|An-My Lê, Bamboo, Small Wars Series, 1999-2002|
An-My Lê’s exhibition of a selection of photographic works from four different series is fascinating. Simultaneous with the presentation of her new series The Silent General currently on show at the Whitney Bienniale, Marian Goodman has selected key works from several series as an introduction to her photographs in France. I was really impressed by the photographs, but also by Goodman’s curation: the exhibition makes a compelling narrative about the inescapability of war all around us.
Moving from images of the jungle in Vietnam to the streets of New Orleans in The Silent General (2016), it is terrifying to recognize the continuities between the two places and all that takes place in each, even though the photographs don’t explicitly enforce connections. The Mekong Delta, a world that stands still in the wake of a storm, that could be a war, evokes the same haunting history as Sugar Cane Fields on fire in Louisiana. Because we have full knowledge of the injustice and senseless violence committed in these two locations, they become not so far apart, historically or geographically, both in our minds and in the image. What is so powerful is that war is everywhere and nowhere in these images
|An-My Lê, Untitled, Nam Ha, Viêt Nam, 1994|
I started the exhibition in Marian Goodman’s new bookstore space at 66 rue du Temple, opposite the main gallery. Behind the book displays, in a back room, the earliest photographs in the exhibition show a Viêt Nam in 1994-98. The artist went back to her native country and found a world that looks as though it has stood still since the Americans left twenty years earlier. A striking photograph, Untitled, But Thap, Viêt Nam (1996) shows a building in the process of falling down —or perhaps it is in the process of being built—it’s walls not yet finished. But the building makes us ask, “what happened here” that this building stands, just, like this. In other photographs the dense jungle holds the memories of the events it has seen and, as we know, scarred its façade. Every sign of the deluge in An-My-Lê’s photographs is so subtle, like the stain on a girl’s shirt in Untitled, Nam Ha, Viêt Nam, 1994. It could be dirt, her lunch, or a dead insect, but we see blood, and abuse. In addition, somewhere in each photograph of her native Vietnam, An-my Lê blurs the landscape, the look, the jungle, or the air. The blur, or out of focus is a memory, a vision, not quite lucid. And the mystery of what happened here is further trapped in the heavy, thick air of the tropical climate, air that is itself often blurred, memory and mystery thus that is made visual in the photographs.
In the last series of photographs, and undoubtedly the most frightening, we see the re-enactment of war by a group of people in Virginia and North Carolina. They re-enact the Vietnam war as a hobby, perhaps as a way to remember it. An-My Lê gives the games they play the same seriousness and mystery as her photographs of the Vietnamese jungle, thereby asking whether this is a game, therefore a travesty of the suffering of war, or is it a memorial to the whole enterprise? That she doesn’t come out and say which it is, makes the photographs all the more chilling.
The gallery press release underlines the layers of references in An-My Lê’s photographs, ranging from Whitman’s Speciman Days, through Baudrillard, and Hollywood, to Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War landscape. I am not convinced her images function like Fenton’s because even though he photographs landscapes in long shot, there is never a hint of the destruction and violence that goes hand in hand with war. For An-My Lê’s photographs, maybe because they are made in another century, when we have witnessed too many wars, and have become so attuned to its images that we don’t need to see violence to know it’s there: we can imagine it because we have seen it too many times before. This makes her photographs are more devastating than Fenton’s. Also, the referneces to the movies are something else – because unlike other works who might critique the superficiality and performance of something so serious as war in an image, you never know, when looking at her photographs if you are looking at a re-enactment, a memory or war itself. The status of what we see in these photographs is shrouded in as much mystery as the air in the Vietnam jungle – and this mystery is enables the image to resonate well beyond the visit to the gallery.
All images courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery