Julian Thompson

Going nowhere: rusting monuments in salted earth

Image of artwork

Highly commended

oil on cotton
81 x 183 cm

On a deployment to the Taji Military Complex, Iraq, I had the opportunity to visit Saddam-era ‘tank graveyards’ – sprawling expanses of lumbering military junk whose forms sprout from salted earth like fields of oversized, rusting metallic mushrooms. They represent scenes of utter desolation, a malign calculus of environmental and human tragedy weighed by symbolism of an army (once the world’s fourth largest) beset by repeated war and invoking the ghosts of a generation of young Iraqis sacrificed at the altar of dictatorial megalomania.

To visit the tank graveyard is to behold recent history’s tragic arc in a land whose proud, ancient achievements are subsumed into the relentless chaos and suffering of recent decades. It is impossible not to ponder history here; it seems to seep from every rusting metal panel and float between monolithic vehicle bodies like an invisible vapour, imbuing the site with the sombre melancholy of a million dead from the Iran–Iraq war, the terrified panic of retreating soldiers overrun as Kuwait was re-taken, or any number of minute personal anecdotes we will never know. This painting is my response to these unsettling histories.

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