© 2016

Love in the Time of War

We conceived of the exhibit Love in the Time of War over three years ago at the invitation of Chuck Mobley, former SF Camerawork (SFC) Executive Director, as part of a Warhol Foundation grant to facilitate five exhibitions at SFC which emphasizes global diversity. This traveling show staged at both UC Santa Barbara and SF Camerawork (with varied work at each site) presents new lens- and body- based work addressing queer personal intimacies and political violence by transnational artists with ties to Southeast Asia, Europe, the U.S., and in-between.

Three years ago, on September 1, 2013, President Obama sought military action against Syria for use of chemical weapons. On September 1, 2016 (the opening of the Love in the Time of War exhibit), the US has accepted 10,000 Syrians as part of the Syrian or European “refugee crisis”—arguably an outgrowth of American military involvement in the destabilized Middle East and beyond. Despite America’s welcoming rhetoric, in November 2015, a total of thirty-one US states had refused Syrian refugees from entering, including the governors of Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, among others.

In another context, over forty years ago, in the aftermath of another civil war, the US also did not want to resettle Southeast Asian refugees (curator Việt Lê included). The year 2015 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Việt Nam War. The title of the exhibit is from Pulitzer-prize winning poet Yusef Komunyaaka’s cycle of poems about his experiences as a soldier in Việt Nam. The war also known in Việt Nam as the American War, which not only encompassed Việt Nam, but also Laos, Cambodia and neighboring countries as well during its aftermath. During Nixon’s “secret war” in Cambodia and Laos against communism (1969-73), 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped in Cambodia alone—more bombs than all of WWII combined. Still the eternal racialized wars rage on, overseas and on US streets, as the Black Lives Matters movement attests to. In The Gift of Freedom, cultural critic Mimi Nguyễn critiques the double-edged “gift of freedom” that the U.S. empire promises, exacting an eternal debt for refugees of its violence, ranging from wars in Southeast Asia to the Middle East. In Body Counts, Critical Refugee Studies scholar Yến Lê Espiritu notes that America’s rhetoric of refuge masks the perpetration and perpetuation of violence against its refugees.

Trauma and Desire

Our exhibit asks, How do we respond with love and compassion amidst overwhelming chaos? How are intimate relations—and well-intentioned gestures—tied to state violence? These relations must be queried and queered. The artists in the exhibit queer standard national narratives of modern love, sexualities, and modernization. Through a lavender colored lens, as it were, a (queer) perspective on the traumas of history and modernity emerges. The North South East West series by Bruce Yonemoto (Los Angeles), shown in daguerreotype cases, showcases the forgotten Asian American Civil War soldiers—at once tender, terrified and terrifying. The “out and proud” subjects (Thoamada I, 2012) photographed by Vuth Lyno (Phnom Penh) look like they are wearing war paint, but in actuality their visages both reveal and conceal contemporary Khmer society’s incongruities. The son of a Vietnamese high-ranking military officer, Nguyễn Quốc Thành (Hà Nội) has unprecedented access to North Vietnamese military officers, whose images belie homosocial vulnerability unseen in state-sanctioned propaganda images.

In public policy as well as cultural representations (film, literature, visual art) the racialized feminine body and psyche become contested sites of ideological tensions. For instance, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s (Berkeley) experimental film Forgetting Vietnam (2015) critically examines how Vietnamese women are exemplars of the nation. Postcolonial critic Panivong Norindr notes that the legacy of French colonial conceptions of Indochina (Việt Nam, Laos, Cambodia)—and Southeast Asia at large—as an “exotic and erotic” entity still lingers. Films featuring American involvement in Việt Nam such as The Quiet American (2002), Apocalypse Now (1979), Miss Saigon (1989), Heaven and Earth (1993), and so on allegorize Southeast Asian countries as single female protagonists in need of salvation or as an unyielding, mysterious, feminized landscape to be dominated. In Brown Boys and Rice Queens, performance studies scholar Eng-Beng Lim argues that often Southeast Asian nation-states are gendered as feminine, to be dominated by “glocal queer” dominant LGBT discourses. Pink capital erases state offenses. From Orientalist colonial fantasies to pink state “makeovers” used to obscure humanitarian offences, raced and gendered fantasies haunt our public and private imaginaries.

Return Engagements

What engages us to return, time and again, to places that are both painful and pleasurable? To address wars and wounds combined with wonder. What is the true heart of the matter? Tracing historical violence and contemporary violence, both home and abroad, from the Việt Nam War/ American War to the Middle East, to the Black Lives Matter movement and beyond, it is imperative, and urgent that we return. The racialized violence on US streets and bloodshed on other shores, then and now—these are not separate. In our returns, in our reorientations, something irrevocably turns, shifts. It must. Return the favor. Return to the scene of the crime. Return home. Forty years onwards, why and how does this still matter?

This show explores memory, popular culture and the traumas of history and modernity within and without Cambodia, Thailand and Việt Nam—countries linked historically and regionally with each other and the United States. The term “return engagement” captures these artists’ commitments as well as the real and ideological battlefields they maneuver.

In Amy Lee Sanford’s (New York) video Cascade, the artist returns again and again to family letters her late father wrote during the political turmoil leading to Khmer genocide, connecting France, Cambodia and the United States—a family and state affair of the heart. Also unraveling information, Delicious Taste’s (Grant Levy-Lucero and Bruce Yonemoto, Los Angeles) large-scale installation 1984 references George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. The installation also returns to Quipus from the Peruvian empire of 4,000 years ago: through touch, the knots “read” 1984 over and over again.
Through intimate social touch, Anida Yoeu Ali’s (Tacoma) performance-based projects The Buddhist Bug and Red Chador engages with strangers again and again in Phnom Penh, Paris, Washington DC, Hartford and San Francisco. Through intersectional feminisms, the work crosses gendered, Muslim, Buddhist, and diasporic (dis)identifications.

A website (www.loveinthetimeofwar.com) features online-only projects including videos, zines and performances by Bo (Oakland), Francisco Camacho Herrera (Bogota, Amsterdam), Karen Finley and Bruce Yonemoto (Los Angeles), as well as artist collectives Studio Revolt and Vănguard. Their individual projects are forms of protest—reconfiguring, with ardor and rage, social and state structures and strictures. The artists in this group exhibition embody the contradictions of engaging love—its contingency and urgency— in a time of eternal wars.

— Việt Lê and Jen Vanderpool, curators