An-My Lê, Fragment I: Film Set (Free State of Jones), Battle of Corinth, Bush, Louisiana, 2015, ink-jet print, 40 × 56 1/2".

An-My Lê, Fragment I: Film Set (Free State of Jones), Battle of Corinth, Bush, Louisiana, 2015, ink-jet print, 40 × 56 1/2".

An-My Lê

The photographer An-My Lê’s first American museum survey, “On Contested Terrain,” followed her most consistent subject: the United States military and its impact through both time and space. The precisely installed exhibition offered the opportunity to view each of her photographic series, arranged from newest to oldest, revealing how her works collapse the distinctions between what’s fiction and what isn’t.

Lê uses antique, large-format wooden cameras, which give her grandly scaled pictures a sense of richness, clarity, and depth that’s worlds away from digital photography. In interviews, the artist often emphasizes the importance of maintaining a good amount of physical distance from her subjects. This separation not only aids in keeping the wide views of her analog tableaux in sharp focus, but also corresponds to a crucial level of emotional remove that allows her to revisit certain places and events from her past, such as the Vietnam War, which she experienced firsthand. Lê emigrated with her family to the US from Vietnam in 1975, when she was fifteen.

To make “Small Wars,” 1999–2002, perhaps her most well-known series, Lê followed a band of dedicated Vietnam War reenactors in North Carolina and rural Virginia, most of whom hadn’t experienced the conflict directly. Eventually, she joined these impersonators in their games and, in a twist of dark irony, took on the role of an “enemy combatant.” Later, after her petition to travel with the US military to Iraq as a photographer was denied, the artist visited a marine base in the Mojave Desert. There she shot “29 Palms,” 2003–2004, a series that documented soldiers training for deployment to Iraq. This body of work, a counterpoint to “Small Wars,” captures not reenactments, but the necessary rehearsals for a real-life theater of war.

Lê’s work also allows us to explore the porousness between these two modes. For instance, in one photo from “29 Palms,” we see four young marines playing the roles of Iraqi law enforcement officers. On the front wall of a low-slung building behind them is some spray-painted graffiti: the crossed-out word POLICE and below that, in an equally clumsy hand, the phrase DOWN USA. One begins to wonder whether the interior lives of Lê’s subjects here ever mesh with those of the men they’re attempting to represent? Do these soldiers fear their “enemies”? Empathize with them? Or will this theatrical exercise shape the encounters they’ll be having with their so-called foes?

Lê’s art is often discussed in relation to the work of American Civil War photographers Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, particularly for the way she stages her pictures to appear “journalistic.” This slippage between the concrete and the imagined beautifully mirrors the dark landscape of Donald Trump’s “alternative facts” regime and how he coerced people into embracing his poisonous fictions as reality. One photo, installed toward the end of this exhibition, offers up a tongue-in-cheek comment on our terrible zeitgeist: It features the Oval Office, recognizable from the iconic presidential crest emblazoned upon a light-colored carpet. My eye was so forcefully guided to this emblem that for a moment I didn’t understand that I was actually looking at an environment crafted to parody power. The work, Fragment VII: Trump Presidency, Oval Office, Saturday Night Live Set, NBC Studios, New York City, 2018, is a picture of a fake office built for the purpose of making fun of a real president who, to his very core, is a certified—albeit extremely dangerous—phony. “On Contested Terrain” was a brilliantly conceived funhouse experience, full of wonders and horrors.