Chicago – In October 2006, the Museum of Contemporary Photography will open two photographic series by An-My Lê, in which the artist explores the conflicts that bracket the last half-century of American history: the war in Vietnam and the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her series Small Wars (1999-2002) depicts men who reenact battles from the war in Vietnam in the forests of Virginia on weekends. Her current and ongoing series, 29 Palms (2003-present), documents the military base of the same name in the California desert where soldiers train before being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Famously the first televised war, Vietnam was projected into American living rooms on a nightly basis, and magazines and newspapers devoted page after page to graphic, bloody pictures of battles, massacres, and life at the front. These images played a key role in the discourse of opposition to the war; some by now so iconic that they will be forever implanted in our minds. In contrast, the war in Iraq today is an unseen war in many ways. There are relatively few photographers embedded in Iraq (Lê tried to be embedded but was denied permission), and much of the imagery that is released by the media is censored and sanitized by government controls and editors’ concerns over appearing to have an anti-war bias. There have been almost no pictures of dead or wounded American service people printed in U.S. publications since the start of the war, even though more than 2,800 American lives have been lost as of August 2006.
Lê, who was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1960 and came to the United States as a refugee in 1975, created the Small Wars series to explore, as she describes it, “the Vietnam of the mind;” a conception of war that emerged from the vast collection of documentation, personal histories, and fictional interpretations confronting veterans, survivors, and subsequent generations. The war games she photographs are elaborate. Her pictures present men—some of them veterans, others history buffs—simulating combat and war routines using detailed props such as grounded airplanes, tents, and uniforms. Lê is often asked to participate in the reenactments; over the course of the project she acted various roles from translator to, disconcertingly, a member of the Viet Cong. Sensitive to the fact that what motivates her subjects is often a complex web of psychological need, fantasy, and a passion for history, Lê avoids parody and constructs her images to emphasize clarity and craftsmanship over chaos and spectacle.
Lê’s pictures from 29 Palms present an epic American West in lush detail, and in many ways mirror the sanitized view of the Iraq war provided to us by the media today. Like in the Vietnam reenactments in Virginia, and Hollywood just 150 miles away, 29 Palms is a place where fictions are performed. Marines both rehearse their own roles and play the parts of their adversaries: they are occasionally asked to dress up and act as Iraqi police and civilians, and linguists wearing traditional Iraqi clothing are sometimes brought in to create a ruckus in Arabic. The military housing is tagged with mock anti-American graffiti and fake villages are built of particle board—the houses without backs like the facades used in old western movies.
Lê’s work raises questions about the reliability of seemingly objective historical accounts—such as news reports and photographs—that greatly influence how war is communicated and remembered. They have the hallmarks of a documentary project, but importantly, they do not show us what war does. By bringing a new resonance to the phrase “the theater of war,” Lê asks us to reconsider the fictions that cloud the ways in which war is remembered, reported upon, and experienced.