Bettina WitteVeen stood clutching a paperback subtitled War in the 21st Century, but the hospital behind her shut its doors nearly half a century ago. Can her work still be about healing? She would surely think so, but the pain comes first.
Try not to blame Walid Raad if he piles things, long after you wish he would stop. Raad lines up two dozen grainy photographs, one after another to the length of a wal6 lat MoMA, of engines left over from car bombings in Beirut. They differ in little more than the people who gather round them, trying to make sense of how something so banal could do so much damage. Yet that still leaves more than thirty-six hundred other remains that you will never see. Try not to blame him either if they leave victims and victors alike anonymous. War is like that—and this civil war, he estimates, left a hundred thousand dead, a million displaced, and ever so many more in trauma.
In truth, the hospital building never tended to the victims of battle. Martin Thompson designed it more than twenty years before the Civil War for injured workers at the surrounding Brooklyn Navy Yard, in much the same Greek Revival style as his bank façade now guarding the American wing of the Met. Brooklyn floods it with sunlight. Yet it seems itself a casualty of war—windows boarded up, lights long gone, fireplaces caked with cement, sheetrock punctured and shredded. Bathroom stalls stand empty behind their doors, the fixtures ripped out as if in one last act of violence.
Look closely, and the bathroom also holds a grainy photo just off the floor, as part of WitteVeen's building-wide installation, When We Were Soldiers . . . Once and Young. Like its site, it evokes the past, to the point of feeling trapped there. Yet it tries to find in memory a point of departure and grounds for hope. Neither comes easily. That black-and-white photo shows someone who lost his legs and, the artist points out, would have had no end of trouble dealing with the bathroom. This is about direct experience, of war and its aftermath.
Its primary instrument is archival photography, heavily retouched and mounted behind Plexiglas, which gives it a hard, cold surface. The first floor describes combat, with scenes of battle lining the corridor. Side rooms focus in turn on injury to the head and face, upper torso, and lower torso. A fourth room adds a grim hint of the future, with robotic weapons and tools of surveillance, several in the shape of spiders. Then a lower floor invites one to imagine a state of hope, including "that which remains" and an "altar of redemption and resurrection." Visitors receive a list of organizations devoted to peace on the way out.
WitteVeen is asking for change, with the burden on you. Like John and Yoko, she is here to let you know that war is over if you want it. Redemption, though, is not so easy to come by. The work is part of an ongoing series, with a formidable title after Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. One combat photo even excerpts the film inspired by the novella, Apocalypse Now. It looks indistinguishable from the real thing, but then war upon war adds up here to a single nightmare.
Brooklyn's incarnation of the series is site specific—and not just in the sense of the hospital. These are wars in which Americans fought and died, although war's fatal attraction extends to others. A room mostly for World War I has a British rally for what another show called "Love/War/Sex," interspersed with the injured. Still, it runs mostly from the American Civil War to Iraq, starting with the first's most famous nurses, Clara Barton and Walt Whitman. Barton later founded the American Red Cross, and of course Whitman's poetry includes Drum-Taps and Whispers of Heavenly Death. He could also have seen the Navy Yard in life, as in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," where "Brooklyn and its ample hills was mine."
Even more than the photos, that site is an invitation to remember. It also feels all but cut off from hope. The hospital lies equally accessible from Williamsburg in one direction, Dumbo and Vinegar Hill in another, and Fort Green and Clinton Hill in a third—and equally inaccessible from them all. Look around, and it is hard to believe it that it was not a battleground. Steiner Studios promised some time ago to restore the hospital and to give it a new destiny, but little has changed, and the studios, like the waterfront, lie hidden behind a dense overgrowth and trees. Admission is free but requires online reservations.
The battles blend together, often shrouded in the smoke of war, as just part of what stands in the way of an easy optimism. One cannot tell them or even the centuries apart without a scorecard. They have in common mostly an era, beginning with the Civil War, of a more brutal machinery of death. Uniting them, too, are photos here and there of poppy fields. As WitteVeen explains, poppies bring a measure of comfort as opium but also thrive in the unsettled soil of battle. They crumble in one's hands into fragments red as blood.
The artist nurtures that ambiguity of suffering and redemption. She sees it in the scenes with helicopters, which carry in troops and carry out the wounded. It extends, too, to the awkward promises of the installation's lower floor. The "altar" has its photo-collage crucifix, but with a skull at its center. Plain crosses of black wood bar the way to three other rooms, and anyway a crucifix is not just a symbol of resurrection. A god and two thieves had to suffer first.
WitteVeen herself cannot resist an uplifting message. Although a Buddhist, she rides the Christian imagery, only partly with the excuse that America is predominantly Christian. She arranges photos for the most part in grids of four, because that evokes crosses, too. In another show, a crucifix without a Christ would be a broken promise and a still more sobering experience, like war itself. Here the altar is part of a chapel, with stools for relief and Bach playing softly in the background. Take that handout as you leave and get moving.
