The complexities of war, its multifaceted meanings and its multilayered and often clandestine implications are brought to light in a powerful and thought provoking exhibition at the Euphrat Museum at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. Curator Diana Argabrite, the daughter of an artist and World War II holocaust survivor, grew up with a strong awareness of the consequences of war. The show she has put together introduces the viewer not only to the experiences of veterans who have served directly in combat zones but also to those with first hand knowledge of violence in their homeland including innocent victims such as children. Broader issues such as the social, economic and moral costs of war and the formation of our perceptions by seemingly invisible ideologies projected through the media are also presented. Pervasive societal attitudes and behaviors that are carried over into military life such as sexism, racism, gender bias, lack of respect for all forms of life are the subjects of a poster series. We are reminded that there are many kinds of war including internal battles of acceptance and lack of funding for domestic abuse, health care and education on the home front. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the theme of healing through the transformational power of art. Art and the very act of creation have the potential to transform divisive and destructive elements, helping us to transcend our differences and acknowledge our commonalities.
Confronting the viewer at the entrance to the gallery is a mural created by De Anza students entitled The Cost of War. Dollar bills dropping to the ground across the mural surface bring up the question: “Are we being bombarded by corporate interests?” To the left of the mural is Vietnam War veteran Rolf Kriken’s Prophecy (2012), a bronze statue of a one-legged, one-armed, winged and helmeted soldier as angel who looks down from an unstable perch eleven feet off the ground. To the right, against a sky-blue wall and pedestal, is Elizabeth Travelslight’s innocent yet ominous green parrots (2011), in which green parrot landmines are configured as a child’s mobile. They cast shadows on the wall as they float in the air. (Accompanying the piece is a recording of the translated accounts of Afghan boys who were injured by the alluring mines that they saw as playthings.) Bracketing the entrance is another Kriken bronze, Don’t Need Your Medal of Honor, comprising fragments of a soldier’s face on another unstable pedestal. On the wall are poems written by two deceased soldiers with whom Kriken served in Vietnam. He honors and remembers them by including their works with his own. The juxtaposition of opposites: strength and fragility, stability and imbalance, the innocent and the ominous, the seen and the unseen, are all introduced here.
To the left of the entrance is the work of Pantea Karimi who uses her skills as a watercolorist, printmaker and digital artist to make eloquent statements about hopeful acts of protest and the destructive and devastating consequences of war. Her watercolor series Glocalism (2009) and The Logic of Human Magma (2012) combine aesthetic arrangements of figures and slogans from the Occupy and Arab Spring Movements that comment on nuclear energy, military and police presence, the power of the people in organized movements and our interconnectedness through the Internet. The Hubbub of Human Magna (2012) sets these watercolor paintings in motion in a 99 second video (representing the 99%) with an original soundtrack by Daniel Konhauser. Through this work Karimi holds out hope for change on many fronts. This optimism is conveyed through the deliberate use of a candy colored palette (pastel pinks, reds, blues and yellows.) A more somber palette is used in Middle of Nowhere: Locating a Retained Memory (2013), a digital piece Karimi created especially for this show. It interweaves her personal narrative of the near fatal injuries her father sustained during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) with devastating war images including children playing on tanks and as war casualties wrapped in kafani, an Iranian linen fabric used to wrap bodies before burial. The same material is used as a screen upon which the images that the artist has manipulated and colored are projected. An outline of the borders of Iran is hand sewn in red thread in the center of the screen. There is no candy-coated or optimistic message to be conveyed in her personal narrative of a devastating injury and its brutal aftermath: years of recovery, multiple surgeries and trauma inflicted upon a family that continues to influence them to this day.
In The Power of Symmetry (2009), an exquisitely rendered crystal chandelier, with a nuclear power symbol at its center, drops its glass pendants. Morphing into abstract forms, they become bombs falling onto two already divided worlds of East and West. Suspended from the ceiling in front of Karimi’s painting are Thomas Dang’s Raku Bombs (2011). Raku ware ceramics, traditionally used in Japanese Zen tea ceremonies, have been fashioned by Dang into fragile bombs. At their centers are fantastic life forms, large-scale replicas of organisms that might be used in biological warfare. Their shadows resemble fish swimming across the gallery floor. Ceramic bombs, green parrot mines, chandelier explosives and dollar bills dropping to the ground communicate visually and metaphorically across this end of the gallery.
