Culture » Visual Arts

A Country, Not a War

Images from Vietnam on display at the Air Force Academy



Currently showing at the Permanent Professor's Gallery of the U.S. Air Force Academy are two photo essays historically grounded in the Vietnam War. These are not the expected combat photographs, however, but collections of work largely about the aftermath of the war.

True, photographer Ted Engelmann served as an Air Force sergeant in Vietnam from 1968 until 1969, but the majority of the 30,000-plus images in his collection were taken on trips to the country in the years since the conflict. His Long Time Passing: A Photo Essay of the Vietnam Experience seeks to reinforce the perspective for veterans and their families that "Vietnam is a county, not a war."

Engelmann seems to look for juxtapositions between the beauty that is Vietnam today and reminders of the battle zone it once was. For example, his photo titled "Flowers at the War Museum" shows a Vietnamese man with his watering can standing in a garden of yellow flowers. The background, however, is taken up by the hulking green carcass of a tank. The majority of Engelmann's images do not draw such comparisons within the same frame, however; photos of beautiful flowers and breathtaking temple interiors, intermixed with shots of prosthetic devices and crippled Vietnamese veterans create a jarring overall picture.

Engelmann also shares several photos of "rituals and ceremonies of healing" around the United States, including monument dedications, marches and depictions of veterans, like himself, still involved in the process of putting the war behind them.

For Engelmann, the ritual of healing involves saving money from his work as a substitute teacher in Littleton to pay for return trips to document the changes in Vietnam. Four shots of downtown Saigon taken on visits in 1989, 1995, 1997 and 1999 show the now-demolished U.S Embassy and the high-rise buildings that have taken its place. "This is a life-time project for Ted," said Air Force Academy art professor and gallery director Pam Chadick. "His overarching mission is educating people about the Vietnam conflict."

Though Engelmann's photographic skills come through in a number of the photographs in this show, the real importance of the work is in its historical significance and the glimpse it gives into one veteran's method of coping with the continuing effects of the stress of war. "The emotional memories we brought back are from the past, and these images bring us into the present," his artist statement says. "Those memories ... can finally have a place to rest, with the new knowledge that peace is possible within ourselves -- and others."

The other wall of the Permanent Professor's gallery presents a collection of the work of Sen Nguyen, a Vietnamese ex-patriot who, according to Chadick, is now a nun in Denver. A Tea For My Mother is more subtle and less political in content, though it is similar to Engelmann's work in that it focuses on changes since the war. Nguyen's art is also grounded in photography, taking images of her elderly mother as a starting point. There are a number of well-done black-and-white photographs that stand on their own merits. However, Nguyen has also superimposed painted silk on a number of the pictures to create an interesting, if sometimes difficult to discern, collage of media.

According to Chadick, the silk painting is done more or less without regard to the photograph that will eventually lie beneath it. Nevertheless, in several cases the layers of the final product work well together, with the darkened areas of the painted silk revealing the most detailed portions of the photograph below.

There are also pieces that include a collage of torn family photographs as the bottom layer, set off against the superimposed silk-painting outer skin. The painting itself ranges from representational images of fishermen and religious symbols to abstract shapes reminiscent of Chinese lettering. Nguyen characterizes her combination of silk painting and photography as an allegory of her relationship with her mother-- like the ocean, stormy on the surface and calm and tranquil below.

Chadick has also included in the exhibit a book of correspondence between Nguyen and her mother during a period of separation resulting from the war. While the letters are written in Vietnamese, several are translated and help give the collection a feeling of the difficulties encountered by the large numbers of refugees caught up in the conflict in Southeast Asia.

Together, the work of Sen Nguyen and Ted Engelmann form an exhibit that is at least as important from a historical and political viewpoint as from an artistic one. Those interested in a view of Vietnam, and war in general, from a different perspective will especially enjoy the Engelmann portion. Those interested in less political, but still emotionally charged artwork should appreciate the Nguyen collection. In any case, the work in this show gives an important alternative vision of the aftermath of war.

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