Mar 11, 2014
Christian Appy on ‘Mekong Diaries’
Posted on Jan 16, 2009
Much of the art they produced during the war has been lost or destroyed. Many works that survive were stored in abandoned U.S. ammunition boxes—the driest and tightest containers the artists could find. After the war, what remained was tucked away in trunks and largely forgotten, in part because the postwar artistic establishment regarded most of it as crude and unfinished, created under duress with the most rudimentary supplies—with pencils, worn-out brushes or twigs, with inferior ink, children’s watercolor kits or dirt and saliva, on cheap paper, newsprint or cardboard. In the postwar era some of it was reworked into larger, more polished watercolor, lacquer and oil paintings, but the great bulk of it was ignored for many years. At least part of the explanation for its recovery has been the interest expressed in it by foreigners, especially American veterans, art collectors, scholars and tourists (and quite a lot has been sold to them).
Many of the works gathered here are simply beautiful—amazingly so given the conditions of their creation—the kind of art you could hang in a dining room without risk of distressing your dinner guests. Indeed, one of the most obvious things to say about this work is that it defies almost every common American or Western conception of war-related art. There is very little here that evokes the horrifying human, animal and physical wreckage of war that is the subject of Picasso’s “Guernica,” Goya’s “The Disaster of War” etchings, or Delacroix’s “The Massacre at Chois.” Nor does it resemble the searing and violence-haunted work produced by America’s Vietnam veteran artists and collected by the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum (examples of this art have been published as “Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections,” edited by Eve Sinaiko and published by Harry Abrams Inc., 1998). Nor does it even resemble most of the propaganda poster art that was produced in Hanoi during the war and meant to celebrate the heroism and righteousness of “people’s war.”
Instead, most of it is surprisingly serene. For example, several watercolors feature an adolescent boy or girl sitting calmly on the ground. They look perfectly at ease with a tranquil, somewhat faraway gaze, posed as if on a picnic or a school outing with a hint of foliage in the background. The only indication that they are guerrilla fighters is the striking fact that they are holding automatic rifles. Yet, they are holding them as lightly and casually as you might hold a parasol. While a few images depict Vietnamese guerrillas aiming and presumably firing their rifles, there are no exploding bombs or napalm, no scenes of civilian massacres, no images of the bloody aftermath of battle, no severed limbs, no children screaming in agony or grieving mothers, certainly nothing resembling the images (mostly from photography) that most characterize American visual memory of the war. Nor, even, do they match Vietnamese accounts of the war’s harder realities.
Looking at those calm, well-fed teenagers in the war art made me think of five women I met who had, as teenagers, volunteered to serve in the jungles of the Truong Son Mountains, building and repairing the many branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the rainy season they were almost never dry. Sometimes they stood for hours up to their waists in water trying to damn rushing streams that threatened the trails. The work was backbreaking. Some girls were rendered infertile. Food was so scarce many became malnourished. Everyone eventually got malaria. It killed some. Most survived, but the disease made their hair fall out. Sometimes after a bombing attack they would form “dare to die” squads to defuse an unexploded bomb. One day, a bomb fell nearby and they had to dig five people out of a shelter that had suffered a direct hit. “We were on our hands and knees clawing at the dirt. Our arms were smeared with blood. There were five people in that shelter. Four of them just turned to porridge. We couldn’t tell them apart. Only one body was recognizable. That woman was holding her child so tightly we couldn’t separate them. We buried them together.” Finally, after years, the girls, now women, were able to go home. “Living in the jungle for so many years made us look terrible. After the war we came home hairless with ghostly white eyes, pale skin, and purple lips.”
How then can we understand what Sherry Buchanan fully acknowledges as the “romantic,” “dreamy” and “idyllic” quality of much of this art? As she points out, “Life in the damp, dark, snake-infested chambers of the Cu Chi tunnels is made to look cozy, with a scarf used as a pillow, a teapot, a bottle of rice wine.” By way of explanation, she and Nam Nguyen suggest that the serenity of the work reflects both an immersion in French-influenced art training along with a deeper Vietnamese cultural predisposition to seek mental peace amid physical and emotional turmoil. And even the length of the war may have reinforced a tendency toward a wishful, wistful art meant to deflect attention from the apparently endless hardship. “I didn’t want to portray suffering,” artist Thai Ha recalled. “You must keep on living an ordinary life to be able to fight a long war.”
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