One thing that has emerged from the latest Gulf War is a cottage industry of books about the shortcomings, political myopia and spiralling failures of the American occupation of Iraq. The range of dysfunction that has evolved on President Bush’s watch is staggering and ongoing. Set against all this has been the US government’s attempt to build a new embassy in Baghdad, which will be the largest in any country (rivalling the Vatican in size) as well as the most costly, with a price-tag of roughly $1 billion. Dan Bayles has used this scheme as the subject of a series of paintings entitled ‘New Ruins’ (all works 2007), and the two are perfectly made for one another.
The works are based on computer renderings that were accidentally leaked onto the Internet in May 2007 by Berger Devine Yaeger, the American architectural firm that designed the embassy (only to be shut down by the State Department for security reasons). The paintings all have a palette of creamy ground and sky, with patches of greenery cunningly made by collaging torn strips of paint onto canvas, and photographs of rocky ground cut into small bricks and blocks ready for assembly. Seeing the original plans, with their flat green digital lawns, sprinkling of Mesopotamian palms and crisp sightlines through desert blue skies, we can appreciate the liberties Bayles has taken. For Marine Security Quarters (US Embassy in Baghdad) (2007) he took a structure that has all the unmemorable appeal of a dull science building on a third-rate college campus, deleted the morale-boosting volleyball courts and left an empty yard with two small ponds. The biggest change was the hundreds of cobalt-blue solar panels he placed on the roof. This isn’t just a hopeful eco-friendly design suggestion but an understated reminder that US Marines don’t go occupying Middle Eastern countries in order to secure their alternative energy sources.
In CAC West (US Embassy in Baghdad) what was once a group of anonymous buildings set back behind a road and some grass now sits atop a landscape that looks like an inverted hillside, with poles strewn all about, stretching skyward and piercing a sandy void below. Since the sky and ground are the same, the hilly foreground and dark verticals combine to give the topsy-turvy impression that the painting could work as well flipped upside down as right-side up. Adding to the subtle confusion, some walls are neatly painted while others are aged and cracked, giving the structures an ideal mix of messages. One has the distinct impression of an institutional and empirical future simultaneously under construction and falling apart. Chief Mission Residence (US Embassy in Baghdad), with its terraced landscaping and strong perspectives, looks like an architectural drawing in the manner of those produced by Frank Lloyd Wright for Fallingwater (1934–8) – except bone-dry. On closer inspection we see doorways that suggest points of entry into the edifice, but most of it is mere chimera, as the collaged walls that exist remain largely unfinished.
The ambiguity continues in Deputy Chief Mission (US Embassy in Baghdad), which looks like a dilapidated Case Study House with slabs of roof crumbling, tiny bricks falling out one by one, and a relatively completed staircase. A modern interpretation of a white picket fence extends from a rocky wall, with a sky-blue hot tub transforming what had been a concrete blockhouse into the backyard of an upmarket residence – the only thing missing is a barbecue. This suburban mood is captured best by a simple quadrilateral of vivid turquoise: a swimming-pool set in a sandy lot in Pool House (US Embassy in Baghdad). With tennis courts flanking this tiny recreation centre we see verdant patches here and there and a lone brick wall rambling behind the compound, turning its back on the reality of the city outside.
These smartly executed paintings ask more questions than they answer: what is the point of such folly, trying to create Palm Springs in the middle of the Green Zone? Like Thomas Cole in his series ‘The Course of Empire’ (1834–6), Bayles is showing his fellow citizens their empire, but instead of depicting the cyclical rise and fall from beginning to end he has conflated it all into one frozen moment of entropy. In so doing, he not only gives us some apt metaphors for these imprudent times but also shows us how things really are: dusty, unfinished, bankrupt and empty.
First published in Issue 115