In war, the omniscient view is always best. From the proper perspective, war is for the birds, for God, and for us to safely witness from on high. In the Sights of War exhibit at the Light Factory, we're afforded the enviable comfort of seeing the geographical center of the current storm, Baghdad, from a safe distance, from on high where God, the birds and we prefer to be.
In the center of the Knight Gallery at Spirit Square is a carpet printed with the image of downtown Baghdad. This is "Safety Routes," an inkjet print on polyester, by import rabble-rouser Marek Ranis. The image is from a de-classified US military image showing the safest routes for US military convoys in the center of Baghdad. "Safety route" in military lexicon is translated to civilian English as "path through mine field inked on wet napkin with trembling hand."
The carpet is large -- 12' x 15'. It is fringed with bright red coiled tassels and the edges are hemmed with red fabric. We see the city from three miles above. Baghdad is outlined by the broad grey sweep of the Tigris river. Varied rooftops define residential, commercial and industrial buildings, trees and bits of lawn divide highways traveled by tiny cars. Strands of bright red yarn woven into select city streets designate the safe route for military convoys.
Homes, garages, housing projects, sidewalks, parks, bridges, parking lots and offices fill the city. From a distance this place is common; reasonably unexceptional, a generic Bustling Metropolis, Planet Earth. What makes this place exceptional is our aerial and historical vantage points. We see Baghdad from a safe distance and with an understanding of what this city has become, with our national involvement, in the last two-and-a-half years.
Ranis underscores our comfortable daily distance from the hellhole by giving us an omniscient perch. Up here we witness no sanitation or electrical problems, no conflict, no bombs, no fear. Our contact is intellectual and antiseptic. We might as well be looking at Mars.
We're brought to the ground with a thud by seven like-minded photographers, known collectively as VII, who allow us to see the human factor of war up close and personal. VII chronicles the effects of human conflict. Their varied perspectives span continents of suffering around the world. These men introduce us to citizens of Rwanda, Kosovo, Israel, Albania, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Panama, Croatia and Chechnya. These are the faces of collateral damage in blood and bones.
An Afghan child is prepared for burial in a picture by Alexandra Boulat. Eight men and children watch a kneeling man place a small naked body on clean linen spread across the sand. The band of mourners is clad in grey, brown and black, the colors of the surrounding unforgiving terrain; their heads are wrapped in white headdress the color of the sky. The mountains and desert wrap the men, the men wrap around the dead boy lying slack in the last hands to hold him. All heads are turned toward the body except the smallest child, who stares into the camera with the stunned expression of an innocent witnessing his first world collapse.
"Orphans" by Antonin Kratochivil is a portrait of eight Hutu children lying under a sun-strafed blanket in an open air nursery in Zaire. The naked infants lie on their sides, placed randomly facing away and toward one another, eyes open and mouths closed. Their tiny bodies announce hunger attends their vigil. The smallest child squints his eyes and screams. He needs to grow up a bit to understand the futility of protest, to accept the sad, internally negotiated silent stillness practiced by his mates.
The woman lies on her shoulder over a thin carpet on wooden boards. She stares into the carpet millimeters from her nose. Her eyes are wide with terror and she holds her breath. Black skin wraps bones in her face, her arms are wrinkled sticks. The wall text tells us she is a Hutu refugee close to death after surviving a massacre by Rwandan Tutsi guerillas. Her brow is creased as if expecting something, as if bracing for another insufferable experience. She stares at the carpet as if wishing to become part of it.
An ancient TV sits on a cheap chest of drawers. Bullet holes pock the concrete and stucco wall in a rough arc above the settee. It's a view from the couch, a coarse invitation into a world where one universal cliché of boredom -- a TV against a blank wall -- becomes a quiet stage awaiting terror. "Bullet Holes" by Gary Knight was shot in Kosovo in 1999.
