01 May 2008


Billboard, I-690 Syracuse, April-May 2006
~ Photograph © Xie Jiankun.

Downtown Buffalo, New York ~ Photograph © Xie Jiankun.

Via lens culture I discovered the portraits of American military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan that Suzanne Opton has made. The exhibition as a whole is called "Soldier" and the portraits are, when viewed from close-up quite disconcerting. Captions provide the subject's last name and the number of days (if known) he or she served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. The portraits were taken when the soldiers were home on leave and scheduled to return to duty. It is easy to detect a sense of great distance and a depth of injury, perhaps irreparable, in these young faces. Provocatively, Opton was not satisfied to leave her images in galleries and secured funding to get some of them out into local communities. She has worked on a follow-up series entitled "Citizen" which consists of portraits of Iraqis now residing in Jordan, having been displaced by our war. The lens culture feature includes this audio interview with Opton.

P.S.: Added a bit later ~ Opton lives & works in New York City. She took portraits at Fort Drum near Watertown, which is not far from where I live. In the audio interview she discusses the difficulty she had in obtaining access to a military base. After describing how her requests were rejected multiple time, she remarks: "And then I called Fort Drum. The Public Affairs Officer asked 'Is this political?' and I said 'No, it's art. I just want to do portraits of soldiers.'"

Now, I simply do not get this. I do not get the Officer's question and I do not get Opton's reply. In her remarks Opton acknowledges that she has a son who is draft age (although there is no draft) and that she doesn't know any young men or women who had volunteered for the service. So why did she find the subject of soldiers pressing? Why now? Why did she move on to make a parallel series of portraits of displaced Iraqis? These portraits are about trauma and service and freedom (volunteers?) and war and so forth. It seems disingenuous to deny their is no political (as distinct from partisan) motivation here. Perhaps Opton was denying the obvious simply because she needed access to the soldiers. But the notion that these images are not political - and have not from the start been political - is completely unpersuasive.

As for the Public Affairs Officer at Drum, he simply could not have been that credulous. Opton is not a young woman - I'd guess she is my age. A quick check would've revealed that she is an accomplished photographer and that this was a fairly dramatic departure from her previous work. What could he have thought was prompting her to want to take portraits of soldiers just now? Apolitical art?

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Anonymous Dawei_in_Beijing said...

I wonder: do artists really think their works have transformative powers, or are they exploiting war (perhaps subconsciously) to create aesthetic forms that are supposedly infused with profound and poignant messages? War seems to provide a lot of great fodder for artists, doesn't it?

01 May, 2008 16:22  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me, the majority of art is political because like politics "it is about the way we live".

06 May, 2008 10:08  
Blogger Paul said...

I believe it is important for those artists - who feel so inspired - to make work that ties to current socio-political events because it inspires viewers to seek knowledge and various other fellow human viewpoints - outside of what the media (in general) leads us to believe. Public art leaves an even greater impact because it reaches a larger audience - especially those who wouldn't necessarily take the time to visit a gallery.

12 May, 2008 01:00  

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