Visual Arts - Bearing witness

Images that chronicle the Vietnam War are relevant now more than ever

In Creative Loafing's recent Best of Atlanta issue, I chose the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center as Best Gallery for Kids, for its welcoming vibe, friendly staff and the sense of community evident at its openings.

Perhaps an asterisk should have been attached. While the Contemporary is an ideal destination for art-loving types with parents in tow, not all of its shows are suitable for children. Case in point: its current exhibitions. Showcasing Harrell Fletcher, Nubar Alexanian and an assortment of artists in the group show Finding Form, this triumvirate of pain often feels like an extended meditation on the human potential for brutality.

Needless to say, parental guidance is strongly suggested.

And Harrell Fletcher's gruesome appropriation of images from Ho Chi Minh City's War Remnants Museum may be more pain and tragedy than even adults can bear.

Fletcher photographed the text and images on view at the museum during a 2005 trip to Vietnam. His exhibition The American War brings back to American audiences a glimpse of the pain the Vietnamese experienced firsthand and the vicious impact of war.

The images are of unimaginable horror: piles of dead Vietnamese, including infants; bodies reduced to shreds; the massive tissue damage wrought by white phosphorous and the demonically lingering effects of Agent Orange in birth defects both in the Vietnamese and in American soldiers. Fletcher's photographs arouse feelings of profound shame and despair, like uncovering the ugliest secret about your family imaginable.

A billboard-size photograph of books on Vietnam and an array of "books" about the war (really just constructions with a cover but no insides) make Fletcher's point on several levels: Vietnam has been a book most Americans have been happy not to open or examine in any serious depth.

As America engages in yet another brutal war, this time with the images of savagery and death often repressed by the media and the government, Fletcher's exhibition is clearly more relevant now than ever. It doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to substitute the faces of Iraqis for the Vietnamese and shudder at how grotesquely history has repeated itself. What America has repressed and denied has returned in new form.

It is clear why Nubar Alexanian's black-and-white photographs have been exhibited alongside Fletcher's. Like Fletcher's images, Alexanian's photos are second- (if not third) generation documents of an event. They also, probably unnecessarily, reiterate the connection between Vietnam and Iraq. Alexanian has taken photos of Errol Morris' film documentary, S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure, about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.

Alexanian's S.O.P. is also about the paradoxically aberrant and necessary need to document. Some soldiers felt the compulsion in Abu Ghraib and in the Vietnam images shown in Fletcher's show to document their kills and crimes. But documentation can also be an artist, photojournalist and filmmaker's tactic; a way of not forgetting a tragedy.

The ideas are interesting, the execution less so. If only the Alexanian images didn't become lost in the conceptual farrago of documenting the documentation of the Abu Ghraib documents. Divorced from Morris' storyline and intent, the images become inert and in some cases, weirdly grandiose as when Alexanian photographs Morris' staged dramatizations of Abu Ghraib tortures.

In the gallery next to Fletcher's The American War, the Contemporary's curator Stuart Horodner has also organized an exhibition including some well-known artists such as Hannah Wilke and Philip Guston, which deals with the various ways artists create, interact with material and discover meaning in unexpected places. Several of the works offer a strange call and response with the more overtly violence-centric work of Fletcher and Alexanian.

For an Oct. 16 Contemporary fundraiser, a box of stainless steel will be on display in the gallery. The Droog Design "Do Hit" chair will be "made" into a chair when people use a sledgehammer to violently pound a seat into being. Also addressing society's violent impulses, the video piece "Grip" by Erik Levine features teenage boy tennis players who act out their rage and self-loathing: smashing their tennis rackets against the ground, throwing violent tantrums, even hitting their own heads with the rackets.

Finding Form can often feel like a strange juxtaposition with Fletcher and Alexanian's work. There are certain seemingly intentional thematic carry-overs, such as violence, worth reflecting on. But many of the works, such as Levine's decayed sculpture "Drum" and an abstract-turning-toward-representation lithograph by Guston, only engage with form and formation in an abstract way without the social engagement of other artists. It might have been nice to see either the idea of violence or the idea of form examined more deeply. Instead, in many ways, Finding Form feels like two good ideas mashed up incongruously together. And whether the conceptually minded Finding Form illuminates, interferes with or even diminishes the other work about real war and torture is up for grabs.

But any work that encourages viewers to explore the emotional and conceptual spaces they might ordinarily never tread (and this applies to all three of the Contemporary's exhibits) is notable and worthy of our attention. However, it is Fletcher's The American War that moves and engages the viewer on its own distinct terms.

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