View Full Version : Exploring one photo of an explosion in An-My Le's 'Small Wars'

11-02-07, 08:32 AM
Exploring one photo of an explosion in An-My Le's 'Small Wars'

Last updated November 1, 2007 2:02 p.m. PT



An-My Le's "Explosion" is an essential section of a much longer, guided narrative, which is beautiful because it is heartbreaking.

An-My Le's "Small Wars" at the Henry Art Gallery is made up of two series of photographs. One series, called "Small Wars," shows scenes of scenes -- re-enactments of battles staged by Vietnam veterans on weekends in the forests of Virginia. The other series, "29 Palms," shows activity on the military base of the same name in the California desert, where Marines train for battle before they leave to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These two series hang side by side, one a re-enactment of the past, the other a rehearsal for the future. It is the conflation of these two close concepts which makes me ask myself questions. For instance, can we re-enact the past in order to change it? Can we get it right the second (or 700th) time around? Can we rehearse the past? Re-enact the future? Both words ("re-enactment" and "rehearsal") are confounded by their beginnings -- they both begin in the past with the past-tense prefix "re." Also, both are theater words -- in this case, the theater of war. In all cases, both terms live in the gelatin silver print land of the imagination. And in war, it seems, the past and the future look much the same.

My assignment is to look at An-My Le's "Small Wars" show (and just in time! It ends Sunday). I am supposed to see the whole show, and then pick a single photograph and describe it here. This is my bright idea: A good one, I thought, and still think, though now I am struggling with the hard unexpected work of removing my pick (a photograph called "Explosion") from the sociopolitical context of the show.

The human mind wants to work hard in a certain way. We see a thing and scramble to make a larger meaning out of it. A rose is a rose, but we want it to stand for love, for beauty, for the primacy of the natural world. We try to make a forest out of a single tree. Taken singly, "Explosion" is simply that: a photograph of an explosion (at night, in a tattered clearing of a pine forest). The effect of it is stunning, though not necessarily out of the ordinary -- our sense of sight is always captivated by the light of a bright fire. Still, the image is what the image is -- and in this exhibition it is much more a part of the forced march of the "Small Wars" series than an individual image by itself. But if I push and persist in seeing it singly, I do find that this photograph makes magic all on its own.

For instance, the forest in the photograph seems to locate another century in another country. It is as dark as the inside of a mouth -- and it makes an almost antiquated-looking backdrop for the explosion itself, which is, of course, the lazer-sharp focus of the photograph. Put this way, if the forest is a mouth, then the explosion is an expletive on the tip of the tongue. It is a pouring of pop rocks, an overwrought batch of Jiffy Pop, a heart attack to the left of the chest, a bright idea firing in the dark folds of the brain. The explosion itself is nothing less than zany and festive, shooting out long, lineated streamers of star-tipped light from a base that looks like some kind of casement -- or cake. The scene is lit only by the light of it, a sudden release that catches even the trees by surprise, somehow caught in flagrante delicto (which translates from the Latin as "while the crime is blazing") being and doing their secret tree-things. I could go on and on.

Le's photo is an essential section of a much longer, guided narrative that is beautiful because it is heartbreaking. Taken on its own, though, "Explosion" cannot help but transmit a kind of breathless joy -- not unlike the effect of a spectacular firework on the Fourth of July. It says, "Look at the shapes that light can make!" We've seen it before, but still we can't look away.


WHERE: Henry Art Gallery,

University of Washington

WHEN: Through Sunday. Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., till 8 p.m. Thursday

ADMISSION: $10 general, $6 seniors, free for members, students, children under 14