The Military Is Present
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 Veterans 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.”
The project 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.
Peace & Quiet was one such project. 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.
“Courage and Strength: Portraits of Those Who Have Served,” at the Honolulu Museum of Art, features images by five photographers who have devoted long-term projects to depicting the current and former service members, including Nina Berman (who documented soldiers severely wounded in Iraq) Suzanne Opton (conceptual portraits of veterans), 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 important thing is to get people talking, she says. “Everyone’s perspective is different,” she stresses. “Awareness is the key.”
Read (much) more at artnews.com
Peter Hapak, SPC Edward Klavin, U.S. Army, 2011, color digital print. The work, part of a series documenting tattoos veterans receive at a parlor near Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is in “Courage and Strength.” ©PETER HAPAK, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST.