Notes on the Loves and Lives of Stamp Soldiers
On Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country (2007)
A few days after the artist Ahmed Bassiouny was shot, newspapers published his photograph along with those of other young people killed during the early days of the 2011 uprising in Egypt Shortly after that, Bassiouny’s image appeared on merchandise for sale: stickers, hats, T-shirts. At a few pounds each, prints of these photographs circulated as “faces of the revolution” collectibles, an uncanny transformation of a familiar face onto an item to be purchased and shared.
Visual imagery taps into a prelingual space in the mind and informs a more or less magical way of thinking. Consider the force and power of a crowd defacing an image of a dictator, or the opposite, commemorating the dead by reproducing their images and releasing them into the public sphere. What is fascinating is the manner in which archaic and obsolete superstitions regarding images break into our modern life. People are uncomfortable throwing away images of loved ones; neither would they ever cut out the eyes from a photograph of their mother, as W. J. T. Mitchell notes in his introduction to What Do Pictures Want?
The stamps designed by war-memorial artist Steve McQueen comprise a series depicting young British soldiers who died during the Iraq war. Created after a visit to Iraq in 2003, the stamps allow us to reflect on the transformation of an image into an object—not simply any type of commodity, but, more specifically, an art object. It is essential to consider the medium of McQueen’s project, the entire range of material required for its creation: not only the paper used to print the stamps, but the entirety of the actual procedures involved: the invitation to families of the deceased to send images of lost loved ones; the soliciting of the Royal Mail for permission to allow for the stamp project to be moved from proposition to circulation; the challenging of the regulations, systems, and histories of the mail service; and so on.
These stamps—as objects produced, bought, used, exchanged, and collected as a commodity—are also transfigured into something transcendent. The stamps portraying these soldiers appear as animated, living things, endowed with emotions, intentions, desire, and agency. The stamps, as image-objects, are quasi-persons addressing us: any response we have to the work is directly interpellated by the image at hand.
The stories of these stamps as objects as well as artworks provide a particular attraction. Their status mediates a double desire; the image-objects both want to “own” and to “renounce.” To look and closely consider these image-objects as commemorative stamps of dead soldiers, as artworks, allows the cloak of object-hood to fall back just a little, and to reveal the image-object itself as a subject.
In the margins of Reynolds’s Discourse on Art, William Blake states that art plays a leading role, and empire follows. Here is a situating of “art” as a nominative status within a general (imperial) reflection on object-hood. The images of McQueen’s stamps cannot escape the legacy of Britain’s history. And yet, what is the social life of these stamps? What are the objectives of these stamps as “objects”? The stamps undergo a “worlding,” by virtue of their circulation, which reasserts what they allude to, and the origin of their becoming—namely, the war. The stamps as art objects constitute certain “object lessons.” Art as a distinct category of objects is often conjugated within the colonial encounter; as such McQueen’s stamps become a part of an imperial category. The end of imperialism generates compensatory forms of nostalgia in its own right, and objects can rise as figures in the landscape of empire, in the form of narrations, actions, and artworks.
The work itself, in McQueen’s own words, does not offer a pro- or anti-war commentary. Though I propose to understand the project beyond the artist’s intention, I also know that this approach is hardly enough. In this case, the images of war soldiers embody a direct and unmediated connection to the British invasion of Iraq. Whatever the vitality of certain images, their possession of a living character might also be a way of suggesting a new mode of ethical evaluation. Whatever is done to the image is also done to what the image stands for. Thus the creation, exhibition, circulation, and collection of these stamps commemorating deceased soldiers all raise the question: What do these images mean to do, and what do they mean to be done to them?
Sarah Rifky is a curator and writer based in Cairo. She is the founder of CIRCA (Cairo International Resource Center for Art) and has been co-directing Beirut since 2012.
- W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 31. The title of this piece is based on that book’s subtitle. return to text
- Mitchell, 121. return to text
- William Blake, “Annotations to The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds,” The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), 635–61. return to text