Thursday, 4 December 2008

Artist's tribute to troops killed in Iraq

A powerful piece of war art, featuring more than a hundred men and women killed in Iraq since hostilities began in 2003, will be delivered into every home and office in Britain – but only if it is finally finished to the artist’s satisfaction.

Until then, Steve McQueen’s poignant work, Queen and Country, will be on show in Edinburgh. It commemorates 136 service personnel, each featured on their own individual stamps which are displayed in strips in a large oak cabinet.

Mr McQueen says he will regard the piece as incomplete until the Royal Mail issues editions of the stamps to the public.

His stance was supported by relatives of some of the dead soldiers, who attended yesterday’s opening at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. An on-line petition, with over 15,000 signitures, can be accessed from the exhibition.

The work occupies one room of the gallery, a looming presence which invites viewers to pull out drawers and examine the often-smiling faces of the dead.

The result said Diane Douglas, was an “incredibly moving” artwork. Her son, Lance Corporal Allan Douglas of the Highlanders, became the 99th British serviceman killed in Iraq when he was shot by a sniper in January 2006.

“All these young kids have died. We need something, because people forget that they are even out there. Hopefully the Post Office will come round,” said Mrs Douglas, from Aberdeen.

Mr McQueen’s multi-award winning film, Hunger, about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, has made him an international star, though he underlined his credentials as a video artist as long ago as 1999, when he won the Turner Prize

He was appointed an official war artist in 2003, but his commission in Iraq at first seemed doomed to end in frustration. Chaperoned by MoD personnel, he was unable to gather the footage he wanted. It was only after he had returned home to Amsterdam that he had his eureka moment, as he was sticking a stamp on his tax return.

“The stamp had a picture of Vincent van Gogh on it. And then it hit me - a stamp has a beautiful scale, the proportions are right, the image, it is recognizable, and then it goes out into the world, who knows where,” he said.

Like the artist, relatives of the dead men said they were neither for nor against the war, but believed the stamps would at least bring the conflict Iraq into the public eye. Margaret Thomson, from Whitburn, recalled her son, Robert, had been part of the original invasion force.

“He felt they were liberating people and when they saw the conditions that people lived in they thought, given time, they would create a better Iraq. But as the months went on, it wasn’t to be. You wouldn’t like to think after five years that it had all been for nothing,” said Mrs Thomson. Her son, Sapper Robert Thomson, was killed in an accident in Basra in January 2004, aged 22.

Carol Paterson’s son, Private Scott ‘Casper’ Kennedy, 20, was killed by a roadside bomb in June 2007.

“This is a different type of war, there’s a lot of badness to it. But it’s something that’s happened and stamps would keep it out there in front of people,” said Ms Paterson, from Dunfermline. “If they do issue the stamp, I will get a special one of my own, so I can take it with everywhere. Just now I have a picture of Scott and when I go on holiday, I can take it out and give it a kiss.”

* Queen and Country, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, until February 15, 2009.

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