New York

An-My Lê

Murray Guy

For the past decade, public attention paid to the United States armed forces has understandably focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet our country currently has more than 1.4 million actively deployed troops, and an overwhelming number of enlistees are not at this moment patrolling Baghdad streets or stalking the mountains of Bamyan Province. Where are they? What do they do? An-My Lê’s new body of photographs begins to answer these questions. Set in locales ranging from Indonesia and Vietnam to Ghana and the North Arabian Gulf, the works here testify to the geographic spread of American military deployments. Lê’s human subjects, nearly all quite young, dispense medical and dental services, provide security for disaster-relief efforts, conduct military exercises, and patrol the world’s waterways. Yet these technically accomplished and formally resolved images raise other questions that are far more difficult to answer.

In the past, Lê has focused her lens on Vietnam War reenactors in North Carolina and Virginia; a marine training facility in California; and, in the series “Events Ashore,” military exercises and scientific exploration at water’s edge on several continents. In these series, she has attended to, among other themes, the living legacies of past conflicts, the cultural training of combat troops, and the interlocking interests of corporations and the American military. But she has also probed photographic and artistic conventions, and this exhibition was no different. Are these new works war photographs? Lê is no Robert Capa or Ashley Gilbertson, experiencing the heat of battle alongside those who are fighting, but for many young men and women, the prosaic activities she depicts are what military service entails. The images containing the most “action” reveal not actual battles but training exercises. Are the scenes staged? The clarity, frontality, and formal balance of Jungle Survival Training, Indonesia or Beach Landing Site, Haiti, both 2010, lend to these images a sense of the uncanny reminiscent of Jeff Wall’s photographs.

Even in the face of such sublimely beautiful images as Manning the Rail, USS Tortuga, Java Sea, 2010, which recalls a Canaletto painting of a busy Venetian lagoon, questions about framing and context direct the viewer to larger political concerns. How stage-managed is the American military presence in these far-flung corners of the globe? Portrait Studio, USS Ronald Reagan, North Arabian Gulf, 2009, is perhaps emblematic, in that it serves as an allegory for the acts of disclosure inherent in Lê’s broader project. In this image, naval studio photographer Briana Brotzman prepares Lieutenant Commander Ron Flanders for an official portrait somewhere in the bowels of a ship. We see not the final “message” but instead the act of messaging, and are reminded, too, that Lê’s access to these scenes is itself partly intertwined with that messaging effort. Two other photographs, US Naval Hospital Ship Mercy, Vietnam, 2009, and Ship Security, US Naval Hospital Ship Comfort, Haiti, 2010, are views of essentially the same subject from different vantage points. The former depicts a seemingly benign hospital ship floating in placid waters, its multiple painted red crosses broadcasting a peaceful objective; the latter, shot from the deck of a different hospital ship, shows a man in camouflage, flanked by a spotlight and a mounted machine gun. Exhibited together, these images suggest that the military’s dual aims of “capturing hearts and minds” (through, in these cases, humanitarian efforts) and projecting and maintaining military power rest uneasily together. The proliferation of amateur war imagery, often captured by military service members themselves, has complicated our understanding of what takes place on and around the battlefield; by turning her large-format camera on the many other kinds and locations of American military activity, Lê enlarges our conception of the armed services still further.

Brian Sholis