Sylvielin's Blog

Art and Politics Revisited. Interview with Robert Kluijver (I)

Posted in about Art, Interviews with Curators/Museum Directors by sylvielin on October 4, 2010

‘…art has freedom while politics has power.  Vice-versa artists wield little power while politicians enjoy scant freedom.’   —-Robert Kluijver(1)   

Robert Kluijver, the person behind the creation of the first Afghan Pavilion in the Venice Biennale in 2005, has been an organizer of cultural programs between East and West.

Having lived in Afghanistan for a long period of time and engaged in local political and cultural activities, in 2007 he brought two exploded car wrecks from Baghdad to Europe. One of the vehicles was then donated to the British artist Jeremy Deller for his project ‘It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq’ which traveled across the U.S. That wreck is now in the Imperial War Museum of London.

In the four parts of the interview, Kluijver discussed the origin and the itinerary of the wrecks from Baghdad to Europe as well as his views on politics and art.   (Photo of RobertK in Baghdad, 2010 by Hatif Farhan. Courtesy : RobertK)

I. The Wrecks from Baghdad

Q  I got to know your practice through Jeremy Deller’s project It Is What It Is. Conversations about Iraq(2). For the project, he dragged a car wreck brought back from Baghdad all across the United States and presented it in the New Museum of New York. The car wreck actually came from the event War on Error(2007) you organized in Amsterdam where two car wrecks were showed as the centrepiece of the exhibition. How did you manage to bring the car wrecks from Baghdad to Europe ? What is your curatorial concept of War on Error ?

A In the beginning it was a logistical project rather than a curatorial project for me. I was in charge of finding and bringing the wrecks from Baghdad to Amsterdam. I cooperated with the BAZAAR, a collective of Dutch humanitarian organizations. They wanted to make a one-day political event about the situation of Iraq. They conceived the idea of bringing a wreck from Iraq to central Amsterdam because the presence of a bombed wreck would say so much and it would create a whole commotion and reflection by the public. 

They asked me because of my background in the Middle East. But I only really became interested in the project when an attack happened at the book market of Baghdad – just to see the burning pages of books floating in the air, and then hear that the most famous and the oldest Literary café of Baghdad was blown up in the event. It was then I really felt motivated and thought we should do something about this. Also, by then the project became a cultural project since it was really an assault on the culture of Iraq. It was not sectarian since the book market is not dominated by one group, and actually all the people of Baghdad’s cultural community go there regardless of their religion or ethnic origin.   

Shabanda café in Baghdad. Courtesy and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.


It was really a kind of crazy project to try to get the two wrecks from Baghdad since no one wanted it ; neither the officials of the Iraqi government, nor the American army wanted to have such bad image abroad. So they were blocking it. Besides, the city was caught in a civil war, with different militias controlling different neighbourhoods, and we had to make the wreck cross several of these sectarian and official checkpoints. Anyhow, it was a long story. Finally we got the wrecks and transported them to Amsterdam by DHL, which was also something unusual. I don’t think DHL had ever flown car wrecks around before.  

Q How long was the period of negotiation and preparation?

A It was two months of very intensive work. Then the wrecks were shown in Amsterdam’s central square, Leidse Plein Square. It aroused all kinds of discourses and political discussions. But we only got two or three hours of permission for the event. It seems ridiculous to have done so much for such a short time. Meanwhile, I also became very involved with all that was happening in Iraq and how it affected the artistic community there. Even if this bomb attack was one among the numerous bomb attacks in Iraq – in those days, one could see news about such attacks everyday – this special one really hurt the local cultural community, because it’s the very location of Baghdad’s book market.

So I got in touch with people and artists in Baghdad and researched the book market and the function of the literary café Shabandar. A year later, all this eventually led to my first big exhibition in Gemak(3), ‘Green Zone/Red Zone’. Meanwhile, I insisted with the BAZAAR that they gave me the wrecks. I wanted to use them for a curatorial project, whereas they thought of giving them to a museum of war situated in a kind of village, even the Dutch people don’t know. I thought I’d be so upset if the wrecks end up there.    

The two car wrecks shown in the ‘World of Witte de With’ Festival in Rotterdam on the 7 October, 2007. Photo by Jonas Staal. Courtesy : RobertK


Once I got the wrecks, we put them in a tour around Holland. It’s interesting to see how people everywhere react to this physical reality of the bombed wrecks from Iraq. The first event in Amsterdam was political ; the second time in Rotterdam, it was an art event – local artists worked on related themes or used the wrecks for their own presentations. Afterwards, the wrecks also went to a punk rock festival, a humanitarian charity event, etc.

