Years ago, I was walking through Chinatown with a friend who had seen combat in two wars, when apropos of nothing—perhaps my noting how the elderly Chinese women shouldered their large bundles so adroitly—he hoisted an imaginary burden and explained, quite matter-of-factly, that that was how they’d taught him to carry the wounded from battle.
So the memory of war erupts, waking us with a start from the warmth of a spring day and the illusion of peace that surrounds us, like the shell-shocked soldier in Mrs. Dalloway who hears the rumblings of the front in a postwar morning in the middle of London. “Persistent Vestiges: Drawing From the American-Vietnam War,” now at the Drawing Center, includes work by artists dealing either with the immediacy of the conflict in Vietnam or with its harrowing aftershocks, which 30 years later still reverberate.
The show carries particular resonance in a nation at war and a New York art world largely lulled into quiescence by a combination of economic boom times and political impotence. It also suggests that the Drawing Center’s forced removal from the cultural complex once planned for ground zero was perhaps a blessing. Committee members who opposed its presence there had accused this most scholarly of downtown institutions of displaying “unpatriotic” art. What would they make of the provocative sketches, on view through December 21 at the Center’s Drawing Room (across the street from the main gallery), made by North Vietnamese artists, celebrating their compatriots’ communal spirit of resistance to American bombings?
Far from the front, in her New York loft, painter Nancy Spero worked hard to conjure the war’s violence, developing her signature vocabulary of predatory helicopters; hydra-headed, penile explosions; and open-mouthed victims in her “War Series” drawings (1966–70). (Her eloquent new mural Search and Destroy covers two full walls of the main gallery.) But North Vietnamese artists like Vu Giang Huong, who traveled the Ho Chi Minh Trail, couldn’t bear to depict scenes of B-52–inflicted devastation; instead of the wounded and dying, they drew lady soldiers cheerfully cleaning their rifles or workers stuffing mines with explosives. As one noted, “I can’t draw when I am crying.”
More broadly, the Drawing Center’s juxtaposition of art created as agitprop or in the heat of conflict with more reflective, contemporary works brings home the point that only with time do we grasp the fuller significance of traumatic events, as the passions and perspectives they inspire change and ripen. Whatever intense emotions ground zero inspires today, we cannot legislate its meaning for future generations.
Martha Rosler’s brilliant series of photomontages “Bringing the War Home” (1967–1972), originally created for anti-war flyers and underground newspapers, uses spreads of luxurious domestic interiors from House Beautiful, slyly inserting into them pictures from Life and other publications that show the horrors unfolding simultaneously in Southeast Asia. In an art collector’s tastefully appointed living room, a Giacometti sculpture (its emaciated form itself an echo of World War II atrocities) strides past a picture window where the view is of streets strewn with tanks, rubble, and corpses.
Rosler’s collages, following the lead of political surrealists such as John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch, were an activist’s call to arms. Dinh Q. Le, who fled Vietnam at age nine for the United States and now lives in Ho Chi Minh City, makes photoweavings, plaiting together strips of images related to the war that marked his childhood. His most affecting works here use mug shots of inmates from Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia, where some 17,000 “enemies of the state” (including children) were murdered under Khmer Rouge rule from 1975 to 1979. These are woven into large photographs of stone carvings from the 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat. The Khmer Rouge represented a traumatic break in Cambodian history; Le’s art attempts to knit together the distant and recent past, to placate the gods of memory.
The New York Times has reported lately that the Cambodian government has leased the killing fields where these prisoners’ remains are buried to a Japanese consortium, which will run them for profit as a tourist site. The prisoners’ wandering spirits, a neighboring villager said, have in any case long since departed. The youngest artist here, Binh Danh, who was born in Vietnam after the war and currently lives in California, resurrects these phantoms, printing their pictures on tropical foliage in a moving and poetic testimony to the ephemeral nature of remembrance and to the land itself, the ultimate repository for the lost souls of history.