ART : COMMENTARY : A Monumental Burden : Chris Burden’s memorial, etched with the names of real and made-up Vietnamese dead, is an unsentimental reminder of the war
No sculpture in recent memory has demonstrated as keen and disturbing an artistic intelligence as Chris Burden’s “The Other Vietnam Memorial.” A chilling commemoration of a grim facet of the modern American psyche, the memorial offers further compelling evidence that, at 46, Burden is among our most significant artists.
Imagine a desktop Rolodex as designed by the Pentagon, and you’ll have some idea of what the sculpture looks like. Machined from brute steel, fitted with copper plates in place of revolving paper cards and exploded to enormous scale (it stands 13 feet tall), the sculpture shrouds bureaucratic weaponry with an icy glamour.
The copper sheets, which subtly recall printing plates, are etched with a seemingly endless list of Vietnamese names in tiny black letters. Some identify specific people who perished during U.S. involvement in the Indochina conflict. The rest are computer-generated fabrications.
Exact records being unavailable, Burden used a basic catalogue of nearly 4,000 names and had them mixed-and-matched through a computer. Three million is the total number of war dead during America’s involvement, which includes about 250,000 Vietnamese soldiers and 1.5 million civilians in the South, and some 700,000 military and 250,000 missing in action in the North, plus estimates of heavy losses in embattled border regions.
Commissioned last year for “ Dis locations,” the Museum of Modern Art’s first substantive show in nearly 20 years that attempted to chart the shifting tides of contemporary art, the memorial is in the collection of the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles, where it has just gone on public view. (It’s being shown with another extraordinary sculpture from the foundation’s collection, Burden’s 1979 “The Big Wheel.”)
There, it does lose one small chord of resonance that reverberated like a tuning fork through MOMA’s galleries. In 1970, when MOMA presented its last major contemporary show, a stir was created by German expatriate artist Hans Haacke, whose contribution was a notorious site-specific piece called “MOMA Poll.” Visitors to the show--a survey of new Conceptual art, titled “Information"--were invited to cast ballots on the question: “Would the fact that (New York) Governor (Nelson) Rockefeller had not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?”
Two to one, visitors answered “yes"--even though the Rockefeller name (and money) had been synonymous with the Manhattan museum from the start. Nelson had been chairman of MOMA’s board; his brother, David, was its then-chairman, and their mother had been one of the four founders in 1929. But, the poll results were clear.
Burden was a graduate student at the time Haacke took his famous poll; consciously or not, his Vietnam sculpture managed a subtle engagement with MOMA’s past. Two decades later, “The Other Vietnam Memorial” reverberates against the sad and savage failures of history. Of course, the sculpture’s “monumental implications” can’t be contained by a single art museum. The loss in its change of venue to L.A. hardly matters. Because the sculpture was conceived and built in the wake of last year’s Persian Gulf War, the fury of Desert Storm offers an originating context far more significant than one museum’s exhibition history.
Before, during and after the military adventure in the gulf, few Americans regarded the Iraqi people as mortal enemies. Enmity was instead focused like a laser beam on their leader, whom we re-created almost overnight from favored U.S. ally to the new Adolf Hitler. A personification of evil, Saddam Hussein stood in for the indifferent crowd.
Yet today Hussein remains in place, while scores--perhaps hundreds--of thousands of Iraqi civilians are dead. That we neither know nor seem to care about the actual number of slain “enemies” is less a testament to collective inhumanity than a brutal symptom of the psychological shut-down necessary for war.
Wars cannot effectively be fought against individual men and women, each with a human face and heart. To do so would be unbearable. Therein lies the harrowing power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, Maya Lin’s masterful wedge of etched, black granite embedded in the earth, to which Burden’s memorial obliquely refers.
The list of the 57,939 dead American men and women on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial does put a viewer face to face with the enormity of the tragic carnage, while personalizing each and every life. Yet, it also accomplishes something unexpected and even more agonizing.
Societies typically build memorials to commemorate their own war dead, not their enemy’s. But those distinct boundaries are blurred in Maya Lin’s design. The black granite wall is polished to a mirror finish; it reflects the face of every visitor across its sea of names, which seems to stretch to the horizon. All Americans are obliquely acknowledged, regardless of their relationship to the event.
Not unlike the Civil War--which defined the American story as surely as the Peloponnesian did the ancient Greek--the Vietnam conflict was, in heart-wrenching ways, a war in which Americans fought Americans. The Veterans Memorial powerfully remembers those who died, yet it doesn’t let us look away from the battle that raged--and still rages--among ourselves. Its emotionally vivid power doubles.
