Bringing the war home

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This morning I heard a re-broadcast of an interview with Studs Terkel, Chicago icon, deceased Friday, October 31. In an interview recorded only two days after September 11, Studs voiced an opinion that was not well received by everyone: that it had “finally happened”; that we as Americans had finally experienced aggression and violence on our own soil; that we underwent that day what countless other civilians, often by our own country’s hand, experience on a daily basis. He continued: it is easy for us to read about the wars we have fought on other soil, only to then turn to the sports section and read about the Chicago Cubs.

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We tend to experience the terror of others as nothing more than a newsworthy event: at best it moves us to donate money to an international organization, but we empathize (often with good faith) and then go on. Susan Sontag, in her incisive book Regarding the Pain of Others, has this to say about our distant involvement with war: “…battles and massacres filmed as they unfold have been a routine ingredient of the ceaseless flow of domestic, small-screen entertainment”. Indeed, televised images of the Gulf War even had the surreal quality of a video game.

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I’ve been chewing on this theme ever since I interviewed Robert, a Vietnam veteran from Florida. When interviewing I always ask the following question: have you ever had an intense experience in front of a work of art? Robert answered that yes, he had, and that it had been that very day after seeing Martha Rosler’s photomontage series Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful. A recent acquisition by the Art Institute, Martha Rosler’s series consists of ten photomontages produced during the height of tension of the Vietnam War (1967-1972). These pieces were originally circulated in underground newspapers and amongst anti-war activists; they are seen for the first time as a collection at the Art Institute. Assembled from the pages of Life magazine, Rosler’s images send us teeter-tottering from the world of soldiers, civilians missing limbs, and decimated landscapes to a kitchen with all the latest amenities, a brand-new sprawling mattress, and a living room with shag carpeting, mod furniture, and contemporary art. In one montage, two patio chairs look out past immaculately trimmed shrubs onto a desolate scene with destroyed buildings and military tanks; one can almost imagine “conflict tourism” replacing “eco-tourism” as the latest rage if we could somehow remain comfortable and safe, watching as the real spectacle unfolds before us. By taking all these images from a magazine where pages of war photos were indeed followed by advertisements for lawn sprinklers and the newest La-Z-Boy chairs, Rosler collapses the space between the lives of the Vietnamese and ours: Vietnam ceases to be “over there” and becomes part of our own living room.

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This collision of two worlds was precisely what had moved Robert. In addition to “seeing Vietnam again”, he was “seeing it within the context of what Americans were experiencing versus what I was doing over there”.

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Like in Honors (Striped Burial), where Rosler graphically brings together two different worlds by alternating different strips of photo (the title making a clever visual allusion to the mechanics of the piece), Robert’s own experience with disconnection was reconnected by this powerful series of photomontage.

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