A whole history remains to be written of spaces—which would at the same time be the history of powers.
“Re/constructed Narratives of the American War in Vietnam” re-presents images of Vietnam derived from magazine ephemera published in the United States and contemporaneous with the American War in Vietnam. Using a wide aperture, I collapse depth of field and deceptively project a false sense of depth into the two-dimensional images that are the source for these photographs, constructing space where there is none, rescripting surface in such a way that many of these images appear to be staged, miniaturized constructions.
Monumental, confrontational in scale, these images announce a sense of power that threatens to overwhelm the viewer. Their source images are western ones identified with Anglo-European cultures that have historically exerted power over and exploited South Asian cultures—images that are culturally linked to and register the power of an historical oppressor over the land and cultures signaled through them. This series includes depictions of hubs and circuits of power— military installations—epicenters for vectors of force—along with rivers, roadways, skies, the Vietnamese landscape itself—places, topographies spatially activated as sites of power by agents and objects dispersed through them.(2) Often an aerial one, the vantage point implied by these images is also one of power, a perspective that relies on access to sophisticated, expensive technology, not to mention economic advantage, a point of view that is also associated with surveillance and the potential for coercion, control, domination through the strategic use of information and to the detriment of those deemed “enemies.” Philosopher Gaston Bachelard proposed, “The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it.”(3) And these miniaturized spaces writ large invite viewers into a vertiginous space of power.
It is also notable that those responsible for war frequently use the language of gaming and play to obfuscate the reality that war is always a matter of destroying and foremost a matter of killing.(4) Through their toy-like construction, images in this series deploy a visual trope of play. As they tremble on the threshold of abstraction, these works further invoke the way that human lives are abstracted and an increasing number of civilians designated “collateral damage” in modern wars. Disturbingly beautiful, these images call attention to themselves in a way that renders their superficial loveliness self-consciously constructed and as suspect as the camouflaging language used in the perpetuation of war.
But the significance of the toy-like, the miniature, is polyvalenced. In his book The Poetics of Space, Bachelard also proposes that the miniature can become a vehicle into the imagination, stating, “The miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.”(5) And in abstracting these images through miniaturization, I invite viewers to enter a kind of imaginative, contemplative space and to engage with the multiplicity of concerns and questions that inflect these works. Passages within these images oscillate between legibility and abstraction—between an almost forensic recording of hypertrophic detail suggestive of an “objective” act of recording historical, factual information and the subjective practices of constructing meaning and interpreting data. In their liminality, they teeter between reality and unreality, fact and fiction, and register the elusiveness of “truth,” the instability of histories and cultural memory, and the unknowability of war. Through their seductive, ironic beauty, deceptive construction, and elision and abstraction of visual information, these images evoke and mirror artfully crafted fictions eloquently narrated to obfuscate imperialism and violence related to war. Their self-conscious “formal failure” in conveying the gravity of the events of the war to which they refer also lends them a kind of “hallucinatory quality” that philosopher Jacques Rancière links to an inadequacy of correspondence that “goes to the heart of the elimination to be represented.”(6)
1. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972 – 1977
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 149.
2. For a theoretical consideration of the way that places become spatially activated, see
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley,
Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1988), especially 115 – 130.
3. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press,
4. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York and
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 67, 81, 82.
5. Bachelard, The Poetics of Space,155.
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