Regardless of generation, cultural background, or level of direct involvement with war, we cannot escape being touched by the faces in Binh Danh's series, titled One Week's Dead. Danh collects photographs and other remnants of the Vietnam War and reprocesses them in a way that brings new light to a history marked by painful memories. A main source of the images is the 1969 Life magazine article, Faces of the American Dead: One Week's Dead.1 Portraits of two hundred forty-two young American men, casualties in one week of the war, were presented in a yearbook style layout, triggering a powerful public response: "the entire nation mourned those soldiers...you saw those faces, that's what brought it home to everyone."2
Danh returns these faces to the public's attention nearly four decades later. Using photosynthesis, he incorporates the portraits into the cells of leaves and grasses, symbolic of the jungle itself bearing witness to scars of war that remain in the landscape. Danh's method is based on a principle as simple as leaving a water hose on the lawn too long. The cells in leaves react to light by turning dark green, or the absence of light by turning pale. Danh is able to create images onto leaves, not by printing onto them, but by capturing the image within the leaves. By imprinting faces of war casualties and anonymous soldiers from the battlefield, Danh encapsulates remnants of history in the biological memory of plant cells. Through this process, he recycles collected news images and snapshots from an isolated past and memorializes them in the present. The final product, leaves embedded in resin, transform the source images into precious, yet permanent artifacts.
Using his unique work process, Danh is reconstructing histories that occurred before he was born, but have undoubtedly affected him. He investigates memories of the Vietnam War by resurrecting pictures of its human toll. In doing so, he fulfills a personal need to better understand a time he is too young to recall first-hand. Danh describes that the past has always made its presence felt, even a world away from Vietnam. He was less than two years of age when his family escaped Vietnam to establish a new home in the United States. Danh has been able to gather stories from his mother and to visit Vietnam with her as a young adult, giving him access to a rich history that exceeds the knowledge of many in his generation. He relates that most second-generation Vietnamese-Americans are curious about their families' pasts, but perhaps just as many elders prefer to keep silent about vivid memories of unspeakable violence, pain, and sometimes shameful regret. His plight reminds us that we are all, despite our degree of knowledge, profoundly affected by events that occur before our time.
For Danh, his first trip to Vietnam was part of his quest to construct his own impression of the country and reclaim its history. The trip was profoundly influential in the development of his photographic process that literally and figuratively places Vietnam War images in nature. He recalls the presence of war still visible in the landscape years later—bomb craters repurposed to rice paddies; children born with missing limbs, still paying the price for the use of Agent orange during the war. It became clear to Danh that the jungle landscape was both a target and backdrop to the war. Long after nature had camouflaged physical scars with new growth, the war was still living there, in the land and its people.
The understanding of landscape and history forms the basis for Danh's chlorophyll printing process. his placement of images in nature suggests existence of a transcendent condition of memory—one that could supersede inexact memories generated by written histories and political agendas. The ideal of an omnipresent memory is perhaps rooted in a human desire to learn from history as a foundation for advancing humanity. "Our struggle is also a struggle of memory against forgetting,"3 as Danh quoted bell hooks' imperative on the connection of memory to reform.
Danh's work is aligned with the struggle to maintain memory in its memorializing role. The sentiment emphasizes an important underlying philosophy for the artist that nothing ever dies, but is only transformed. "In Vietnam, we grow our rice and bury our ancestors on the same land so, every time we eat the rice, they literally become part of us."4 In this way, simple daily ritual goes beyond the activity of fulfilling bodily need, and becomes a nourishing act of both body and spirit.
The ideology that nothing ever dies is not just a central part of Danh's spiritual belief but is key in appreciating the concept behind his unique process of reproducing Vietnam War-related photographs onto tropical plant forms using the natural process of photosynthesis. Danh recreates the faces of war casualties in reverent plant forms in acknowledgement of the jungle, which held them in their death. By using plants to imprint an image of life lost, Danh carefully preserves a belief in human worth. he positions images of war in nature to confirm the presence of the past in our daily lives. We are like the readers of Life magazine—nearly forty years later, held captive by Danh's resurrection of the young men's faces. especially at a time when current deadly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to make headlines, we are reminded of the permanence of even one human life lost.
Danh refrains from politicizing his ideas of the Vietnam War, although he mentions that the "Vietnam War" is referred to as the "American War" in Vietnam. his work is primarily inspired by a philosophy that human memory is inextricably linked to the earth's memory. In this context, memory becomes global rather than having nationalist or other political ideology as its base. his concept of elemental transmigration considers that all living things are composed of atoms, constantly recycled to perform new functions. As if completing a cyclical journey, images from One Week's Dead reveal they are as much a part of Danh's heritage as his works picturing Vietnamese or Cambodian victims of war. All images are grounded in a cultural belief of transformative life process and therefore are subject to renewal in the service of better understanding the war. "Since matter is neither created nor destroyed, but only transformed, the remnants of the Vietnam War live on forever in the Vietnamese landscape."5
We cannot be certain what, if any, lessons are learned by war, but Danh confronts us with the resonance of war itself. It is this encounter that offers a chance for change. Confronting the aftermath of war creates an opportunity to examine our history so we may take responsibility for the enduring memories, including residual documents of war, such as photographs.
In making art that searches out hard truths of the past to advance ideals of peace and promote understanding in the present, Danh employs the potent presence of historic images—their compelling meaning still held in suspense by unasked or unanswered questions. Rather than being caught in the pain of the past judgments, Danh shares an experience of looking back at the Vietnam War as one who takes no sides, and he reminds us that wars may end, but they are never over.
Laura A. Guth
Light Work, 2007
© 2007 Laura A. Guth