San Francisco

An-My Lê

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Tucked between an installation of greatest hits from SF MoMA’s permanent collection and a show of Italian photographer Gabriele Basilico’s images of Silicon Valley, An-My Lê’s exhibition “Small Wars” is easy to miss. The exhibition, which consists of forty-seven large-format photographs of men playing war, includes two bodies of work about conflicts that are, in the American consciousness, anything but diminutive: The series “Small Wars,” 1999–2002, depicts a reenactment of Vietnam War battles in the forests of Virginia, and “29 Palms,” 2003– , records military exercises at Twenty-nine Palms (the largest Marine Corps base in the United States) in preparation for tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The works may be timely in subject matter, but they are anachronistic in technique: Lê uses a five-by-seven-inch view camera that requires shots to be rigorously composed (indeed, Lê traveled to the reenactment events with a military advisor to help her stage the images). The clarity afforded by such large negatives and the relatively long exposure times—which mean that the image captured is not necessarily the one Lê sees when she opens the shutter—endow the photos with an air of deliberation and stillness that is at odds with today’s YouTube/cell phone–camera aesthetic. Lê does not traffic in the adrenaline of war; instead, she documents the self-consciousness with which we approach even its simulation. Rarely do the subjects here seem completely absorbed in their own performances, be they reenactments or rehearsals, for their gaze always drifts toward the camera. In Small Wars: GI, 1999–2002, an army-fatigued adolescent—too young to have any direct memories of the war in Vietnam—sits at the edge of a clearing and stares into the lens.

Such deliberate self-presentation is even more prominent in 29 Palms, in part because in this series Lê does not participate directly in the action, as she does in the reenactment series, where she performs the role of Vietnamese tutor in one image and Vietcong sniper in another. It is also because the more recent images are suffused with anticipation: As the men take turns playing the bad guys in their crude Potemkin Iraq, with its rudimentary scrawls (SADDAM GOOD and GO AWAY) and crass attempts at Arabic graffiti, they are acting not just for the camera but for the drill. The smiles that signal bravado, whether or not they actually represent it, are meant for a mythic public that will call them heroes.

To avoid appearing parodic and to maintain their sense of ambiguity, these images demand a certain degree of emotional latitude, as well as a certain amount of physical space into which viewers can project their own constructions of the conflicts represented. At SF MoMA, the photographs are not afforded such space, with the result that “Small Wars”—if one can find it—lost any sense of urgency.

Rachel Churner