Using outreach, performance, video, photography, and therapy, artists and museums are devising new ways to connect with veterans—and to bring their stories to a wider audience
Every evening, soon after dusk hits Union Square, the Lincoln statue on the park’s north side comes alive. The bronze, which was cast by Henry Kirke Brown in 1868, seems to gesture and speak.
The stories that emanate from this heroic figure are devastating. They tell of learning how dead bodies smell, and of contemplating suicide, of fear and heat, of being haunted by nightmares, and of heartbreak that a friend died alone.
After dark this past Veterans Day, a number of former members of the United States military gathered at the 16th Street crosswalk to listen to these stories—their own.
They had recounted them to Krzysztof Wodiczko, the Polish-born artist and current professor in residence of Art, Design and the Public Domain at Harvard. Wodiczko, best known for large-scale public projects that engage with memory and the marginalized, had met them through his outreach to some 30 veterans’ organizations. He had explained his idea to interview them in a sound studio and then to project upon the statue edited versions of their replies, effectively transforming the people who served into the commander in chief.
Fourteen veterans, who served in wars ranging from Vietnam to present-day conflicts, appear in the final version of Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, which was sponsored by the New York nonprofit More Art and remains on view through December 9.
The Veterans-night crowd, many of whom were seeing the piece for the first time, listened mesmerized to their own recollections and those of their comrades. To be sure, there was laughter–the phrase “basic training” brought it on—but mostly a somber empathy, as they heard each other recount episodes of struggle and alienation that were all too familiar.
What was different this time was that the stories were told, for all to hear, by a revered historical figure. A community that has so often been marginalized had itself become the monument.
“We’re Lincoln now,” said Joseph Avellanet, a Vietnam vet (like everyone who attended that night), who describes in his own interview how little his training prepared him for killing and death. “It’s a genius thing right here. I wasn’t really sure.
“I hope people don’t just see an art piece but actually hear our words,” he added.
“Veterans are silent monuments to our own trauma,” says Wodiczko, who has incorporated interviews with current and former military members into various art projects—projecting them on city walls, as he did in Denver during the 2008 National Convention; remixing them into a soundscape to simulate the environment of combat, as he did at the ICA in Boston; broadcasting them in concert with an elegiac, flickering candle, as he did at Governor’s Island in a project for Creative Time.
The aims of these pieces are manifold: They are intended, clearly, to bring the stories of returning service members to the attention of a society that has often failed them. And they serve as a way for veterans to sense that their experience has entered the public record. The process of recording of the interviews has its own repercussions; the artwork creates a vehicle for the speakers to relive the trauma, but also to potentially find other ways to process it. “I have no theory for it, but I think it’s healing,” says the artist.
That is the subject of “War, Trauma and Public Art,” a panel that More Art is hosting on Tuesday with NYU’s Art Therapy program. Participants include Wodiczko; Ani Buk, an art therapist and trauma specialist; art historians Rosalyn Deutsche and Kirk Savage; neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, and Carl Cannon, a Vietnam veteran who participated in the project and works as Peer Counselor for Services for the Underserved.
Meanwhile, in Times Square…
Last Veterans Day, Captain Daniel Cho, a West Point graduate who served his Army career in Germany, Iraq, and South Korea, had to make a choice. He could be part of a Veteran’s Day parade. Or, he could be part of an art piece.
Cho decided to take the path less traveled. So he answered a call to the Pat Tillman Foundation, which is helping to fund his current MBA studies at Harvard, for participants in a “civic dialogue station” in midtown Manhattan. That Sunday, along with other Tillman Military Scholars, some of them veterans and others still serving, he turned up at the northern end of Times Square, at a curious little structure that had materialized near the TKTS booth over the past 16 hours. Their job was simply to engage passersby in conversation.
The station, and the conversation, were part of a project called Peace & Quiet, a partnership between the Brooklyn-based architecture firm Matter Practice and Times Square Arts, the public-art division of the Times Square Alliance. The concept was to create, within one of the city’s most chaotic public spaces, a safe environment for the public and veterans to interact.
“It was a great experience,” says Cho, who spent part of the day answering questions from the public, and part of it talking to veterans who were passing through Times Square.
“A lot of the public don’t know what questions to ask”—just as he wouldn’t want to be perceived as ignorant or insensitive if he had the chance to ask artists what they do, he points out. “There needs to be some safe area to educate,” he says. “I feel like there’s a gap between the civilian population and veteran population at America. This event took a stab at bridging this gap.”
Over the next several days, various other collaborators arrived at the station. StoryCorps, the oral history nonprofit, conducted interviews for its ambitious Military Voices Initiative. Code of Support, a foundation dedicated to forging connections between civilians and the military, hosted conversations. Brian Fernandes-Halloran, an artist, asked people to recount on pieces of paper about a time when they felt protected. Some wrote notes to veterans, and veterans responded.
One place lines of communication were not opened, however, was with the military recruiting station just across Times Square. “That’s where people go in,” says Sherry Dobbin, director of public art at the Times Square Alliance. “This is where people go when they come out.”
Bridging Distant Cultures
That two works devoted to sharing veterans’ stories would appear simultaneously in two of New York’s busiest public spaces reflects a growing attempt to create new connections between two distinct communities—the art world and the military.
“The cultures are very different,” notes Sergeant Lyndsey Anderson, who participated in both artworks. Anderson has one foot in each world—she served in Iraq, then became a Tillman Scholar, earning her Master’s in Museum Studies at NYU. “In the military, you’re one among many,” she points out, and the qualities valued are duty and selflessness. In the art world, which tends to value nonconformity, anything or anyone that has to do with the military is often viewed with suspicion. In contemporary art, particularly, soldiers have not been not considered so much as individuals who joined and served for varying reasons but as part of a military/industrial complex.
