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The Vietnam of the Mind

An-My Le's 'Small Wars' at Boise Art Museum


An-My Le's "Small Wars" is a two-part photographic investigation into the ways war can be dramatized both as reenactment ("Small Wars" and "29 Palms") and rehearsal. In each case, it is an approach to the subject that is necessarily peripheral. It exists in a kind of before-and-after buffer zone. Her photos are highly crafted, accomplished black-and-white compositions that are theatrical, as well as documents of actual events.

Le's subject in "Small Wars," is Vietnam War re-enactors who simulate the conditions and combat of the Vietnam War in the hills of Virginia and something she terms, "the Vietnam of the mind." Born in Saigon in 1960, she came to the United States as a political refugee in 1975. Her teenage years in Saigon put her much closer to a war than many Americans have ever been, but she also knows war and its horrors the way others might: through movies, textbooks, museum exhibitions and newspapers.

An-My Le, from the series "29 Palms" Colonel Greenwood, 2003-04, Gelatin silver print, 26" x 37.5" - COLLECTION OF LANNAN FOUNDATION, SANTA FE, NM
  • Collection of Lannan Foundation, Santa Fe, NM
  • An-My Le, from the series "29 Palms" Colonel Greenwood, 2003-04, Gelatin silver print, 26" x 37.5"

The second series in the show, "29 Palms," gets its title from the Marine base of that name. The base is located in Southern California, and the surrounding desert provides a landscape in which soldiers are trained before being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Anyone familiar with contemporary art will recognize the struggle in her work between fiction and fact. Her subject matter is war on a scale we can more easily manipulate and understand. Le is a war photographer who captures our attempts to fit war into our minds. As the title suggests, the wars that make it into the show tend to be smaller than the wars we fight. The reenactments and rehearsals are heightened by the way she frames them. The settings in which the dramas unfold dominate the games being played in them.

War has long been conceived of in formal and game-like ways. Strategies are employed, battles are imagined, movements are coordinated, and then chaos and horror intrude and traumatize. In these photographs, the chaos and trauma of actual combat are soothed into place as theater. The formal and game-like side of war is reenacted and rehearsed because that's what fits in our minds. The horror doesn't fit.

Le's approach stresses the peripheral nature we all have—in varying degrees—to war, including those who have suffered it and those who are training for it. The "realities" of war are in a sense unavailable, which may be one reason we're so fascinated with it. By focusing her camera on intentionally fictionalized acts she is following a well-worn epistemological path in contemporary art. The question becomes, where do the fictions end and the realities begin? How do we know what we think we know about war?

In the first series, the war games are elaborate. In one photograph titled, Rescue, two men lie in the foreground facing out of the picture's frame, weapons aimed in a covering or defensive manner, a third kneels behind another who is on a communications device, behind them a fifth member hangs lifeless from the cockpit of an actual military aircraft minus its landing gear and badly damaged. Smoke oozes from its hull and drifts into the pine trees surrounding the fallen plane.

In another piece titled Ambush II, a small group of men appear to be under attack as they make their way up a creek bed. The enemy is hidden somewhere inside the calm chaos of the wilderness that envelopes them all. The fact that the natural world surrounding them is planted with American pines and oak trees instead of the dense jungles of Vietnam is a powerful part of the pictorial message in Le's pieces. The anachronism of the Virginia wilderness provides a kind of soothing theatrical embrace.

She frames the drama inside a lush foliage of grays and a stillness heightened by the even tones and the clarity of her images. In one photograph titled Brambles, we are presented with a dense portion of this Virginia wilderness about the size of the curtains in a living room, the tangle of branches is backlit and the forest seems to recede into a dreamy glow. There are several references to sleep in these works, and many of the shots have dream-like qualities. While the participants evidently strive for authenticity, they also enjoy the distinctly theatrical flavor the hills of Virginia provide. It would seem they are seeking a certain kind of Vietnam—mainly, the kind that will fit into their minds.

Trauma is the name we give to experiences that prove too much for our minds to handle, and war is apparently quite good at providing them. In the reenactment one might be able to replace a Vietnam that won't fit with one that will. The question she seems to be pursuing in these works addresses what relation the wars that fit in our minds have with war.

In "29 Palms," An-My Le captures another form of necessarily fictionalized war: its rehearsal. The soldiers in "29 Palms" go through a variety of training exercises in which the Middle East is propped up like a movie set and the movements and reactions necessary to do one's job and survive are planted in their imaginations. Through the training and rehearsal of war, the cues of combat and their appropriate responses are put into practice in hope that those responses will be there in actual wartime experiences.

Le is interested less in those kinds of practical efforts and more in the strange effect that seeing it all in such sanitized game-like terms has on us. The depth of focus and range of grays in these pictures is stunning. The sky in many shots is blown toward a boundless white where the landscape recedes to meet it, and the California desert flows off the edges of the frame into distances that shrink the boundaries of the Marine Corps' war rehearsals down to small strange events in which there is just the faint hum of war.

On display through March 1, 2009. Boise Art Museum, 670 Julia Davis Dr., 208-345-8330,