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The Moral Complexity of War Games

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Small Wars Explosion 1999 2002
An-My Lê, “Explosion” (1999–2002, from the series “Small Wars”), gelatin silver print (© An-My Lê, courtesy the artist and Marion Goodman Gallery)

PITTSBURGH — An-My Lê was born in Saigon in 1960. After spending her early childhood in Vietnam, she lived in Paris from 1968 until 1973 with her mother, who was studying English literature. They then returned for two years to Vietnam, only to be evacuated to California by the United States government in 1975, just before the North Vietnamese Army conquered Saigon.

Lê studied biology and French at Stanford University, where she also took a photography class. After graduation, she worked in France as a photographer, came back to the US to earn an MFA from Yale University, and became an artist. In 1994, she returned to visit and photograph her native country.

An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain, her first major museum retrospective in the US, includes more than 100 photographs. It has pictures of rural and urban life in a number of American states; images of landscapes, workers, and our armed forces overseas; a selection of photos taken in the 1990s in Vietnam; and a marvelous sequence of depictions of a rock quarry in upstate New York. Sometimes Lê works in color, but also she does black-and-white photographs. Her images are relatively small, often 26 by 38 inches, but sometimes 40 by 56.

When Lê was researching the Vietnam War, she met Americans who created three-day-long battle reenactments, complete with mortar fire, flares, and explosions. And they allowed her to photograph them on the condition that she also participated.

Small Wars Rescue 1999 2002
An-My Lê, “Rescue” (1999–2002, from the series “Small Wars”), gelatin silver print (courtesy the artist and Marion Goodman Gallery)

Most of them had little military experience, and so they thought that wearing accurate uniforms and casting her, a native-born Vietnamese, in such roles as a North Vietnamese soldier or Viet Cong rebel would make their experiences more authentic. These play actors took their roles seriously. Sometimes, after they angrily cursed and screamed at her, acting in character, they were crestfallen and apologized.

In her photograph “Sniper I,” she is in the foreground, poised ready to ambush American soldiers. And in “Lesson” (the series, Small Wars, is dated 1999-2002), she sits next to a man dressed as a GI, perhaps pretending to pass along intelligence, but maybe playing a Viet Cong agent.

Did you play war games when you were a child? I did, but then after seeing the Vietnam War on television, the memory of such play horrified me. For this reason, it is hard for me to comprehend, or even witness the rituals that Lê depicts. Most of the re-enactors, the exhibition catalogue says, are not veterans, but trying to “work through their own issues.”

The same presumably is true of Lê or, indeed, of anyone who recalls what it was like to have lived during that war. One way to master such fraught memories, I imagine, is to safely repeat the experience. Perhaps that is the reason why the re-enactors take the trouble to dress up and play these war games.

And maybe that is what makes Lê’s pictures so especially compelling. Sensationalized cinematic violence in James Bond or Jason Bourne films looks totally unreal. In that way it is literally childish, like my boyhood games. But the photographs that Lê took in Vietnam are always very restrained. I especially admire “Untitled, Ho Chi Minh City” (1995) in which a group of Vietnamese wear goggles, presumably to look at an eclipse, with an image of Ho Chi Minh hung in the background.

Events Ashore Portrait Studio USS Ronald Reagan North Arabian Gulf 2009
An-My Lê, “Portrait Studio, USS Ronald Reagan, North Arabian Gulf” (2009, from the series “Events Ashore”), inkjet print (© An-My Lê, courtesy the artist and Marion Goodman Gallery)

Just as Lê returned to Vietnam, so did the American military, some decades after peace was established. Her “American Sailors Returning to Vietnam, First US Naval Exchange Activities with Vietnam People’s Navy, Da Nang, Vietnam” (2011) shows what amounts to, I would say, a political reenactment ritual, a return to the scene of the war.

When Lê was unable to gain access to the frontlines during the Iraq War, she photographed the war games of troops training in the California desert. And so we know that the terrifying scenes in “Explosive Ordinance Disposal”or “Small Convoy Attack” (both 2003-4), in which a tiny figure seems to be hiding in the foreground, only show play-acting. Some of her photographs of the American South deal a newly urgent political theme, the removal of statues of Confederate generals. The photograph, “General Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard Monuments, Homeland Security Storage, New Orleans” (2017) presents the future that these statues and others like them now face, crammed together in storage.

Lê usually physically and emotionally distances her images from the events or people she’s depicting. But in the striking “US Customs and Border Protection Officer, Presidio-Ojinaga Internatonal Bridge, Presidio, Texas” (2019), she takes us close enough to read a Hispanic woman’s name tag.

And she does the same when she portrays servicewomen close-up in “Aircraft Carrier Arresting Gear Mechanic, USS Ronald Reagan, North Arabian Gulf” (2009). Such close-ups are nicely complimented by “Rio Grande 1, US-Mexico Border” (2019), which presents the border from a distance with no visible human presence, or by the scenes of war games like “Mechanized Assault” (2003-4), also viewed from a safe distance.

Viet Nam Untitled Ho Chi Minh City 1995
An-My Lê, “Untitled, Ho Chi Minh City” (1995, from the series “Viêt Nam”). gelatin silver print (© An-My Lê, courtesy the artist and Marion Goodman Gallery)

Lê never shows the effects of violence on a human being, even simulated violence. In “Ambush III” (1999-2002) shows smoke but no carnage. In the catalogue she says, “I don’t want to be a victim and I’m not interested in making work that’s about trauma.”

That statement is morally admirable, but can you be exposed to such scenes, even when they’re simulated, and retain your perspective? One possible answer comes when we consider her personal history. For me, as an American-born observer, the war was a ghastly imperial incursion that tragically killed more than 3,000,000 Vietnamese, as noted in the exhibition catalogue’s Timeline, as well as more than 57,000 American troops. For Lê, as a Vietnamese-born woman who became an American citizen, it was a different story — a civil war, with complicated rights and wrongs on both sides.

But of course, at the time, the American public wasn’t generally attuned to such subtleties, and saw the Vietnam War as a conflict to be won in the cause of freedom, until the costs rose too high. Lê’s perspective is palpably and inescapably different.

In light of these lingering issues and opposing outlooks, as Lê herself recognizes, the creation of reenactment photos is morally complex. “It has been argued that the presence of cameras normalizes and creates a sense of a just cause, a more tasteful enterprise. That is troubling to me.”

The difficult balance, if I understand her properly, is to acknowledge the position of the other side without losing your own moral compass. On Contested Terrain is an admirable exhibition because, never blinking, Lê looks straight into such moral complexities. It inspires sustained reflection about dilemmas that won’t go away.

An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain continues at Carnegie Museum of Art (4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) through July 26. The exhibition, which is organized by Dan Leers, curator of photography at Carnegie Museum of Art, is available online. The museum opens to the public via timed tickets on June 29.

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