War memorials bear the constant duty to point towards fragments of the past, framing and reifying that which we sanction as official history. Although these monuments stand in for our memories, there is often a determined effort to forget - to misremember and to disremember the past. As contested instruments of history, war photography is often put into the service of mediating and negotiating the engagement between remembrance and disremembrance. Since Roger Fenton's propagandistic use of photography1 during the Crimean War of 1855, the use of the camera to extinguish individual memories and instead magnify politically tendentious myths, propagated by its makers and more pointedly by its exploiters, trenchantly exposes the malleability of the photograph's position within an array of ideological forces and mnemonic media devices.
For Harrell Fletcher's 'The American War' at LAXART2 in Los Angeles, the artist has strategically restaged the War Remnants Museum of Ho Chi Minh City from an acerbically reversed vantage point, underlining the atrocities carried out by the American military in Vietnam. There is a certain poignancy to this deceptively simple re-presentation of war images: Fletcher, using a digital point-and-shoot camera, often at slight angles to keep glares at a minimum, re-photographed in entirety the pictures and text labels that depict or describe the ravages of the Vietnam conflict. In addition, the walls in the exhibition space are painted a pastel blue, mimicking the wall color of the original museum, which is visible on the fringes of some of the 're-photographs'. Fletcher's pictures are framed in lightly stained wood, in stark contrast to the originals from the museum, which are apparently housed in deteriorating aluminum frames. In some sense, the visible decay and neglect of the documents in Fletcher's pictures point to the fading of history and the image's own psychic disappearance. As Walter Benjamin observed in Theses on the Philosophy of History: 'For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.'3 This re-presentation is an aesthetically and materially modified version of the decaying original, a repackaged bootleg for another audience and another time.
Harrell Fletcher, The American War, billboard project, La Cienega Boulevard between Venice and Washington Boulevard facing north. Courtesy LAXART. Photograph by Lesley Moon. Part of LAXART's Public Art Initiatives
What is meant by this seemingly simple gesture of re-photographing war photographs and attempting to recreate the museum from which they came? It seems that the intention is neither simply an appropriation (because the intention of the borrower is not to re-contextualize, but rather to re-present) nor is it an overt act of propaganda (since the procedural or aesthetic decisions fall back on the pragmatic). On the surface, at least in examining the various versions of the project statement, the intention of the artist is didactic: to bring to 'the US population' the experience of the museum. The viewer is thereby confronted with an ostensibly authentic representation of Fletcher's encounter with the original images and texts. The transplantation of the war documents rests in the experiential, first person recount. This, then, becomes the turnstile through which one enters into Fletcher's re-staged museum and one feels his constant presence as a guide, a silent docent, leading the way from picture to picture, from one flash glare to the next.
However, under the weight of altruisticintentions - raising awareness of the unresolved and contentious reading of past wars in the current miasma of another - it is the procedural technicalities in Fletcher's Vietnam project that are perhaps more revelatory. There is a connection to be made between the ease with which one can virtually transplant the entire contents of a museum (this being symptomatic of a new 'visual culture' made possible by digital technologies) and the idea of a new kind of cultural bootlegging. This counterfeit dissemination of content can be seen as historicism in the guise of simple repackaging, or better, instanthistoricism by way of a quick and straightforward lifting or borrowing. One can imagine the effect and power of Fletcher's 'The American War' waning if this bootlegging process is repeated to re-present other historically contested military conflicts (for example, it is not hard to imagine a similar War Remnants Museum in Iraq in the not-so-distant future).
Fletcher's project has a clear procedural relationship to the pirated 'cam' bootlegs that are ubiquitous in Chinatowns from Los Angeles to New York. These clandestine recordings of newly released Hollywood films are shot directly off the screen, in the darkness of the theater, where (in the poorest examples) the skewed angles from the bootlegger's seating position can be seen and the hushed conversations and occasional coughs of other viewers can be heard as a secondary soundtrack. The physicality of the viewing experience becomes part of the bootlegged package. With a similar handmade aesthetic of reproduction, Fletcher's installation evokes this sense of unembellished presence, amplified through the incessant reminder of a meta-viewer that suspends or disrupts, if temporarily, the very didacticism Harrell aims to present.
Putting aside the whole-hearted motivations of the artist-traveler to bring back his enlightened experience, the risks of cultural 'souvenirism' arise, bubbling into a regressive conversation about the photographic representation of violence. The conundrum is complicated further by the overt presence of an author, by way of the bootlegger - the furtive attempt at re-presentation stopped short by the requisite transformation of the anonymous smuggler into recognized artist. However, one can view this transformation as an urgent imperative necessary to bring these artifacts once again into the clouded light of current US foreign policy. To this end, Fletcher, the cultural bootlegger, succeeds in a precarious balance between subdued authorship and guileful subjectivity - to the extent that this is a project contextualized within the domain of art and its various rules of engagement.
Yet, Fletcher's timely, mnemonic re-presentation of The American War exposes a point of view increasingly becoming buried under the amnesiac tendencies of history. The depiction of war crimes viscerally engages the viewer, demanding a confrontation with the human capacity for barbarism and catastrophe, in many instances helping to inspire and steer public consensus against wars, as many widely circulated images of the Vietnam War did during the prolonged conflict. The mobility of the photographers and the efficiency in the dissemination of Vietnam War images sets it apart from previous wars in that the spectatorship of war became ever closer, both in the subjectively improved reportage introduced by the Magnum School and a temporal immediacy through television and rapid wire transmission. Susan Sontag voiced a paradoxical sentiment regarding war photographs: 'War was and still is the most irresistible - and picturesque - news.'4 To tourists and travelers, once devastated places such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos have an equivalent appeal to war images; people seem to believe that by visiting these sites, one can perhaps gain some level of understanding of the plights and misfortunes that took place there. More so than any other, these sites demand one to not only look at the past but to attempt to make sense of the senseless. A similar prodding happens in looking at photographs of war. One cannot know or understand the event depicted in a photograph apart from what is excluded. Texts or captions can occasionally fill in the blanks but in most cases, the context must be excavated by the viewer. Fletcher's re-staged museum recirculates the images into the public conscience, thus serving to remind a forgetful populace of America's dark past in Vietnam. More importantly though, it also reactivates them in the present context, begging a comparison to the continued atrocities in Iraq. His bootlegged museum becomes a silent monument to the false pretense of 'democratic' imperialism, waging a pictorial war against the present state of affairs.
- Arthur Ou
Due to political and commercial concerns, Fenton decidedly avoided making photographs that would have portrayed the British involvement in the Crimean War in a negative light. For example, there were no photographs of battles or the horrors of their aftermath. For a detailed history of Fenton's Crimean War photographs, see Woody Woodis, Roger Fenton Crimean War Photographs, Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress [online resource] (last updated in June 2002); available from http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/251_fen.html; Internet; accessed on 15 April 2007.↑
Walter Benjamin, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', in Illuminations, New York: Schoken Books, 1978, p.255.↑
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Penguin Books, 2004, p.87.↑