Hammer Projects: Walead Beshty

Hammer Projects: Walead Beshty

In 2001, Walead Beshty happened upon a short article in a German newspaper about the Iraqi diplomatic mission located in former East Berlin. Due to shifting political regimes, it is now a space occupied by countries whose sovereignty is either defunct or in question. Abandoned for over ten years, this embassy turned squatter's haven now offers only glimpses of its past life of ambassadors and dignitaries. Beshty traveled to the mission repeatedly, collecting photographs, speaking to former Iraqi officials, and even taking up residence for a short period.

Beshty's installation acts as a portal to the mission and includes a brutalized bag of embassy ephemera that bears the marks of an inspection by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; waiting room furniture; reading material; and a telephone line that connects museum visitors to a phone at the mission in Berlin. The image of the mission's facade is a composite of two photographs, one spanning the transition from night into day, the other from day into night; other photographs record the impressions of books left after a recent fire. The larger works document the scars on Beshty's camera film left by airport x-ray machines and security checkpoints in its movement across international borders. Their vaporous discolorations add an unexpected beauty to the office debris.

Beshty's work explores not only the history of photography, but also the way in which photography shapes our understanding of history. He makes this enduring relationship visible by bringing together images of ambiguous places, altering them, and exhibiting them as documentation. Beshty invites the viewer into a surrogate of a place that, though real, by legal definition does not exist. This tenuous link between what is authentic and what is reproduced parallels the medium of photography itself, which captures moments in time that our eyes are trained to believe truly occurred. Beshty's work offers us a chance to experience the sense of uncertainty that this place engenders, lying unsteadily on a line between past and present, fact and fiction, day and night.


Walead Beshty was born in London in 1976 and currently lives in Los Angeles. He received his MFA in 2002 from the Yale University School of Art and his BA from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, in 1999. He is on the faculty of the Department of Art at CalArts, Valencia, and has served as a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles and Irvine. Beshty has had solo exhibitions at P.S. 1/MoMA Contemporary Art Center and Wallspace in New York and at China Art Objects Galleries in Los Angeles. His work was also included in group exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; the Whitney Museum of American Art and White Columns in New York; and the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, Massachusetts. In October, the artist will participate in the 2006 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach. Reviews and articles on Beshty's work have appeared in Artforum, Frieze, and The New Yorker.

Conversation with Walead Beshty

The following are excerpts from a conversation between Walead Beshty and Aimee Chang about Beshty's Hammer Project based on the abandoned Iraqi diplomatic mission in Berlin.

Walead Beshty: In 2001 a friend showed me a short blurb in the newspaper about a fire in the abandoned Iraqi diplomatic mission to East Germany (GDR). It was right around the time when the U.S. was going into Afghanistan and the current war with Iraq was about to happen. The newspaper article indicated that it had been abandoned but that it was still filled with debris, which squatters had used to start a fire that had gotten out of control. I started to research it and ended up visiting the site soon after, finding out that it had been abandoned sometime between the Berlin Wall coming down and the first gulf war. The site itself was given by the GDR to Iraq in perpetuity, which was unusual, so even after reunification it continued to be Iraqi soil. It is something of a snapshot of the end of the cold war; it seems that everything had been left behind in a hurry. It made me think of the stories about the abandoned colony at Roanoke. I returned several times and produced a preliminary work about the site with Eric Schwab, which we published in 2003.

The diplomatic mission initially interested me because of its state of perpetual ruin. It is unique as a ruin in that it isn't simply neglected, but is marooned by international law. German teens looking to drink beer and hang out can sneak in, but no agent of the state can legally set foot on the grounds because of laws protecting national sovereignty, even though the GDR and the Republic of Iraq no longer exist. From a legal standpoint it is invisible, and one can become invisible by entering it. While the mission sits next to virtually identical buildings, connected to them by proximity, it is actually completely detached, a part of another country, a nonexistent one. You can hop a fence and enter international limbo, a sovereignty-free zone . . . entering it is a kind of time travel. The idea for the Hammer exhibition is a kind of cold war waiting room; it seems we are left with large fragments of cold war mentality. Language about evil empires still exists, though such phrases seem strangely anachronistic, like the Iraqi diplomatic mission itself. I want to extend the odd stasis of the mission, its place between moments and meanings. That indeterminacy is why the Lobby Gallery is so attractive to me; as a space it is between inside and outside, a middle ground.

Aimee Chang: 


AC:  Excursionist Views


 Excursionist Views Island Flora 

Aimee Chang is Exhibition Coordinator and Assistant Curator at the Hammer Museum.


Hammer Projects are made possible with support from The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, Fox Entertainment Group's Arts Development Fee, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and members of the Hammer Circle.

Support for this Project was also provided by ART2102, Los Angeles.