That is beginning to change as artists use their work to present veterans not as cyphers or victims but as protagonists and narrators. For example, in his 2009 piece It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq, Jeremy Deller traveled the country in a specially outfitted RV with an American veteran of the Iraq War; an Iraqi citizen; and Creative Time curator Nato Thompson. His goal was “to encourage conversation about our world.”
“It made me really appreciate what art can do, making a way to have an open-ended conversation,” Thompson says of the piece (which appeared in an expanded version in several contemporary-art museums). “Jeremy was adamant about not making it an ideological space.”
Peace & Quiet, despite its chaotic location, created a safe space too, in the spirit of Relational Aesthetics, the artistic strategy used to spark social interaction. The site achieved that certain alchemy, so elusive and potentially life-changing, that makes taboos dissolve. Once the audience accepted the station as a transformative setting, the personal could replace the political and words and thoughts could flow that had been blocked before.
“The conversation became the art object in itself,” Anderson says.
So far, the way most images of veterans arrive at art museums is through photography. Whether under the rubric of photojournalism or art, more and more curators are exhibiting series documenting the experiences of service members and their families during and after war. There is often a conceptual aspect to these projects, in sense that the process it takes to realize them is as important as the visceral images that result. They tend to begin, as Wodiczko does, with intensive research and outreach, continue with photo essays made over the course of several years, and result in a personal connection that may well continue long after the art-making is over.
“WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,” the massive survey at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, features work from several such projects, among them Andrea Bruce’s When the War Comes Home, Eugene Richards’s War is Personal, and Nina Berman’s Purple Hearts book of photos and interviews of veterans who were severely disfigured in Iraq. Also represented is Berman’s Marine Wedding, a series documenting the marriage of Marine sergeant Ty Ziegel, who had been severely disfigured in the war. (The same series was included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial.)
Suzanne Opton, also in the Houston exhibition, is the subject of a solo show currently at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virgina, featuring work from her “Many Wars” series. The pictures show veterans from World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all wrapped in symbolic “cloaks” chosen by the wearers. The idea is that the way the garments are worn reflects the inner lives of the sitters.
More provocative was another high-concept photo series Opton called “Soldier.” For this series, she photographed nine American soldiers at New York’s Fort Drum between deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conceit was that she asked them to lay their heads sideways on a hard table, resulting in intimate, detached images that resemble (in composition, at least) Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse. To some observers, the figures were too disturbing—they appeared to be dead. Opton presented them as billboards in several American cities—but not, however, in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where she had hoped to show them during the 2008 Republican National Convention. The company that owned the billboards canceled her contract, saying the pictures were confusing and inappropriate.
These photos, as well as Berman’s, are being showcased as well in another exhibition devoted to photographs of the military, at the Honolulu Museum of Art. “Courage and Strength: Portraits of Those Who Have Served” also features work by Ashley Gilbertson (photos of the bedrooms of young fallen soldiers), Peter Hapak (images of tattoos of former service members from Iraq and Afganistan), and the late Tim Hetherington, who shot intimate portraits of American troops stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
The images “present an aspect of the military as individuals the way we don’t see in the press,” says the exhibition’s curator, Jay Jensen. “We don’t think about the long-lasting effects war that has day to day in their lives. Our natural response is one of avoidance. We don’t know what to say.”
Next: Veteran as Museum Visitor
Now that museums are beginning to represent the veterans’ experience with more nuance, will the community represented in these artworks even see them? Due to unfamiliarity, intimidation, and admission fees, among other reasons, service members don’t tend to appear in the typical art-museum demographic.
The Blue Star Museums initiative, spearheaded by the National Endowment for the Arts in collaboration with Blue Star Families and the Department of Defense last summer, attempted to remove some obstacles by offering free museum admissions to active duty military personnel and their families. But the program ended on Labor Day and has not been renewed. (The Endowment has been also working to support arts therapy programs in healthcare settings.)
Meanwhile, museums are finding other ways to connect veterans with the public. Last Veterans Day, the Worcester Art Museum hosted “An Intergenerational Conversation with U.S. Veterans” to coincide with the show “Kennedy to Kent State: Images of a Generation.” At the Saint Louis Art Museum, several Vietnam vets who are docents-in-training led military-themed tours of the galleries.
Others have begun using their collections and programming to help veterans deal with post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety, among other problems. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts offers a tour called “Honoring the Warrior” for veterans attending the Psychiatry Partial Hospitalization program at the VA Health Care System nearby. The tour, which ranges from Poussin’s scene of Germanicus on his deathbed to Japanese samurai uniform to an assemblage that riffs on the Vietnam War, combines art history, art appreciation, and art therapy.
At MoMA, educator Sally Paul has been collaborating with creative arts therapist Beryl Brenner of the Veteran Support Center at the Brooklyn VA to help local veterans discuss and create art. For one project, Inked Identity, the veterans created block prints inspired by tattoos and tattoo culture. The museum exhibited the work in its education building last month.
The value of art as a tool for dialogue is just beginning to be tapped, Anderson believes. At New York’s Rubin Museum, where she is assistant manager of visitor experience, the collection of Buddhist and Hindu art from the Himalayas centers on “concepts of compassion, interconnectedness, suffering, and transcendence over life’s experiences,” she says. She is currently working to develop programming for veterans around those themes.
The important thing is to get people talking, she says. “Everyone’s perspective is different,” she stresses. “Awareness is the key.”