamps issued last year in a matter of weeks.
The Imperial War Museum said it still plans to exhibit his work, but cannot commit itself to a date. McQueen says he understands the official squeamishness.
“If you cannot honor them correctly, do not send them to war,” he said. “End of story. Simple as that. If you don’t want to recognize them, if you want to switch off and not sort of let these people be visible in a real, dignified manner, don’t send them to war.”