Duping the Plunderers

For a dozen years, an image from the Iraq war lodged in the mind of Winnipeg artist Ian August. When the time came for him to make a new body of work, the image became especially generative. “I remembered when the Baghdad museum was being looted there was a picture of an American tank sitting by while looters walked out with everything from office chairs to busts. I wanted to bring it back to one event in which I could get all the stuff involved in that photograph.”

When the looting was finally over, some 15,000 objects had been taken, a third of which were 5,000 year-old cuneiform cylinder seals that were desirable on the black market because smugglers could so easily conceal them. An intensive search to retrieve the looted artefacts was mounted and now only 3,000 remain missing. August’s project picks up on that history and does double duty: it pays homage to images that come from the “cradle of civilization,” and it investigates the various ways we represent images and what those representations tell us about art. (He exhibited a selection of sculptures and paintings in “Plunder Dupes” at Winnipeg’s Actual Contemporary from January 22 to March 19). He describes the project as “a balancing act that is both serious and hair-brained at the same time.” He had to respect the authenticity of the culture from which the images came, but he also recognized the need to bring those same images into the 21st century.

Ian August, excavation number: Kh. IV 293, 2015, oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cm.

August found a useful breakdown of the images at an online site called The Oriental Institute organized by the University of Chicago. From that search, he made 20 sculptures and turned 13 of those into paintings. The sculptures were made from thrift-shop scavenging; lots of tinfoil wraps, bottle caps, wine corks and foam; the paintings were copied from the sculptural replicas. So a figure with a ziggurat-shaped beard has blue hair made from a yoga mat; the eyes and eyebrows on an unfired bust are carved out with a knife and a floating hairpiece made from Styrofoam completes the sculpture, which then becomes a hauntingly elegant painting. August’s rich iterations are a combination of quotidian archeology, artful salvaging and quirky alchemy.

His method reflects a quandary worthy of Thomas Demand. You have sculptures that exist in their own right and then paintings are made from them. “The confusion is my favourite part. You have the original that was made 5,000 years ago and now in someone’s collection, so it exists, but is unavailable in the way it would be in a public museum; then there is the photographic documentation that the museum puts online; there is the replica I make, and my 3D scan of that; there is the printout; and finally, there is the oil painting. Rather than picking one over the other, I like the question: which is the real object and which is the artefact?”

Installation view, “Plunder Dupes,” 2016, Actual Contemporary, Winnipeg. Photograph: Ashley Gillanders.

In this way of thinking, you can understand the ambiguities of his naming. A dupe is a short form for a duplicate, and it is also someone who is made foolish by someone else’s action; plunder goes beyond the simple idea of looting and locates us in a global terrain where invaluable artefacts are being wilfully destroyed and museum curators are being executed. Suddenly, Ian August’s question broadens to become not merely one of representation but a way of identifying what is being plundered and who is being duped. His pretty pictures are not a pretty picture.