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“One Big Misunderstanding”: Artists, Vietnam War Reenactors and Real Conflict

Photo by Diane Barber

The exhibition could not have been more aptly titled. One Big Misunderstanding, photographs and video by Austin-based Otis Ike and Ivete Lucas exploring the subculture of Vietnam War reenacters, opened to a large crowd on Saturday night at G Gallery in the Heights. What happened at the opening is the stuff of legend—a polite, refined art crowd gathered in a gallery in an upper middle class neighborhood unknowingly about to witness an epic brawl that was as intriguing as it was unsettling. The ensuing mayhem underscores the very real power of art to engage and provoke. In this case, the audience was quite literally engaged in a way that is rare, even shocking, and the reaction to the work presented became as discussed among the crowd as the art itself.

Still from video by Nazinan Shirazi

Although I’m currently serving as director of G Gallery, I wasn’t with the gallery when this exhibition was planned. I worked with Ike and Lucas on the installation and had a basic overview of what was going to happen that evening, but neither I nor the artists had any idea how it would play out. As a part of the exhibition the artists themselves were going to assume the roles of war reenactors. Ike, in full character the entire evening, had taken on the persona of a G.I. conducting “military operations” at the gallery throughout the night. He and two fellow G.I.s could be seen hiding in the bushes in the parking lot and running down the sidewalk in front of the gallery with their (fake) guns drawn as perplexed passersby looked on. Inside the gallery they were peeking around corners and belly-crawling across the floor. Meanwhile, Lucas and two other performers posed as Viet Cong, inhabiting a corner of the gallery space that had been converted into a jungle homestead. The performers moved in and out of a bamboo hut, engaging in mundane domestic tasks and seemingly oblivious to the soldiers close by.

Still from video by Nazinan Shirazi

As the crowd grew, audience members began to interact with the the G.I.s more and more. Several borrowed weapons or straw hats from the performers and smiled widely as they posed for photos that undoubtedly ended up on Facebook. Others goofed around and held up their arms to be frisked by the soldiers. Meanwhile, the striking drag queen known as Christeene, who was dressed as a platinum wigged, polyester minidress and boot wearing Nancy Sinatra, mingled with the guests. Every now and again sounds of gunfire, audio of Lyndon Johnson talking about the war, or a few bars from “The End” by the Doors coming from the video installation in the bamboo hut added to the din. It all coalesced to create an atmosphere that was oddly festive but absolutely surreal.

Still from video by Nazinan Shirazi

At 7pm, right on cue, the evening’s performance began in earnest. Ike and Lucas had choreographed a short war reenactment in which the G.I.s, emerging from the back room of the gallery, would finally engage the Viet Cong. The experience was intense. The gallery crowd instinctively parted as the shouting soldiers ran toward the hut. The startled Viet Cong hustled to respond, screaming at each other and the soldiers, overturning baskets and piles of bamboo as they took cover. Then, as the confrontation was reaching a crescendo, a blur of light blue and denim came running full speed from the back corner of the room. Within a split second, the blue streak was airborne. A split second later, the blue streak “engaged” Ike and had him in a headlock. The performance continued in front of an unassuming audience with the soldiers, the Viet Cong, and a slight but convincingly forceful and enraged woman in street clothes in the middle of the melee. The brawl progressed with soldiers and Viet Cong falling one by one as they were “shot” or knocked down. Ike, in the middle of the mix, struggled to shake the woman off of his back and finally succeeded. Ultimately, the civilian in street clothes, the Viet Cong, and the G.I.s lay motionless on the floor. The enraptured crowd stood motionless as well but “Nancy Sinatra” didn’t miss a beat. Standing tall in all of her blue, poly-blend glory she launched into a rousing rendition of “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” Indeed!

Still from video by Nazinan Shirazi

It’s strange to think that a room full of onlookers watching what unfolded at G Gallery on Saturday night could witness a very real physical brawl involving an artist and an audience member and remain passive. Looking back on it though, it really did seem to be part of the show. Admittedly, it did cross my mind as I was watching it that it was odd that Ike and Lucas would recruit someone in street clothes to be part of the performance. But then, given the general strangeness of the whole event, the thought was a fleeting one. The absolute absurdity of an audience member jumping an artist in front of an audience canceled out any instinct to act. What was actually happening, in my mind at least, couldn’t possibly be happening.

Still from video by Nazinan Shirazi

As the musical finale ended, the guests resumed their mingling, and the one non-performer held court on the sidewalk outside, I thought to myself, “how completely perfect was that?!” What caused the reaction? Was it that the offended audience member misunderstood the context within which the performance was being presented? Or was that what she objected to? Did she think the show was either affirming or protesting the still controversial conflict and wanted to express her opposition to the politics of it all? Who knows. The reaction was fascinating and priceless and underscored the premise of the show in a way that could not have been more on target. Here we have an exhibition that takes as its subject matter the subculture of Vietnam War reenactment. The people profiled in the show spend much of their free time fighting a war that ended thirty-six years ago. And now, in an art gallery in the Heights in 2012, that war was fought again. Art imitates life…imitates art…imitates life…imitates art…imitates life…ad infinitum.

Still from video by Nazinan Shirazi

Diane Barber is an Independent Curator with more than 20 years of experience in the Visual Arts. Projects include major exhibitions with an international roster of artists presented in arts organizations, galleries, universities, schools, and other public institutions. Prior to working independently, Barber served as Co-Director/Visual Arts Curator for DiverseWorks ArtSpace and Exhibitions/Publications Coordinator for FotoFest International. She is past board president of the National Association of Artist Organizations and a founding member of the Independent Arts Collaborative, a Houston-based organization working to develop a multi-tenant arts complex in Houston’s urban core.

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7 Responses

  1. Paul

    “Art imitates life…imitates art…imitates life…imitates art…imitates life…ad infinitum.”

    Really? This is the most trite write-up of what sounds like an awful bit of art. Rather than glibness, probe deeper. Did you talk to the woman? What set her off? Was the project any good? (With so many “Good Morning Vietnam”/”Apocalypse Now” cliches, how could it be?) Was the subject matter problematic? I guess your “Who knows” is all we’ll get.

  2. Diane

    Somebody’s living in the house of judgement this morning. Paul, instead of expecting to be spoon fed, why don’t you “probe deeper” and go see the show yourself? Just an idea. Oh and have some coffee. It might take the edge off.

  3. Laray

    “Art imitates life…imitates art…imitates life…imitates art…imitates life…ad infinitum.”

    Or war re-anactments as art imitates war

  4. Lee Lever

    As a Vietnam vet I was totally unaware of this subculture until I learned about this exhibition. For me it illustrates the way the Vietnam war experience (and subsequent war experiences) get planted and then come to fruition in our psyche in surprising and unexpected ways. Thanks to these artists for a provocative and, for me, an evocative work. It reinforces my conviction in the futility of war.

  5. Mike

    Regarding the reenactors in the art gallery, it brings to mind the Joseph Goebbels quote, “When I hear the word “art” I reach for my gun.”

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