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New Works: 05.3
essay by Berta Sichel
Any fact based discourse, such as a documentary film, is just one more sign that we live in a world of social constructs. War is part of this world and, now, more than ever the word “war” has many emotional tonalities. Yet the mediated images of present-day conflict zones displayed on deluxe flat screens strip war of both heroic and bloodthirsty overtones. Media images are never true representations of actual events, since the editing process inevitably alters them. They are arbitrary segments accepted by the viewers as real war. Is it possible to create (or to re create) accurate war images when the conception of war’s reality has already been so radically altered? The American War
by artist Harrell Fletcher, who was a child while when the Vietnam War appeared nightly on the news, defies these circumstances while acting as its own catharsis.
Born in California and now living in Portland. Oregon , (after living with his Blackberry as his main address for a few years) Fletcher’s diverse body of work includes drawings, videos, photographs, installations, and public projects. The invariable note is a trenchant social commentary. At this point in his career it is clear that his work includes a compactness of social and political relations. In June 2005 Fletcher was in Vietnam for a month as part of an international artists´ retreat. While there he visited The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, a memorial museum for what the Vietnamese call “The American War.” Although the narratives of contemporary memorial museums continually repress the traumatic aspects of their subject, The War Remnants Museum has none of those flattening aestheticizations that impress the audiences more with their multi media presentations than with the subject itself. On the walls of The War Remnants Museum, a structure not built by a signature architect, hang more than 200 modestly-framed images with explanatory captions.
Previously called the Museum of American War Crimes, its displays tell the story from an anti American perspective. The museum holds a collection of weapons, machinery, artifacts and horrific photographs illustrating the devastating affects of napalm, Agent Orange and other weapons of mass destruction. One room is dedicated to biological warfare, including the effects of the defoliant sprays dumped over the country. Another room looks at worldwide demonstrations for peace and international opposition to the war. The courtyard houses tanks, helicopters, planes and bombs.
In a two rooms installation at Artpace, realized during his residency there, Fletcher recreated a section of the War Remnants Museum. The artist claimed a space in which his own doubts and resistances might resonate with the viewers’. These appropriated images and their respective captions stand for Fletcher’s effort to comprehend the war that he was too young to understand while it was happening. As the artist says: "I was so affected by what I saw at the museum that I went back several times and eventually re photographed all of the images and text descriptions from the main museum.” I used my digital camera and took the shots trying to avoid reflections, so the images have an oddly casual quality but are still accurate representations of the material depicted at the museum, with a similarly horrifying quality.”
The texts contain explosive possibilities, staking out a veritable minefield. The display of images and texts resembles a photo essay - a format that favors complexity and the synthesis between words and images. The power of any individual image in Fletcher´s collection makes us think that warfare is not a distant experience for Americans anymore. Outside the rooms housing the replication of the War Remnants Museum is a display case of other components that complement the installation inside. These include video documentation of a public meeting Fletcher organized in San Antonio, where he invited people who had participated in the war, from soldier to nurses, to speak about their experiences. The public program also included a screening of the movie "Hearts and Minds."
In war time photographs serve as both documents and materials of persuasion. In fact, it is precisely because they are viewed initially as documents that they are so potent as persuasion when framed in the rhetoric of a given cause. Among many examples are Timothy O’Sullivan´s photographs of the dead at Gettysburg, Robert Capa’s image of a Spanish Republican militiaman reeling from a bullet and Nick Ut’s photo of children fleeing a napalm attack in South Vietnam. These images have stayed with us.
Even on looking at Fletcher´s images texts for only a few seconds the viewer will probably experience, as Susan Sontag says in Regarding the Pain of Others, “an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established power." As an artist working mainly on the margins of the market driven world of contemporary art, he insists on the double connotation of the images, suggesting that this project, as do his others, always tries to move the viewers’ attention away from the center to the sidelines. This project was ignited by Fletcher’s experience of visiting The War Remnants Museum and the challenge of representing his reaction to it. Although it deals with an historical artefact, it also reflects what is occurring now. It includes those aspects of the phenomenon of war which encroach on a social space that is seemingly at peace, like the one in which the exhibition takes place.
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