What’s interesting is also that the two wrecks always went together. One of them had been a taxi, on which you can still see the orange and white paint that all taxis in Baghdad have. So it’s like a kind of second life for the vehicles, and people would make all kinds projections on them, like : “I really hate these fundamentalists of Islam. It’s horrible !” or “It’s all the fault of the Americans” or “I don’t understand the violence of the human nature”, etc. Also, the car is such an important symbol of our global society, of the materialist culture. A bombed car attracts so much attention, and people would ask questions I’d never had expected, like :”What kind of model is the car?” So in a way they were all imagining what a car is.

Q Once the wrecks were shown in an artistic context, what was the reaction ?

A When they were shown in Gemak, we encountered lots of resistance from the art community. The main question was : ”is that art” ? Eventually, I did a strange compromise and showed only one wreck in the exhibition. Even though, I really had to fight for it. For me it was important to have the wrecks in the exhibition because all the Iraqi artists participating in the exhibition took them as an important reference point and made new works especially inspired by the fact that the wrecks have travelled from Iraq to Holland. Since the cultural community in Baghdad was hit by the explosion accident, many artists were actually making works about the Al-Mutanabbi street where the Literary café and the book market are situated.  


The poet Saleh Hassan Farism made a performance during the ‘War on Error’ event in Amsterdam, the 3rd July 2007. Photo and Courtesy : RobertK


Then, another question is : ”what is art?. Is the wreck a kind of ”found object(objet trouvé)” ? Is the action of a curator to elevate a found object to the level of art valid? Or can they only become art if transformed by an artist? Essentially, the definition of art is a political construct. It’s rather a public opinion held by the majority, without any clear definition.

After the show in Gemak, the wrecks took on still other meanings : one of the wrecks was transformed into jewellery by some Dutch jeweller and artists who made an exhibition of the jewels. It’s interesting to see how the metal scraps of, wrecks can be transformed into jewellery. Whereas the material itself had no value, the knowledge of where it comes from makes the value of the jewellery. As to the other wreck, I loaned it to the Station Museum of Houston. Then came the New Museum who contacted me for the British artist Jeremy Deller’s project. So I donated the remaining wreck to the New Museum. Now it has actually gone across the U.S. The next step will be the Imperial War Museum in London(4).

Q Seen from the entire itinerary, the meaning of the wrecks must have gone through quite a transformation.

A Yes. To start with, there’s the transformation of the physical aspect. In fact the metal rusts very quickly and the remaining wreck is very delicate. After each transportation, becomes more compact and square. It might end up like a piece by Cesar. I don’t even know if I’ll still recognize the wreck when I see it again. About their meaning, the wreck remains a vehicle, not for passengers but for thought and projection. People think about the wreck and the wreck kind of transports their thoughts. That’s why I decided to lend the wrecks to a punk rock festival where it’d be seen as some cool evil object, or to a charity event to invoke sympathy for the victims of war, no matter how the origin of the wrecks might be ignored. Essentially it’s as if the wrecks were still on the move and took one passenger/thought, puts him/it down at one stop, then take on another….


1. A.k.a. RobertK. The quotation is from his interview with Nat Muller : RobertK’s website :

2. See my interview with Jeremy Deller on this blog : 

3. About Gemak, see

4. More info about the project by Jeremy Deller in the Imperial War Museum in London (starting in September 2010) : 

【Interview made by Sylvie Lin in February 2010 in Paris. An edited version of the interview, translated into Chinese, was published on ‘Artco’ monthly in Taiwan, in August 2010. All rights reserved.】

More About Robert Kluijver 

Robert Kluijver, a Dutch national born in Cyprus, graduated from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques/Sciences Po in Paris. He lived in Afghanistan for six and half years: first under the Taliban, then as political affairs officer for the United Nations. From 2003 to 2006, he set up and directed the Afghan Foundation for Culture and Civil Society (FCCS), the first cultural organisation in Kabul, as a centre for the production and display of local contemporary culture.

He was behind the creation of the first Afghan Pavilion in the Venice Biennale in 2005 (the artists received a prize from the government of Taiwan). In 2007 he brought two exploded car wrecks from Baghdad to Europe. One of the vehicles was then donated to the British artist Jeremy Deller for his project ‘It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq’ which traveled across the U.S. That wreck is now in the Imperial War Museum of London.

Kluijver now is a freelance curator specializing in the emerging Middle Eastern art scene. He mainly organizes exhibitions of political art in the Netherlands, but he also teaches international relations at Sciences Po in Paris and travels extensively through the Middle East for his research.


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