Absalom, O Absalom

'Not for inciting hatred, but for learning lessons from history'

The irony couldn't be sharper, the justice more poetic: What America calls "the Vietnam War," Vietnam calls "the American War." Perhaps the Iraq war will be one day be called "the American War" as well. For his powerful, almost anonymous outing at White Columns, Portland-based Harrell Fletcher, a quiet strong point in the 2004 Whitney Biennial with his video project of a group of mechanics and their customers reading snippets of James Joyce's Ulysses, has installed 90 images he made with a digital camera of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). All the photos and texts depict or describe the devastation and atrocities inflicted on the civilians, soldiers, and countryside of Vietnam by American troops between 1964 and 1974.

The show is in fact called "The American War." The pictures themselves are nonchalant. The overall idea is glaringly didactic. Yet the cumulative effect is gut-wrenching. The show is blunter and more unrelenting than Thomas Hirschhorn's recent anti-Iraq war exhibition. It is also devoid of the furtive fictiveness of Walid Raad's Lebanese Civil War projects. Fletcher's walk-in documentary/hell-house is as coolly factual as Hans Haacke, as eagle-eyed as Louise Lawler, as pointed as Martha Rosler, and as offhand as Nan Goldin.

Thanks to a number of committed institutions, Fletcher's "The American War" has already been exhibited at Artspace in San Antonio, Solvent Space in Richmond, and at M.I.T. in Cambridge. Soon it will appear in Portland and Minneapolis. All that needs to happen now is for the curators of the Corcoran Museum across the street from the White House to insist that this show come to their institution. But like so many things that should happen these days, it never will.

The American War
Courtesy: White Columns
The American War

Fletcher regularly works with students and strangers on projects involving memory, environmentalism, and the art world. As an artist he's an odd combination of charismatic, bashful, renegade, pied piper, and recluse—a sort of David Hammons by way of Rirkrit Tiravanija. Since graduating from California College of Arts and Crafts in 1994, Fletcher, 39, has placed plywood paintings of local residents along the highway between San Francisco and Sacramento; had kids draw pictures of the exact moment in movies that made them cry (e.g., "When Tom Hanks saw the dolphins in Castaway"); created art magazines on individual artists; and photographed people's babies to see how parents "decorate their children." Curators and dealers have been hot for him since his Biennial turn, but he's kept a low profile.

Until now. "The American War" is installed at White Columns more or less as the displays appear in the War Remnants Museum. This adds an eerily empathetic ghost layer to the proceedings, like you're walking in the footsteps of Vietnamese on the other side of the globe. "The American War" begins with a sad, infuriating quote from the Donald Rumsfeld of the American War, Robert McNamara, secretary of state under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who after more than 20 years of denial finally admitted in 1995 that "we were wrong, terribly wrong." Then comes a text panel with a series of numbers: 7,850,000 tons of bombs were dropped over Vietnam (by comparison the U.S. dropped only 2,057,244 tons of bombs in Europe during World War II); 75,000,000 liters of defoliants—including dioxin—were sprayed over croplands, farmlands, forests, and villages; nearly three million Vietnamese were killed; four million were injured; 500,000 infants were malformed; over 58,000 Americans died in the war. This panel ends with a statement addressing the reason for its existence: "Not for inciting hatred, but for learning lessons from history."

Amen, although the hatred mounts as you move on to see pictures of American bombs used in the war. There's the Seismic bomb (weighing 15,000 pounds and capable of destroying everything on the ground within a radius of 100 yards), the CBU-55B, that destroyed oxygen within a radius of 500 yards, the white phosphor bomb, mass-killing bombs, frag bombs, and napalm bombs. Near each are images of those the bombs killed. Elsewhere, there are photos of civilians purportedly being thrown from American helicopters for refusing to divulge information; destroyed North Vietnamese hospitals; farmers being tortured by U.S. soldiers; American troops holding up the severed heads of Vietnamese guerilla fighters, subjecting civilians to water torture, dragging the bodies of captured fighters behind tanks, and carrying the charred remains of a "liberation soldier" hit with shells from a grenade launcher.

We read about Lieutenant Bob Kerrey, former senator from Nebraska and current New School president, who with a group of Navy Seals on February 25, 1969 (according to the text panel) entered a cottage and cut the throats of two grandparents and then stabbed to death three children. Next come panels dealing with Agent Orange and its aftereffects. Not only do we see ruined villages and forests, but the severely deformed bodies of those born decades after the bombings, the continuing victims of our "mistake." It's almost too much. For anyone of a certain age, old wounds reopen. For anyone younger, new ones are created.

You can't help but think about Iraq and the kind of psychic death this country suffers for its involvement in lopsided wars. Abstracted and applied to America, the words of King David, in Samuel 18:33, on discovering the death of his misguided son, come to mind: "O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!"

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