Xiaoze Xie’s aesthetically rendered paintings of stacks of newspapers depict war-related imagery from around the globe. He asks us to question how our view of war is influenced by the often-unstated ideologies that underlie media war coverage. The digital photos of Sanaz Mazinani present another facet of the enigma of formation of perceptions. Her mesmerizing images of military explosions have been abstracted and repeated like patterns in a kaleidoscope. Like the hazy and luminous 19th c. sublime landscapes of J.M.W. Turner, they combine aesthetic appeal with the exhilaration of danger. The fury of nature has been replaced with the awe-inspiring destruction of technological warfare. Shimmering gold leaf and gold paint dripping from the wall emphasize the attraction that violence and weapons of destruction hold for us both societally and culturally.
Juxtaposition of the innocent and the ominous, introduced in Travelslight’s green parrots, continues in the work of Ehren Tool, a third generation soldier who served in Desert Storm. His installation of eight horizontal shelves of ceramic cups covers an entire wall. Each cup has its own war-related story to tell. Some refer to children’s toys such as the Mickey Mouse gas masks that were used in London during World War II to assuage children’s fears of wearing them during bombing raids. Others depict skull and crossbones. It also wends its way into the main gallery in Guiseppe Pellicano’s photographs of the effects of post traumatic stress syndrome on an Iraqi war veteran and his family. In Teatime (2012) a little girl pours tea for a giant grenade wearing a tiara. A skull, a memento mori, a traditional reminder of mortality, lies under the colorful table while a life-sized teddy bear hangs limply over a tricycle. All add to the uncanny quality of the scene in which death intrudes into child’s play. Bronze Star recipient Mike Dooley also addresses the omnipresence of death in life after combat for war veterans. According to Argabrite, twenty-two soldiers who are currently serving in the military commit suicide daily. His photograph, Friend (2012), depicts a soldier in dress uniform inside a tunnel. A cold blue light surrounds him, representing the shadow of death, his new “friend” who follows him everywhere.
War is Trauma, a portfolio of prints by the Iraqi Veterans Against the War in collaboration with the Vermont-based Justseeds Artists Collective, brings to light military issues that are often ignored. One poster decries: “I’d rather do my time in jail than be a party to the racism I saw in Iraq.” Another cites the experience of a physically strong woman who is relegated to the “female” task of cleaning the refrigerator. Others denounce treatment of gays, the redeployment of soldiers before they are mentally and emotionally ready, and the extinction of animals, one of the unspoken consequences of the war in Afghanistan.
The works of Joyce McEwen Crawford and Linden Keiffer remind us that many kinds of war exist. Keiffer’s painting, The Reckoning (2003) refers to the internal war of acceptance. He finds hope in a future beyond divisive struggles caused by racial, ethnic and cultural differences. McEwen’s drawing, The Guardian (2009) depicts a child surrounded by the wings of a guardian angel, the role all adults can play in caring for and protecting vulnerable, abused children who are unable to protect themselves. And the woodcut prints of Diego Marcial Rios place political and moral issues of war within a universal context juxtaposing religious and contemporary images of angels, heroic and cartoon-like figures. As Argabrite describes it: “Tell It to the Sky features a native American figure draped in thorny vines and dying roses calling to the sky for an end to violence.”
Finally, a wall-sized installation of papermaker and veteran Drew Cameron’s Combat Paper Project entitled Forever Home focuses on art and reconciliation. Veterans donate the uniforms they’ve worn in combat to be transformed into paper that is used to create art. Covering a wall are rows of paper in hues of greens, tans and brown representing uniforms from soldiers who served in Vietnam, Djibouti, Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and the US. Across one row is a poem, a compilation of the writings of workshop participants in Marshalltown, Iowa. The larger issue here is that the act of creating art is healing and transformational both for the creator and for the viewer.
After World War II, German philosopher Theodor Adorno stated, “To write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric.” But poetry was written and art was created around horrific and unspeakable experiences. The artists whose work we see in War & Healing are to be commended for their courage. Their individual and collective contributions continue a long tradition of war inspired art that break the stranglehold of trauma and make healing possible.
By Sally Sumida with contributions from Maayan Glaser-Koren