It’s difficult to know where war ends and humanity begins. Perhaps this is why, in recent years, war photography—omnipresent and unresolved (the CIA only recently lifted its ban on the publishing of images of American soldier’s coffins)—has been unceasingly re-examined by the contemporary art world. Vietnamese-born artist An-My Lê has consistently produced work that questions the changing face of war documentation, by creating images defined by an almost painterly formalism; clearly distinct from combat photography. “I couldn’t do what [combat photographers] do and in the end I am also driven to tell another story,” says Lê. “I am interested in an investigation of military culture outside of the sphere of combat.”
In her fourth show at Murray Guy, opening Thursday, Lê has produced a body of photographs examining global military themes, including warfare training, sea-based military hospitals and the relief effort in Haiti. The 12 large, emotionally-wrought images in the show articulate the artist’s relationship with color and emotion: the sad, blue eyes of an exhausted pilot play against images of lone soldiers and ships hovering over sparkling blue seas; a female monk’s saffron robes and beatific features play against the cool blue camouflage uniform and expressionless countenance of an officer seated next to her. The work continues the artist’s project of crossing landscape photography and images of war. “For me the language of landscape photography involves using scale to weave narratives; to create tension,” says Lê. Where her images differ from traditional landscapes is, obviously, the human element within them, which imbues them with myriad associations and connotations, including that of the history of depictions of war in cinema.
Central to the work of Lê is the changing nature of professional documentation of real-life war events. The War in Iraq and American military combat in Afghanistan has produced a surplus of soldier-produced imagery, almost constantly produced on cell phones and point-and-shoot digital cameras and uploaded to Facebook. It is intriguing that the face of war has been changed by this “amateur” produced imagery, which gives viewers a perspective that both highlights the naivete of many young soldiers, and the psychic dissonance of combat viewed through lo-res, pixelized, postage-stamp-sized images.
Has this changing nature of the “look” of war has influenced her agenda as an artist (and as an individual who was born in Vietnam and lived there as a child through almost all of the Vietnam War)? Lê says, “When Robert Frank’s work first appeared, everyone thought it was too grainy and awful looking. Back then, black and white was also the only medium for conveying news, facts and events—reportage, while color was reserved for the glossy advertising world. [Now] there is a great range of image types emerging from webcam testimonials, point and shoot, surveillance images from drones—[and each] has their own kind of authenticity.” Now, however, it also seems that the professional black-and-white images of war seem almost too endemic of our collective idea of what combat photography should look, and they cease to adequately depict contemporary war. Although not in Lê’s mind: “It’s a mistake to think one is more authentic than another,” says the artist. “I have chosen the view camera and large format negatives (5×7 inch) [for my work] because I want everything about that place, that space to compete for your attention from the volume and details of trees to the Humvees and the dirt surrounding them. I have chosen high resolution and clarity. All of that speaks of complexity for me. I don’t want anything furtive.”
In the past decade, many American artists, notably Harrell Fletcher and his “The American War” project—wherein the artist re-photographed all of the images exhibited by The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City-have reconsidered the aesthetic tropes of war. In the process, they have invited for a shift in the historization of one nationalistic idea of war. Lê’s practice is of a piece with this recalibration, and also seeks to present a more rational view of the military writ large. “This work is born out of a frustration by the constant mythologizing of the military as a subject as much as it is born out of desire to see what things really look like,” says Lê.