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Disrupted at Intersection for the Arts

War and the Persistence of Memory

By now, the rupture between history and its present depiction is par for the course in contemporary art -- but Binh Danh and Elizabeth Moy go at it one further in their haunting menagerie of images culled from personal legacies of war and reflections on the abiding effects of human conflict. In a collaborative exhibition entitled Disrupted: A Photographic Installation About Memory, History & War, Danh and Moy string together narratives retrieved and woven anew from both original photographs and archival images of the Vietnam War.

Both artists use photography in unfamiliar ways; rather than recording an object or event, they fashion a subjective conceptual space in which time and location are confounded by artistic self-reflexivity, clashing narratives, and the revolutionary act of relic-making, which all serve to interrogate the very notion of an authentic, unfiltered experience of history…or indeed, the present.

Danh -- an award-winning artist who came from Vietnam to the United States as a child, along with his family in the 70s -- affixes photographic transparencies (which are simply computer-generated negatives printed on a photocopier) to the surface of large leaves, which he then places between plates of glasses. In a process that can take between a few days to a few months, the sun’s rays eventually create an imprinted image on the leaf, which Danh then places in a metal frame and casts with clear resin to preserve the image. This primitive chemical process is something Danh has termed “elemental transfiguration.”

“What if the plants could witness these events? What would they record? The work itself plays on the elements in the landscape—the hydrogen and carbon that compose our bodies, that don’t die like we die but get recycled into the environment,” Danh has written.

While Danh’s former works have focused on the calamitous loss on the Vietnamese side, thereby making visible what has been lost or neglected throughout history, his current pieces focus exclusively on the American loss. In a sequence of grainy images retrieved from a 70s issue of Life magazine, which featured a series of yearbook-style photographs of American soldiers who lost their lives in one week during wartime, Danh creates a riveting memoriam.

In an installation entitled “Life: Dead #4 (from the Life: One Week’s Dead series)”, Danh has assembled a mobile of nine exposed leaves, each bearing a different image of a soldier, which hang suspended in space (and seemingly, time). The shadows that the leaves cast against the wall are reminiscent of a baby’s toy mobile -- a chilling insinuation, considering that many of the dead soldiers were survived by children they probably never got the opportunity to meet. Because the leaves are exposed to the elements, the images gradually fade, as if to connote not merely the evanescent act of relic-making but also the transience and vagueness of memory.

Danh’s two floor-based series, “Life Dead #2” and “Life Dead #3” feature chlorophyll prints that sit encased in black plinths, assuming a nearly tomb-like solemnity in their presentation of soldiers’ portraits. Danh’s incipient creative notion of a landscape that has war and human conflict etched into it reverberates throughout smaller works, including “Camouflage #1,” a chlorophyll print that apes army camouflage. The very artlessness of such an image is unnerving not only in the context of soldiers’ attempts to camouflage themselves in order to successfully wage war, but also in the notion that land is capable of absorbing the physical and emotional fallout of war.

Unlike Danh, Elizabeth Moy, a recent graduate of California College of the Arts’ MFA program, intersperses archival photos with her own. Moy’s series of 15 photographs is a response to her Chinese-American father’s involvement in the military; she mixes photographs that he took as a young soldier in the Vietnam war with photographs that she took in the present. In leaving her pieces untitled, Moy purposely shrouds her photos in contextual ambiguity -- we don’t know for sure which photos were taken during wartime, and which were not. By inserting herself into her father’s narrative, Moy examines history when it’s filtered through the lens of the present and simply becomes a representation of itself rather than a firsthand documentation of actual events.

Moy’s work is imbued with ambivalence, particularly in a self-portrait, which gazes pensively across the room at a portrait of her father. Moy’s face is wrought with an unreadable expression (sadness, disquietude, tenderness, defiance), while her father, a world-weary looking older man in army garb, stares inscrutably back. The starkness of their faces against a backdrop of shadows creates an unsettling effect -- photorealism bordering on timelessness and artifice.

Moy’s collected images are perhaps so captivating precisely because they capture ambiguous moments stripped of context that engage the viewer with all the elements of a narrative. A shot of a man (or woman) who seems to be falling through an impermeable layer of blackness takes on a nearly staged quality, particularly because there is no intimation of speed in the photograph; similarly, an image of a sickly neon wash of light bathing a cluster of bushes is almost exaggerated in its vigilance.

Whether the photographs are her father’s or her own, Moy seems to be directly apprehending the nightmarish desolation of wartime that permeates the people and objects in the photographs -- whether they be a pair of lovers stranded in no man’s land; a procession of fatigued soldiers milling around under harsh fluorescent lights; or an abandoned deck of playing cards strewn on a tabletop.

Despite the apparent disconnection among all the pieces, the personal legacy of war resounds throughout Moy’s photographs. One arresting image, in which Moy and her father stand back to back, their faces pointing up to the sky in opposite directions, reveals a familial tenderness, which insinuates an attempt of reconciliation between father and daughter, given their conflicting political agendas.

There is, of course, always the question of whose history we are observing, which is somewhat undercut when we see Moy’s series as a whole rather than as disparate parts. An image of a reflection of a cloudy sky in a puddle of water on the cement is a particularly evocative reminder of how information gets filtered to us by various means, some of which are as simple as the context in which we choose to perceive.

Both Danh and Moy can be seen as bearing witness to events that deeply affected them, years after the fact. By inserting themselves into archival footage, they essentially transform a purportedly objective narrative, maintaining that the historicity of events is irrelevant because it will always be undercut by perception. (After all, an event lives on in memory, an act that takes place in the present.)

The austere beauty and compassion which pervade the artists’ images mark their individual attempts to both question and understand the ravages of war -- a singular move that imbues each of the pieces with a fresh but painfully familiar context.

Exhibition runs through June 17th.
at Intersection for the Arts