Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Small Wars

Night Operations #7, from 29 Palms series, 2003-04

Stability Operations (Iraqi Police), from 29 Palms series, 2003-04

Small Wars (rescue), 1999-2002

An-My Le: "Small Wars" at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.
This exhibition comprises two photographic series by An-My Lê that explore the military conflicts that have framed the last half-century of American history: the war in Vietnam and the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The artist approaches these events obliquely. Instead of addressing her subject by creating reportage images of actual shocking events, she photographs places where war is psychologically anticipated, processed, and relived. Her series Small Wars (1999-2002) depicts men who spend their weekends reenacting battles from the Vietnam War in the forests of Virginia. Lê’s current series, 29 Palms (2003-present), documents a military base of the same name; located in the California desert, it is where soldiers train before being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. These dramatizations of war—one a reenactment, one a rehearsal—allow her to create a unique kind of war imagery—one that is unexpected, removed, and revelatory.

Lê, who was born in Vietnam in 1960 and came to the United States as a refugee in 1975, created Small Wars to explore, as she describes it, “the Vietnam of the mind.”
The war games Lê photographed are elaborate. While her pictures present men—some of them veterans, others history buffs – as they simulate combat and war routines using detailed props such as grounded airplanes, tents, and uniforms, the images do not include any of the glaring anachronisms that may have been present. It is the landscape that provides the most telltale signs of falsehood: the flora is typical North American pine and oak forest, nothing like the dense, tropical jungle that covers much of Vietnam. Lê was often asked to participate in the reenactments, her ethnicity presumably adding an element of authenticity to the make-believe.

Lê’s pictures from 29 Palms in many ways subversively mirror the media’s sanitized view of the Iraq war. They present no blood, no gore, no cruelty, no shock; they simply show us preparations for battle. Like the forests of Virginia and the Studios of Hollywood (just 150 miles away), 29 Palms is a place where fictions are performed. On the base, marines both rehearse their own roles and play the parts of their adversaries: they are occasionally asked to dress up and act as Iraqi police and civilians, and linguists wearing traditional Iraqi clothing are sometimes brought in to create a ruckus in Arabic. The military housing is tagged with mock anti-American graffiti and fake villages are built of particleboard, their facades like the sets of old western movies. Lê feels that the presence of her camera also feeds the artifice – quite often she thinks it inspires the men to pose themselves to resemble what a “Marine” looks like. She has even heard the soldiers quoting scenes from war movies to one another during training. As Susan Sontag wrote in her 2002 New Yorker essay “Looking at War”, war photographs seem inauthentic if they look too much like a movie still. In a postmodern twist, by taking a documentary approach to the rehearsal for war, Lê asks us to question the very premise of “authentic” photography to begin with.
Karen Irvine, Curator

An-My Lê: Small Wars at MoCP

October 27, 2006 — January 6, 2007

via the brilliant letra corrida

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