In Baghdad, it’s Shock and Awe, but in New York City, it’s Terror. “What’s in a name?” asked Juliet, fatally underesimating the power of labels, “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In 1956, Chairman Mao proclaimed, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools of thought contend,” inviting the Chinese intelligentsia to offer some constructive criticism of his communist policies. Naive intellectuals answered in droves, allowing Mao to pick them off like flies; those who got off lucky were sent into exile.
When Harrell Fletcher re-photographed every picture and every piece of wall text in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, brought the results to America, and recreated his view of the museum in art venues across the country, he invited the American art-viewing public through the looking glass. He invited us to see how we, through our representatives, Our Boys circa 1970, looked to the Vietnamese, as we were making the world safe for democracy, wreaking havoc, and inciting terror.
Harrell Fletcher’s The American War is about words as much as it is about images. It’s about the subtle, sometimes invisible linguistic choices that can determine the way horrifying images are understood. The American War is about more ideas than could possibly fit into one review, defying review as it compels review. Looked at straight on, it’s barely art at all, but it crowds the viewer’s peripheral vision, meaning vision in the imaginative sense, with more ideas, images and feelings than any one person can truly process alone. It’s a conversation piece.
The last thing I wanted to do this afternoon, after a long day of work, was walk to 18th and Northrup to look at images of horribly disfigured children. I was motivated to go by the friction of contrasting opinions, discovered through reading and conversation. Whose side was I on? I needed to find out.
I work in an environment strewn with newspapers; everyday, I’m surrounded by images of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Noble Eagle, but on my lunch break, I usually opt to just escape into the world of the Living Section, evaluating the advice of the newest crop of Dear Abby’s, rearranging things I already know in the crossword puzzle, checking out celebrities’ musings on their own sex appeal or the sex appeal of other celebrities. But on Friday, I read the A&E, which is a little meatier. I work with a friend who does volunteer work with refugees and keeps a close eye on global human rights violations. Always looking for areas in which our interests converge, I pointed out DK Row’s positive review of The American War to her and said, “You should go to that.”
She was unconvinced and counter-pointed out a short Willamette Week review comprised mainly of probing questions about the ethics of the show. I didn’t know how to respond, so I started talking about Sherry Levine. I explained that Sherry Levine had appropriated other people’s artworks, re-photographing famous photographers’ works and exhibiting them as her own, most notably Walker Evans’ images of poor sharecroppers. This is art nerd / Walter Benjamin / Marcel Duchamp / postmodern / poststructuralist brain candy, I acknowledged, but it brings up some humanistic questions too. Levine’s gesture highlights the way in which Evans has used the less fortunate to further his career, casting them as actors in a drama that he directed and that largely took place in an entirely different milieu than the one in which his subjects lived. He was working for the Farm Security Administration documenting the Great Depression. By 1981, when Levine was entering her appropriative phase, his work had become famous, and a part of art history. A few cultures equate photography with soul-stealing and this belief never seems less silly than when a photographer is actually garnering money or acclaim from exposing another’s careworn face, and, by extenstion, his or her soul .
When I arrived at Harrell Fletcher’s The American War, the curator of the visual arts component of TBA, PICA’s own Kristan Kennedy, was gallery sitting. We started chatting about the show and some visitors who were milling around seized this conversational opening to initiate an exhaustive dialogue about the ethical implications of Harrell Fletcher’s The American War. I listened to opinions on the work, theirs and Kristan’s, for what felt like an hour before making it in to check it out myself. The conversation was pretty interesting, and it seems only right to share some of the visitors’ views, particularly since they (a hard to date, but probably 50-ish couple, a woman and a man) seemed so disturbed that the issues they saw as being essential to debate about the show weren’t being discussed in the press. I pointed out that someone had raised the question of exploitation, but the woman thought that the real issue was colonialism. Fletcher had gone to another country, taken what he wanted, returned to the security of home and repositioned it according to his Western paradigm, an art paradigm no less. The man found Fletcher’s decision to present the War Remnants Museum as “his” art to be selfish and unnecessary. He questioned why Fletcher hadn’t simply arranged to have the War Remnants Museum tour the United States on its own, why he had taken a more personal, possibly sneakier tack. They pointed out that if he had done something like this within the United States, with say, a Native American history museum, he would have wound up in court.
One thing that became apparent during this conversation was the way a viewer’s age influences this exhibition’s impact. Kristan and I couldn’t remember the war in question; the frustrated visitors could. The man said that he couldn’t see the exhibition as commentary on the situation in Iraq because he didn’t see the war in Vietnam as history, as something that was truly in the past or in any way resolved. I suggested that perhaps Fletcher didn’t see the work as art, but was using his position as a famous artist with access to museum-like spaces to draw the public’s attention to something he considered worthy of consideration. Kristan stressed the validity of the piece as an artwork against both my sympathetic interpretation and the visitors’ hostility. Thus debriefed, I entered The American War.
It’s what you’d expect, just totally horrifying pictures of people being victimized by American GI’s and deformed children of Agent Orange. There’s one particular picture of a soldier holding up the remains of another human being that can only be described as a pelt. The soldiers mouth is open making an expression. I’m not sure if its laughter but the caption indicates that it is, then adds, “In my feelings I wonder whether he could have been a monster or a human being?.” I don’t want this picture in my head–I’m still trying to forget it. I’m not surprised at this level of cruelty anymore, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it pictured so vividly. The captions are the reason to look at these pictures. The Vietnamese label loss and horror differently than Americans. A chart of statistics reads:
3 million killed
4 million injured
2 million affected by chemicals
500 infants malformed
170,000 old people get lonesome as their children or relatives were killed during the war
The captions are photographed separately, with the bottom edges of the photographs they belong with often visible in the top of the frame. Fletcher highlights his subjective viewpoint, his presence as observer, by recreating pictorially his act of seeing, looking at the photo and then the caption. He highlights the caption, giving equal weight to language and image, because, it seems, language is the key to this exhibition’s status as art. Fletcher created The American War with different intentions than the architects of the War Remnants Museum. He didn’t want to only show what happened in Vietnam from a Vietnamese perspective; he wanted to show himself in the process of trying to understanding what the Vietnam War meant to the Vietnamese. There’s a humility in that gesture that’s inextricably mixed up with the inherent selfishness of claiming anything, popular assumptions that an exhibition space for art is a rarified realm and the American cultural tradition of white male entitlement.
I left the show feeling that Fletcher’s intentions are honorable. He’s bitten off more than he can chew, but that’s what good artists do sometimes. Consider Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial. Many veterans hated this idea at first–a big black slab. They wanted something literal, accessible, figurative. But, slowly, the wall’s power became obvious. People could find the name of their lost loved one. They could make a rubbing of the name and take it home. They could see themselves reflected in the wall, in the act of honoring the dead. Fletcher’s Memorial also draws on the power of words and reflections.
History is written by the victors, but no one won the Vietnam War just as no one won the American War. Fletcher has wedged himself in the crack between these wars, made a human-sized hole, and invited us in.
Thank you for bearing with me through my very long review,
Jessica Bromer