Last Saturday night I had the pleasure of going out on the town with friends to a photography exhibit opening, actually two. The shows, Agent Orange: Landscape, Body, Image, and Sight Unseen, opened simultaneously at the University of California Riverside’s California Museum of Photography, here in downtown Riverside. Each of the shows was powerful and moving when considered as a group of collected pieces, but the works of the individual artists also struck chords that have been playing in my mind all week.
Agent Orange, curated by family friends and colleagues, will be a focal point for an extended conference, starting today, on the complex legacy of the chemical ‘Agent Orange,’ the herbicide/defoliant dumped by the U.S. on Vietnam during the war. The photos, films, and installation art examine from various perspectives how the insidious dioxins produced by Agent Orange have left persisting marks on Vietnam’s landscape and people, even generations later. I was not familiar with the work of the artists represented and far from an expert on the topic, but after one careful look into the eyes looking out of the photographs, I feel that I’ve gained a new layer in my own understanding of the unthinkable cost of waging war, and in the enduring ability of human beings to live and love in spite of their struggles. Good art can do that–it can teach, and allow viewers profound perspective shifts, if we let it.
one of my favorite pieces:
The photographer, Binh Danh, has printed pictures in chlorophyll of people living with the physical defects caused by dioxins onto dead, dried plant material ( if I’m understanding what I was looking at correctly) and encased the whole thing in resin. I found this piece to be beautifully moving, yet macabre at the same time.
Another of the photographers, Minh Duc Doan, titled his works ‘Suffering and Smiles.’ Each photo was so rich with this range of feeling and experience — from smiling to suffering– I’m at a loss to adequately give words to what I saw there, beyond a real and deep sense of humanity. One piece, that at first glance looked totally benign, showed an aged woman’s hand holding out a framed picture of a handsome young couple and their three small boys smiling out from a heart-shaped center. The text accompanying the image told another story, how the beautiful woman in the picture lost her husband and three children to the devastating effects of Agent Orange dioxins, all of whom died young. Heartbreaking. Each of these pictures, I realized, only tells a fraction of the story. The videos I had the time to sit with made an impression on me too– the gut-felt kind– but more than I can fully describe here at the moment.
The other exhibit, Sight Unseen, showcases the works of the 12 most accomplished blind photographers in the world. Yes, blind photographers, and yes, another profound perspective shift. What does it mean to be a blind photographer? Conceptually these works come from places far beyond capturing with a camera what is seen with the eyes, and for many of these artists, from a place in their mind’s eye only they truly know. The resulting images are infused with texture, light, and unusual elements of composition and focus, supported by a strength of ‘vision’ that many sighted photographers might never reach.
I loved the photographs as sensory observation by Scottish photographer Rosita McKenzie, taken as response to the Edinburgh Botanic Garden’s sounds and smells. Each photograph is paired with textural interpretations by another artist, intended to be felt.
These ‘to be felt gently’ interpretations were soft and slightly in relief, so that an un-sighted person could easily run fingers over the whole and feel the composition and sense the tonal values of areas of the picture, all based on texture. Wonderful.
I’m already drawn to art that I can touch, and am intrigued by textures of natural objects, so I really enjoyed getting to run my fingers over the touchable pieces, imagining that I could learn to read the Braille pressed into Gerardo Nigenda’s work. The Braille words talk about Nigenda’s other senses at work as he photographs his subjects,whether landscape, human, or otherwise. I chuckled to myself when a young mother shielded her baby boy’s eyes from the portions of a nude woman’s body, as recorded by this blind Mexican photographer. What would he have said to her…”At least let him touch the picture if you won’t let him see it!” Perhaps this baby never ‘saw’ his mother’s breast.
There were many other works in these shows that wowed me, and as I said, they still ring in my head. I’m barely scratching the surface of what it was like to be present at the exhibits, seeing and feeling the art, so I’ll leave it there. Sometimes words aren’t enough.