The Vietnam War ended more than 40 years ago, but for many its memory is an ever-present reminder of family members lost or damaged, of lives uprooted.
For some, however, that memory is kept hidden away in a black box.
That's how California artist Wally Hedrick felt when he made "War Room" — four walls sheathed in canvas and coated inside with black paint to block all external stimuli, in particular the constant flow of news and images from the nation's first televised war. Hedrick built this 11- by 11-foot room in 1967-68, when he felt a sense that the United States was trapped in the conflict, with no way to get out.
"War Room" is one of more than 150 artworks in an ambitious double exhibition opening Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, following a daylong "teach-in" on Saturday.
The main show, "Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975," focuses on art from the war years, assembled by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
To complement those works, Mia put together a smaller, homegrown exhibit featuring artists of Southeast Asian descent whose lives were dramatically affected by the war.
Smithsonian curator Melissa Ho said she was "fascinated by that generation of American art, being only one generation separated from the war." As an Asian American teenager when the Vietnam vet-centered Rambo movie "First Blood" came out in 1982, Ho recalls the hostility directed at Vietnamese people at the time, and wanted to unpack it further to better understand what the war meant.
The exhibitions coincide with the 50-year anniversary of the war's midpoint, but Matthew Welch, the institute's deputy director, sees a connection with current immigration issues, noting the large numbers of Hmong, Laotian and Vietnamese refugees who settled in Minnesota after the war.
"That means there are both Minnesotans who participated in the war and people impacted from that part of the world who are living among us," Welch said.
To serve those groups, Mia curator Bob Cozzolino insisted that wall labels be translated into Hmong and Vietnamese. The museum is also waiving the admission fee for visitors of Southeast Asian heritage, as well as veterans and active military members.
A layered outcry
The two exhibitions are organized as one, beginning with "then" and ending with "now."
At the entrance to the show, Hans Haacke's 1969 sculpture "News" — a teletype machine — prints out a constant stream of news that will pile up during the run of the show, which continues through Jan. 5. Inside, Bruce Nauman's neon sign spells out "WAR," casting a red glow on museumgoers.
"The majority of the work is by artists who are basically drawing attention to what they felt was a war that was doing nothing but negative things for American soldiers, for Vietnamese civilians," Cozzolino said.
"In general their outcry is wanting to stop having bodies put in harm's way. They are questioning authority."
Martha Rosler's 1967-72 photomontage series "House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home" combines horrific images from Vietnam — a man holding a dead child, for example — with luxury domestic settings that Rosler clipped from magazines. She wanted to shake people out of their complacency.
Edward Kienholz's "The Eleventh Hour Final" (1968) recreates a middle-class American living room, replete with wood-paneled walls, cigarette-filled ashtrays and a cheap couch facing a TV. The screen lists the toll of dead and wounded that week in Vietnam. Inside the tube, there's a wax head that the artist heated to mimic the effects of napalm, its dark dead eyes staring out at the viewer.
Chicano activist Malaquias Montoya's poster "Viet Nam/Aztlán," written in Spanish and Vietnamese, draws parallels between colonialism and resistance by equating Vietnam and the ancient Chicano homeland in the southwestern United States. Montoya calls out Chicanos as a conquered people, similar to the Vietnamese. The word "Fuera!" ("Get out!") calls for Americans to leave Vietnam.
To ensure Midwestern representation in the show, Cozzolino dedicated one gallery to the clash between antiwar protesters and police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, adding works by several artists from that city.
Views of 'The American War'
The second part of this double feature includes artists of Vietnamese, Laotian and Hmong descent who carry the historical trauma of the war. For them, it was the American War.
"Artists Reflect: Contemporary Views on the American War" includes four visceral photographs by Pipo Nguyen-duy, who grew up near the so-called Demilitarized Zone that once divided North and South Vietnam. He recalls hearing gunfire every day of his early life. His photo series "Eden/Vietnam" (2005-11) documents people maimed in the war, including his brother, who lost his right arm.
Hmong-American artist Pao Houa Her, who was born in Laos in 1980 and whose family settled in the Twin Cities area, considers herself — along with all the Hmong people who live here — a byproduct of the war.
"Even though I wasn't born during the American War, I feel like, all the trauma that my parents have, I somehow inherited it," she said. "Even my siblings who are like super-removed from Laos and were born in America, they also carry my parents' trauma, so I think about that a lot in all the work I make."
Her's suite of four photographs of Hmong veterans points to the complicated role they played in the "secret war" fought in Laos.
Four men in uniform, all unnamed, stand proudly in front of regal, velvet backdrops. Although they fought on the American side, their achievements are not recognized by the U.S. government. They even had to buy their own uniforms and medals. Essentially, they were erased from a war they'd been a part of. Her's portraits give them the recognition they desire.
Vietnam-born, Minnesota-based artist Teo Nguyen came to the United States at age 16. He grew up in a postwar Vietnam where remnants of violence were still visible. Four small paintings, drawn from a series he calls "The Vietnamese Peace Project," portray now-calm landscapes where fighting once raged.
The silvery photorealistic paintings are based on actual images from the war, but Nguyen has removed the combatants. For instance, a seemingly peaceful scene of a rice paddy once included U.S. troops carrying the body of a soldier.
Nguyen identifies as an animist, believing there is a spirit in all living things. He wanted to create work that spoke to his values, so he recentered the narrative in a Vietnamese context, thereby paying respect to his culture.
"There is beauty in emptiness, in negative space, that has always been there in front of us," he said.
"If we look closely enough, it becomes something that has always been there — it reminds us of our past."