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War Memorial 

Two views of a conflict we should all look at more closely

Wednesday, May 31 2006
It's a good time to remember the Vietnam War. While that dark spot in American history is never far from popular consciousness, we seem, these days, egregiously blind to its lessons. The two-person exhibition "Disrupted: A Photographic Installation About Memory, History & War" is (despite its pompous title) a heartfelt attempt to address our wartime myopia. Juxtaposing the work of photographers Binh Danh and Elizabeth Moy, it presents two very different approaches to recalling that conflict, and reminds us that history is a living process.

Danh's portraits of fallen Vietnam-era American soldiers printed on tropical leaves are lovely and suitably haunting. Created through photosynthesis — Danh rephotographs portraits from Life magazine, presses negative to leaf, and lets the sun do the rest — the images are literally engrained in the chlorophyll and are richly evocative. Each dead man's face emerges as the leaf ages, reminding us that life is fragile and fleeting. The natural process of photosynthesis forms a poetic bridge between the historical photographic record and its biological counterpart, memory. The dying leaves also suggest the toxic Agent Orange deforestation of Vietnam; they're also a bit magical, like the Shroud of Turin. Embalmed in resin, they feel like relics.

While Danh's work freezes a moment in time, Moy's ambitious "Boundary Extension" series is about reinvigorating old images in a present-day context. The artist mixes snapshots by her father — a helicopter pilot in Vietnam — with her own photographs. For example, she places a picture of her rifle-toting dad, standing casually in front of a helicopter, above a close-up of playing cards on a wooden table. It's not hard to imagine the confident young man gambling in some Vietnamese bar, but there's no mistaking the difference in the images' quality: The older photo is soft and grainy, enlarged beyond the limits of the negative, while the new one is crisp. If Moy intended to fool us, she has failed, but it seems she had a larger project in mind: a visual dialogue, across decades, between father and daughter.

Although the series is the product of two photographers, Moy insists that it be seen as a single work. Her father isn't credited, and she doesn't give the images individual titles — each photo is called Untitled (From the "Boundary Extension" Series). While this lack of specificity forces us to focus on the pictures, it can also be frustrating. The photos are often so obliquely connected that even the barest hint would have helped. In one pairing, for instance, an image of soldiers clinging to a wire in midair is juxtaposed with one of the sky reflected in a sidewalk puddle. The aesthetic similarities — diagonal lines, a blue-gray color scheme — are interesting, but provide little insight. Elsewhere, a staged shot of a man lying face down in the dirt with a woman in camouflage clinging to his legs is so artificial that it feels allegorical, except that it's unclear what the figures represent. Out of place among the snapshots and portraits, it's a jarring detour in a story that's already a challenge to decipher.

These discontinuities are exacerbated by the show's design, which intersperses pieces by Danh and Moy throughout the room. While neither photographer's work is expressly linear, the disconnect between them does a disservice to both. The intricate patchwork of Moy's intensely personal images feels interrupted by Danh's more distant, elegiac approach. And his delicate, subtly colored portraits seem pale and small next to Moy's saturated photos. The leaves work best when they're arranged in groups — as in the installation Life: Dead #4 (From the "Life: One Week's Dead" Series), in which a range of foliage, each unique shape imprinted with a different face, dangles from the ceiling as if afloat.

Although they're undeniably affecting, after a while Danh's chlorophyll prints begin to feel monotonous, plagued in part by the same lack of specificity that troubles Moy's project. While the printing technique is ingenious, the leaves are so numerous and anonymous that we start to take the process for granted — it ceases to be a meaningful conceptual move and becomes just another medium of expression. This is especially true of the larger prints. In these works, instead of using the natural, irregular shapes of individual leaves to frame an image, Danh collages them together and crops them into rectangles. Printed with a grid of portraits (again from the pages of Life), they're installed in vitrines on the floor, suggestive of casket shrouds. But the rectangular shape feels forced, as if Danh is trying to fit his trademark technique into a more standard format.

While Danh's work is beautiful and conceptually taut, it feels airtight. By contrast, Moy's work, perhaps because of its inconsistencies, seems to breathe. It asks a lot of the viewer, but it also feels alive, tracing a fragile, real-life connection with her father (who is still in the military and currently serving in Iraq) that bridges time and experience. The series culminates with recent photos. In one portrait, Moy's dad's face, luminous against an inky background, reveals an openness and vulnerability absent from the cocky snapshot of the young man with the gun and the helicopter. In the final image, father and daughter pose together. Leaning back against one another while gazing skyward, their heads rest on each other's shoulders. Here allegory works perfectly: The bodies of the photographers are entwined like their visions.

Both Danh and Moy are engaged in revivifying the past, but Moy's art brings the legacy of the Vietnam War into the present (drawing a pointed, though indirect comparison with the current war in Iraq), while Danh's art commemorates the past even as it comments on its evanescence. Despite its flaws, the exhibit makes us question our preconceived notions of history and the act of remembering. On the one hand, memory is something precious and decaying, to be pressed in a book and saved. On the other, it's the imperfect, highly subjective process by which the past lives on in the present.

About The Author

Sharon Mizota


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