What follows is the text of an interview with Smith concerning his April 2006 installation "Fallujah Blues" at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston, Rhode Island, published in the April 5, 2006 issue of The Newport Mercury:
RUSS SMITH, 49
When Russ Smith's artistic outlet shifted from songwriting to installation art, he found himself inspired by ARTE POVERA, an artistic movement first seen in Italy and Greece during the 1960s. These artists took items from everyday life and incorporated them into their art. To pay his bills, Smith still has a day job as a landscaper but in his studio in North Kingstown he collects his "found objects" to make three-dimensional pieces. His latest installation, "Fallujah Blues," at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston focuses on a grisly event in Iraq, drawing references between certain political, social and economic groups.
Q. What is "Fallujah Blues" made out of?
A. The main part of the installation is the center of the gallery with sand, bricks and cinder blocks with pieces of metal to represent what remains after a truck bombing. Suspended from the light fixtures is charred clothing. It is all meant to represent the attack that happened two years ago on March 31, 2004, when these four American mercenaries were attacked in Fallujah. They were not even American soldiers, they were private mercenaries working for Blackwater USA.
Q. What kind of company is that?
A. It's a private, military company. Blackwater provides security services in Iraq. As I researched the attacks, I discovered that the privatization of warfare is a big part of the war in Iraq. A lot of the traditional work of soldiers is being outsourced and delegated.
Q. What happened on March 31, 2004?
A. These four men were in Fallujah that day working for Blackwater and they were riding in two vehicles and the vehicles were attacked by a mob of insurgents. You may remember it got a lot of publicity because after the trucks were bombed and the men were shot, their corpses were set on fire and then they were mutilated. There's a bridge over the Euphrates River in Fallujah and parts of the corpses were hung from the bridge and it was in the newspapers and on TV and it really resonated with me. It made me realize how horrible this war is and how much hatred for America there must be for these people to not only kill the mercenaries but also mutilate them that way. So the charred clothing is meant to represent that.
Q. Are you afraid of turning people off with your exhibit?
A. No, not really. I want to get the message out to people. I want to make sure that people know what happened when Fallujah was invaded. I don't think many people are aware of what happened. I think people in Europe are much more knowledgeable of what really happened than people in the U.S. I think the media there does a better job presenting all of the information to them.
Q. Was the exhibit shown in other venues?
A. Yes, it was shown in Shelton, Connecticut, in a gallery called the "Starpin" and last fall a smaller version of it was displayed at Massachusetts College of Art. The version that's on display at the Courthouse Center for the Arts now has more text and more information on what happened in Fallujah. The other two installations were similar, but didn't include the background information of what happened to the civilians when Fallujah was invaded.
Q. What reaction did you get from audiences that saw the earlier versions?
A. They were very moved by it. At the Starpin Gallery there was one person who had just returned from Iraq and the installation brought back memories of experiences from when he was there. People obviously find it dark and disturbing but they seem thankful for the opportunity to learn a little bit more about what really happened.
Q. So what really happened after these four men were killed in Fallujah?
A. Because the attacks were so visible and got so much press, there was a lot of pressure on the military to send a message. In November 2004, they launched this massive attack on Fallujah. They called it "Operation Phantom Fury." They literally decimated the city. They used something called Incendiary White Phosphorus, which was used in Vietnam. Italian documentary filmmakers Sigfrido Ranucci and Maurizio Torrealta documented that the U.S. Forces had used White Phosphorus on civilians. What that chemical does is it melts flesh and burns all the way to the bone. It's designed to burn until it runs out of oxygen. One part of the installation includes the documentary photographs from that Italian broadcast. The photographs are available on the Internet and they're very graphic.
Q. How many civilians were killed?
A. According to my research, 36,000 of the 50,000 homes in Fallujah were either damaged or destroyed, 60 schools, 65 mosques and shrines. The U.S. refuses to do body counts when it comes to civilians but there was a study done by Johns Hopkins University. It was published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, and according to their research, they say that the Iraqi death toll since the beginning of the war was at least 100,000 as of November of 2004 when the operation was taking place. That same study reported that women and children account for at least 50 percent of the dead.
Q. How did you arrive at the Fallujah theme?
A. I'm just troubled by what I am seeing. I watch George Bush and Dick Cheney on the TV and I think what bothers me the most is the arrogance that I pick up on. They just seem to be so sure of themselves and what I find missing is humility. I think one thing our leaders need to show is a little bit of humility, a little bit of open-mindedness. I'm just bothered that so many people are dying. American kids, Iraqi kids, and I'm not convinced that it was a war that needed to be fought.