The depth of feeling is real all the same. Maybe a German-born artist will always have a certain weakness for the ponderous and certain. Think of Georg Baselitz and Neo-Expressionism—or, speaking of war, Max Beckman. WitteVeen, though, has moved to United States, where she majored in American studies in college, and she takes the darkness as her own. One room has the table from an operating room beneath the photo of an anonymous rape victim in wartime, who went on to develop a horror of bright light. Perhaps I am imagining it, but she looks like a slightly younger portrait of the artist.
That book in her hands, edited by Eric L. Haney with Brian M. Thomsen, has readings on the present state of war. Its title, Beyond Shock and Awe, could apply to the installation as well. If the doctoring of photos makes them at times inscrutable, that, too, is about moving beyond shock and awe. One has to strain to make out lost limbs for a reason. More explicit violence would make its point, but also encourage one, WitteVeen argues, to recoil from the injured and to tune things out, to the point that one might never notice the barbed wire still crossing a field at Yalta. It would also objectify the scenes, I want to add, as the sufferings of others.
Instead, they become personal experience. They ask to look at one soldier's agony and fears through the eyes of another. The handouts, too, quote from the experience of war, in the British poetry of World War I, but also Bob Dole, the former senator and no liberal: "each veteran has his own war, which lives on in midnight memories and flashbacks." The saturated red of many a photo, the artist says, corresponds to battle, too, where vision may suddenly take on an unreal color. Soldiers then are literally seeing red.
Walid Raad was a child when war began in 1975, and he left for the United States before college, well before it ended in 1991. He speaks English with an American accent. Still, he has returned often to Lebanon, and his art has hardly ever left. Along with Lucien Samaha and Francis Alÿs, he keeps trying to pinpoint a time and place of suffering or resolution, only to find them slipping away. And his response is to insist on anonymity, starting with the creator of his art. He identifies The Atlas Group, his work through 2004, as archives of a group of the same name. They could tell you the exact number of car bombings, he claims, with a photograph of every one.
The group may be a fiction, but then so are its donors. They include the unknown hand that left evidence buried in Beirut "for chemical and digital analysis." They include a historian of supposed note and the "senior topographer" for the Lebanese army's Directorate of Geographic Affairs. Fictive or not, they also include him. The photos of automobile engines, paired with handwritten notes, "are attributed to Walid Raad, who donated them to the Atlas Group in 2002." The details make them that much more real, but also more cold and clinical.
Names and dates are important to a proper record, and each series has two wall labels—with only one from the curators, Eva Respini of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art with MoMA's Katerina Stathopoulou. Naturally the labels conflict, and naturally the Alpha Group's is more precise, with alphanumeric assignments of archives, catalogs, volumes, and plates. Raad dates one series as far back as 1982, seven years before he began. Is it a coincidence that he left Lebanon the very next year? He has appeared in a gallery show of "A Vernacular of Violence," but he avoids the vernacular in favor of the banal and impersonal. The human side slips in all the same.
They do so through imagery, at least before fatigue sets in. That includes a video of the seacoast at sunset, circles of colored paper standing for bullet holes, and tiny watercolors depicting explosions, isolated on large fields of white. They do so most, though, through subtitles that turn at the drop of a hat from tragedy to irony. Neither stance, they seem to say, can get a proper grip on events. "I only wish I could weep," one reads, but "he is not merely miserable. He is brilliant at it."
Raad will not let on which photos he took and which he found, but he has turned his focus that much more toward art. In the corridor leading to his retrospective, much the same clinical labels apply to what look like antiquities. The wallpaper behind them might depict the steel frames of a high rise or picture frames. His work since 2007, Scratching on Things I Could Disavow, scrutinizes museums built on oil money and who gets to define an Islamic art. The work continues in the atrium, packed with a scale model of a museum, torn walls, and a video mapping connections—punning on a famous chart of modern art by MoMA's Alfred Barr. As with Zoe Leonard before, the museum may finally be coping with its unruly architecture.
As usual Raad is kidding, and as usual he means it. He quotes advice not to show his face around art, lest he become a casualty of war. He describes discovering that the art has shrunk in scale, by a factor of a hundred, or exchanged its skins—allegories of western eyes and Middle Eastern fears duly noted. Is all this Postmodernism worth it, thirty-five years after Allan McCollum hung empty picture frames as his Surrogates? Is all this anonymity a strategy or a defeat? The artist himself may no longer know, but he gives docent tours in person several times a week as performance, perhaps to help him find out.
Bettina WitteVeen ran at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, near the Washington Street entrance, through October 28, 2015, with reservations through OvationTix, Walid Raad at The Museum of Modern Art through January 31, 2016.