The wall text for James Nachtway's "Scarred Hutu Man" tells us here is "a scarred Hutu man who, since he did not support the genocide in Rwanda, was mutilated with machetes and imprisoned in a concentration camp." This man's face is the soul of the show. His vacant stare and listless jaw are shared expressions of war expressed repeatedly on these walls.
"Scarred Hutu Man" is a close-up profile of a man branded with four poorly healed scars running from his cheekbone past his ear. One slice across his head has removed the top of his ear. The scars are shiny and wide, and stretch across his face like a slug on hot asphalt. Clumsy stitch marks etch the scars. Two wounds remain partly unhealed, open and meaty. The open wounds serve as juicy metaphors for his remaining psychic life, and as invitations for us to bear witness to his plight, and to reconsider our own willful disregard.
There are two photographs with President Bush by Chris Morris. One presents the man we know well. He leans back comfortably in the back seat of his presidential limo, ankle cocked on his knee, one hand braced on the wide sill of his bulletproof window. The president's pugnacious grin 'n' sneer is in recess, replaced by the confident gaze of a man who knows world events, his legacy, and his life, are being handled by trusted mentors and minions. He sports a tiny American flag on his lapel.
A second photo captures Bush awarding the Purple Heart to an American soldier. The subject of the photograph is the recovering soldier, Bush is cut off from the knees and shoulders, we see only his torso, his arms and hands. The soldier lies with a black sheet covering his midsection, an oxygen line propped below his nose, another tube running up a nostril. The soldier stares without expression towards his own damaged half hand as he receives the medal. The image is in painful focus, except for Bush's hand, which is blurred from the movement of retraction after placing the medal.
David Brodeur's ink jet prints are bright, clear, clean and spare -- qualities only the military associates with war. Brodeur illustrates jets, missiles, armor piercing bullets, cannons and laser guided bombs with technical proficiency and a colorful and disturbing optimistic élan. "Highway of Death: One Second Burst" describes an instructive "exploded" drawing of a US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II, with an illustration of the armor-piercing projectiles dispatched by the on-board 30mm cannon, manufactured by General Electric. The material is presented with the glib enthusiasm reminiscent of TV ads for action figures.
In wall texts which accompany Brodeur's prints we are informed that the military uses radioactive material, or Depleted Uranium, in current explosive armaments. The jury is still out on the long term health consequences associated with exposure to Depleted Uranium, but as Brodeur points out "the US Army acknowledges the hazards in a training manual, in which it requires that anyone who comes within 25 meters of any DU-contaminated equipment or terrain wear respiratory and skin protection...." It's likely most everything around Baghdad was DU contaminated after the exciting Shock and Awe adventure. We didn't find radioactive weapons in Iraq, but we delivered a few..
In his artist's statement Brodeur points out "This information is neither classified nor difficult to find. However, it is not on the nightly news."
Brodeur teaches art at UNCC. We'll hear more from him.
Video artist Bill Viola slows everything down. Five men are fixed on a large plasma TV in a walled off corner of the gallery. We sit and watch. The men are not fixed, but they move impossibly slowly. An eyelid lifts in ten seconds, a few seconds of motion pass in a full minute. The five men are reacting to something unpleasant, an event, perhaps a horrific event. Heads turn away, eyes close, hands rise to cover collapsed faces. It's like seeing a hundred sequential portraits of one event, but we are made to study each minute gesture; we aren't graced with the habitual balm of time passing quickly.
Perhaps that's a good way see this entire show -- to see this show in inverse proportion to how we view the nightly news. Not in quick soundbites, but in deliberate slow motion. In a culture enamored with results, we crave quick solutions and hasty resolutions. Often faulty resolutions will do.
Sights of War offers no quick resolutions, really no resolutions at all. The show offers alternative perspectives on the effects of conflict on humans caught in the fray. The show also challenges us to look into the eyes of the victims of conflict, to question America's commitments and reassess our own convictions. If not now, when?
The Sights of War opening reception at Spirit Square's Knight Gallery is Friday, Sept. 9, 6-9pm. The exhibit runs through October 13.