Damaris Colhoun

Art Grenade

Two Artists Bring Their Military Experiences Home

Discussed: Guerilla Performance Art, Soft-Shell Humvees, Watching War on TV, Faking One’s Own Death, War Awareness Art, Refusing to Profit, Collusion and Collision, Untherapeutic Creativity, Spelling with Dead Snakes, The Trope of the Addled Veteran, The Middle-Class “Spectator-Citizen,” A Row Over a Billy Club

The grenade had to go. It was October 2005, and Jesse Albrecht, an MFA student at the University of Iowa and a recent Iraq War veteran, had just finished installing his final art show at a gallery space on campus. A few hours later, he was teaching a class in ceramics when a school administrator phoned him and told him the show would be shut down. The problem was not the fifty-caliber rounds he had arranged in the shape of a giant grinning skull on the floor, nor was it the looming sculptural forms whose hooded silhouettes evoked the prisoners of Abu Ghraib. It was a glittery object that looked very much like a combat-issue grenade. Albrecht tried to explain that it was a plastic dummy, doctored with duct tape, Bondo, and a coat of gunmetal-gray paint. He was told that didn’t matter. In a time when fears of terrorism ran high, he had to lose the grenade or he would lose the show.

Albrecht found the ultimatum difficult to swallow. In his eyes, the war and his art were inseparable. He had been in his second year at grad school, studying art, in September 2001, when the planes crashed into the towers. Eighteen months later, he was on his way to Mosul with the Iowa National Guard. Part of a unit attached to the 101st Airborne Division, he served as a combat medic, treating wounded soldiers, running security convoys, and bringing doctors and medical supplies to hospitals around the city in one of the soft-shell Humvees that would become emblematic of just how unprepared the US military was for the kind of war it found in Iraq. He found creative ways to cope. After reinforcing the Humvee with sandbags and soldered metal doors, Albrecht and one of his buddies fixed a long metal spike to its roof and christened it with a new name, which they wrote on the windshield in marker: War Pig. Meanwhile, his sketchbook became a repository for things he saw in the field: abundant graffiti, crumbling ruins, and the ghostly presence of Saddam Hussein, whose face appeared in tattered posters and on the faces of junk-shop watches.

When the insurgency picked up, and his aid station saw more action, Albrecht turned his uniform into a canvas, sketching dice and clovers along the inside of his cap and across the flaps of his medical kit. Every morning before heading out, he’d sit on his bunk with his cap in his hand and say the Lord’s Prayer. Keeping his thumbs and eyes on the clovers and dice, he’d pray not to have his arms and legs blown off. He’d petition for a quiet day at the station, for nobody to get hurt.

In September of the following year, Albrecht returned to art school, where Iraq would remain both his specter and his muse. He was twenty-six by then, with auburn hair, chiseled features, and a growing collection of tattoos. He had a crocodile plated in scales on his forearm, and a pinup girl reclining into a martini glass on his shoulder. On his chest he had inked a pair of eagles—the one that took him to war and the one that brought him back home. On campus he walked the hallways with the same kind of revved-up awareness that had helped him survive in Mosul, while his work became increasingly kinetic. In an illustration class, he transfigured his old Humvee into the character of a sinister-looking hog. “Thanks for the Memories, War Pig!” read the caption. Using charcoal, oil sticks, and a Bic four-color pen, he sketched scoffing, cartoony portraits of Saddam Hussein, half naked on a bed, glancing coyly over his shoulder, and others of himself holding a gun to his temple. In sculpture class, he confronted the memories of an attack that occurred in early November of 2004 and left two young soldiers mutilated. Albrecht had treated them both in his tent. Using Bondo and duct tape he made a grenade in honor of them, in memory of a day that Albrecht recalled as the “moment that ripped through everything.”

Meanwhile, many of Albrecht’s peers at art school had never seen a war. They watched them on TV. As he saw it, the closure of his show was one more example of the insulated American public. “They thought a fake grenade was scary? Try having mortars dropping down on you and the trailers where you sleep fifteen to twenty times day. Try sitting around waiting for people to die or get hurt,” Albrecht fumed.

He decided to stage a performance that would simulate his experiences in Iraq as closely as possible. “I wanted to remove the spin from the combat experience,” Albrecht explained. “I began to feel like I had to do something crazy to myself—to my actual body—in order to make them listen.” He began by forming an ad-hoc coalition called the Artists Against Expression, and recruited two of his closest friends—Dan Cox, a ceramics student who worked in the studio next door, and Adam Krueger, from the sculpture department—to join him as members. Together, the three of them hatched a plan to enact a series of frightening, unpredictable actions on campus over the course of three days. In effect, they planned to lay siege to the school, beginning with the “kidnapping” of Albrecht himself.

Two days later, Cox and Krueger pulled on ski masks and burst into a classroom where Albrecht was teaching. Students gaped and cowered as they watched the masked men tackle their teacher, bag his head, and drag him away. Later, in the dingy basement of Cox’s home, Albrecht made a statement on video while his friends stood behind him holding Glocks and rifles slung across their chests. Albrecht looked into the camera. His voice was careening and raw: “How many Iowans are in Iraq right now? You wanna see what’s going on in Iraq? I guess I didn’t get the handbook on how to make art. You can’t have anything be too real.”

Albrecht wanted the performance to echo the live terrorist executions that were streaming over the news. This effect would strike a nerve two days later when Cox, Krueger, and a growing group of masked recruits marched Albrecht back into the gallery, where they had installed the video among his other work. There, in front of a crowd of eighty to one hundred people, Cox forced Albrecht to his knees, punched him in the face numerous times, and pretended to slit his throat while bursting open a squid pack full of fake blood. The crowd fell silent as Albrecht slumped to the floor in a widening pool of corn syrup. Only a specter of the grenade remained: hours earlier, Albrecht had snuck into the space and scrawled a message across the wall in its place. It read, “When I close my eyes it doesn’t go away.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Damaris Colhoun is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her articles have been published in the Point and the Daily Beast. In May, she received a Pulitzer travel grant for her work in long-form journalism.

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