Burden’s “The Other Vietnam Memorial” couldn’t be more different in intention and effect, but it does elaborate on the great precedent in Washington. For if Lin’s showed us that the enemy is ourselves, his shows us how that enemy thinks.
Burden’s sculpture luxuriates in the cool refinement and technical complication of its own heavy-industrial manufacture. Sleek, finely tooled and exquisitely crafted, it is first and foremost a brute machine, filing empty integers into a data bank of names. The 96 copper “printing plates” create a kind of smooth metallic skin, into which foreign-sounding names are etched. Fabricated identities for unknown individuals transform flesh and blood into computerized information.
Millions of anonymous dead are made equivalent to John and Jane Doe. The style of the monument, which mimics public sculpture, haplessly befits a bureaucratic culture--especially one that has come to define itself according to technological goals and achievements.
Its title is an important clue to the old-fashioned, deeply entrenched idea that made this foreign adventure possible. “The Other Vietnam Memorial” doesn’t just get you thinking about the other monument in Washington. It also declares that Burden’s sculpture has been designed as a memorial to those we habitually conceive to be “the Other.”
Transcending topical politics, the hoary conception of a Homogeneous Us versus an Alien Them allowed the fruitless slaughter. “The Other Vietnam Memorial” is as much an officially sanctioned tribute to American fear, ambition and loathing as it is to slain men and women. Its shocking moral ambivalence is the source of its riveting power.
That’s why the most distressing feature of its New York debut last fall was the degree of seemingly willful blindness spoken in the critical response, much of which ranged from tepid to angrily dismissive. Burden got rapped, and rapped again, for not sentimentalizing his memorial.
Roberta Smith, who assumed that the scale of the human carnage was the sculpture’s main point, wrote in the New York Times: “(There) is often a sense that the message and the medium are out of sync . . . that the concept has been emphasized at the expense of form with results that can be earnest and preachy, or that don’t seem inevitable. It’s not clear, for example, why the three million names in Mr. Burden’s piece . . . had to be etched on copper; the impact of their great numbers would have been much the same had they been printed on paper covering the walls.”
Holland Cotter similarly lamented in Art in America: “(Once) you had read the explanatory tag at the entrance, you ‘got’ the piece, and it was hard to take it any further. The fact that the names of the war dead listed here were essentially stand-ins took away some of the work’s emotional charge. You were left wanting to feel more fully drawn into the piece. . . . “
In the Nation, Arthur Danto likewise complained: “It touches no emotions, not least of all because the names are generic Vietnamese names, designating anyone and no one. The power of Maya Lin’s masterpiece is that there is a direct causal and semantic tie between each name and a specific individual, so that in touching that name one is multiply related to that very person . . . (Burden’s memorial) shows disrespect for the very persons it was meant to represent.”
Danto is innocently unaware that the virulent power of just such disrespect is a central subject of “The Other Vietnam Memorial.” He and other critics refused to see what Burden had wrought, choosing instead to lament what he had not wrought--namely, an equivalent to the black granite wall in Washington. Consider their common discomfort over the computer-generated list of names, discomfort they try to banish rather than to feel. Instead of disturbing their own expectations, the absence of an emotionally vivid, comfortably recognizable experience was repeatedly projected as a sign of the failure of the artist.
Why such a bizarre collapse of critical standards, in which one artist is berated and dismissed for not having produced a work of art that replicates another’s? The powerful claim on the American imagination exerted by Maya Lin’s great memorial may be one explanation. So might the inexperience of critics in New York with the work of the California-based sculptor. Recall that no museum in Manhattan had the prescience to host Burden’s 1988 touring retrospective, which proved to be the most important that year.
You get the feeling, though, that an even more powerful motive is the lingering, subconscious desire to be absolved of guilt and complicity in the Vietnam debacle. Burden didn’t deliver a feel-good catharsis in “The Other Vietnam Memorial.” In the shadow of the mountain of corpses, imagine how presumptuous that would have been--especially since Desert Storm showed that nothing much has changed.
The truth is hard but simple. Burden’s firm refusal to sentimentalize the conflict is not a defect. In fact, it’s the touchstone to the sculpture’s enduring brilliance.
* Lannan Foundation, 5401 McConnell Ave., (310) 306-1004, through Sept. 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.