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Friday, November 05, 2004

Discussion with David Kiehl on Memorials of War

Curator David Kiehl’s current exhibition at the Whitney, Memorials of War, is a tightly focused show of 13 works that re-examine iconic images from the Vietnam War and present plans for memorializing the lives lost in that conflict. Kiehl, curator of prints at the Whitney since 1993, and I sat down recently to discuss the slightly unorthodox approach he took in assembling the show and what he hoped to achieve through it.

This fall has seen a host of war-themed shows in Chelsea. Most of them have tended toward the didactic or the shrill. While also focused on the topic of war, Memorials of War has a completely different tone. What did you want to do with the show, and how did you approach the topic to give it the tone that it has?
I didn’t want the show to be about protest because that is shrill and didactic. I didn’t want the show to be strident. I wanted it to be respectful—respectful of those who fought in Vietnam, of those whose fathers, brothers, and cousins were killed in the war. I believe the show does do that, but it also opens up issues of rethinking what the war was all about. I think we have forgotten that in the intervening years. It’s time to remember since we’re dealing with similar issues all over again.

What does looking at the topic of war through a historical lens give that more recent work doesn’t?
I wanted to talk about the parallels between something that was in the past and what is happening today. For me, having grown up in the 1960s, the parallels between the Vietnam War and the latest Iraq war are strong.

I was really interested not in the war as fought, but in the war as memory because Vietnam marked a big change in how we “memory” war. After World War II, we were used to statues, memorial plazas, cenotaphs, and community centers as ways of memorializing. That all changed with Vietnam.

The images of the war from Life Magazine became the inspiration for what I wanted to do. We don’t always remember specific dates and battles. We don’t always remember the political discussions. But we remember images, especially in today’s world. I wanted to raise the issue of how Vietnam is looked at, how Vietnam is remembered.

Two key elements in the show are the proposals for war memorials. We bought the Robert Morris set of prints two years ago—the lithographs proposing a planned destruction of the American landscape as a memory of war. (At right: Robert Morris, Trench with Chlorine Gas, 1970, from the series Five War Memorials.) And in 2003, Nancy Kienholz gave the museum The Non-War Memorial. That memorial was originally intended to be on 75 acres that had been totally voided of any living thing. The Vietnam uniforms were intended to be filled with dirt and seeds to rejuvenate the land. Both works invoke death through the destruction of land, as a metaphor of what we did in Vietnam.

So I really wanted to set up a parallel. This is how we remember something in the past, something that a lot of us grew up with. I wanted viewers to see this work and then draw their own conclusions. I really wanted people to think, to stop in their tracks. If they cried that was fine. If they got angry that was fine. I wanted them to think about what went on in the past, about what’s going on today, and how we can strive to make the future different.

It takes guts for an institution to present a show that invites free and open discussion of these issues when that discussion is viewed as contentious in some circles. How has the general public received Memorials of War since it was installed?
I have been happy because the show has been well-attended. I go up to watch people in the gallery to see how they move through the show. Kienholz’s body bags are in the center of the gallery, and you have to walk through them. (At right: installation view of Edward Kienholz, The Non-War Memorial, 1970.) People are not kicking them. There is no destruction. There is a lot of respect. I wanted the idea of walking through corpses. In a way, it’s like walking a labyrinth in a medieval cathedral. As you do it, you think.

I’m hearing from the guards that people are asking for the show. There have been a lot of requests for information from school kids. Vietnam isn’t taught in many schools, but children are being assigned to go look at this show.

As well received as the show has been, there’s still one thing I wish I had been able to do. I left a hole in the installation; there’s a wall that has a space on it. I left the space because I’m still looking for the Art Workers Coalition’s Q: And Babies? A: And Babies. poster (at right). That’s the poster that I had in my college dormitory. I know that it exists. I know that it’s out there. I just haven’t found it. I would love to get it some day for the museum. I would love to put it into its space on the wall.

Memorials of War remains on view in the Whitney’s fifth floor Ames Family Gallery through November 28.

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