Hungry Mind Review, Spring 1997

Hungry Mind Review, Spring 1997
"The Infinite Present" (Vietnam: A Book of Changes book review)
Robert Warde

In Bao Ninh's 1991 novel of North Vietnam, The Sorrow of War, the ex-soldier and sometimes narrator Kien says: "My life seems little different from that of a sampan pushed upstream toward the past. The future lied to us, there long ago in the past. There is no new life, no new era, nor is it hope for a beautiful future that now drives me on, but rather the opposite. The hope is contained in the beautiful prewar past. The tragedies of the war years have bequeathed to my soul the spiritual strength that allows me to escape the infinite present. The little trust and will to live that remains stems not from my illusions but from the power of my recall."

The photographs in Mitch Epstein's Vietnam: A Book of Changes capture, upon their surfaces, the "infinite present" of which Kien speaks; yet they depend for their greatest strength on the power of recall, a power framed by the lie of the future that destroys hope for a new era. It is this conflation of present, future, and past that makes these images so elusive and poignant. It is the struggle for ownership of these images themselves that makes them so troubling.

During six trips to Vietnam between 1992 and 1995, Epstein recorded the world he encountered, and this collection includes eighty color representations of that world. Nearly half are drawn from his time in Hanoi; the rest portray both urban and rural life in many other parts of the country. Every American who visits Vietnam carries along a great deal of baggage. In a brief set of "reflections" at the end of his work, Epstein explains, "I am not a veteran… This project began with the memory of a war I had not fought and yet, by definition as an American, had suffered. I wanted to feel and understand that war as much as a non-vet can."

For a photographer, understanding must come through the visual medium, and thus it depends on a sequence of decisions. What subjects should the camera be pointed at, so that the resulting pictures will illuminate history? And whose history is it, exactly, that we hope to illuminate? East Asian historian Keith Taylor notes that "Vietnamese archaeologists date the beginning of their civilization to the Phung-nquyen culture of the late third millennium B.C." Perhaps that is one place to begin in search for the source of Vietnam.

In the eyes of most contemporary Americans, however, Vietnamese history is the history of a war that apparently started in March of 1965, when two battalions of U.S. Marines landed at Da Nang, though in fact the roots of Vietnam's war of liberation go back at least to the opening of the French campaign in 1946. When an American wants "to feel and understand that war," it becomes imperative to travel to the site and look for its residue. Through such a journey we would confront our guilt, our sorrow, and our sense of frustration in the face of wrongs that cannot be erased, all of this imposed upon our western conception of Asian societies. What we also confront is the fact of Vietnam itself - a culture and a land that has nothing to do with us. Vietnam is not a temple in which Americans can kneel, expiate their sins, and feel close to a cleansing vision of truth. At its core, quite unsurprisingly, it is not about us at all.

Epstein's striking photographs make both points. Given his perspective, he constructs a land and a people who exist as both exotic aspects of the Western imagination, and survivors of a horrible conflict. He tells a story of being awakened one morning by his Vietnamese driver who cries to him: "Mr. Mitch… There is something you would like to see." It turns out the driver was right, because, as Epstein says, he "had come to know what might visually excite me, almost always something the Vietnamese found to ordinary or too grotesque to photograph." In this case two women dressed in bright, fancy cloths were butchering a slaughtered cow that lay in the middle of the road and Epstein "made frame after frame of this primal event." A lotus pond, rice fields, the ancient Citadel at Hue, flame trees, a water buffalo in the mud—he catalogues these Eastern objects of western attention, emblems of a civilization somehow more abiding and fundamental than our own.

Epstein also documents the literal detritus of the war, at times directly, and at times obliquely. We are shown American boots and artillery shells at the Khe Sanh, the husk of an American tank at Hue, and the tunnel system that sheltered local populations from American bombs. Less directly, we witness a young man firing a home-made rifle in Lai Chau, and a beggar in Dien Bien Phu, whose worn face and military garb intimate a harsh wartime life.

The recent past of the old war and distant past of a complex culture are not the only salient elements frozen by the camera's eye. Epstein complicates these subjects by insistently juxtaposing the old with the new, as he does in the case of the slaughtered cow: the disemboweling is presided over by a knife-wielding young woman who kneels near the cow's head, clad in high heels, contemporary blue slacks, and a gaudy yellow and red blouse. Similarly, the intricately carved, wooden images of a house saint sits before a cheap electric wall clock, and a crumbling stone dragon in a fountain contrasts sharply with the ace of spades playing cards near it beneath the murky water. More especially, much of this modernity announces the uncomfortable return of American enterprise, most ominously established by the cases of Coca-Cola riding in the back of a truck in Hanoi. "What Disneyesque nightmare will come from all this?" asks Epstein, and this question is a telling one. It not only voices heartfelt concern for the further disruption of Vietnam by the West, it also suggests that the camera here is visualizing the land itself in Western terms—as a source of antique mystery, as the setting for a tragic American war, and as the commercial battleground upon which capitalism will make it's next heroic stand.

Yet in the process of absorbing this information, we notice something else. The wall of Coke cans, chained within the truck's interior, is also held in place by a Vietnamese worker whose somber, introspective profile dominates the scene, communicating a profound detachment. He does not acknowledge the meanings generated by the symbolic freight behind him, refusing to become part of the context that Epstein supplied. The truck's canopy frames the subject like a drawn curtain, thereby placing the worker at center stage' but the worker is not an actor or a prop. He is living his life in the infinite present, like many other people in these pictures, possibly, like Kien, sustained by the power of recall. He is himself, and the most effective thing about many of Epstein's photographs is that, despite their resonance, they cannot make Vietnam into a symbol for anything. They cannot deliver a theatrical catharsis.

The composition of these images echoes the same issues raised by their content. Epstein manipulates space in much the way that his subject matter blurs time. More than half of the photographs omit people, perhaps in the hope that inanimate objects might prove more malleable to the artist's hand. "I am playing with the still life," Epstein says, "to find a way to give it it's own temperature." His still lifes are still indeed, yet their motionlessness coexists with the temporal shifts that occur continuously. In like fashion, the clarity with which objects occupy a specific space contends with the ambiguity of the spatial relationship around them.

Again and again Epstein documents a world of mirrors, windows, architectural facades, glass doors, and dark curtains. Exteriors open into interiors that open out again into more distant or reflected exteriors. The first photograph in the collection, taken in the reception room of Hanoi's Opera House, shows us a frame which seems to be a window through which we peer into an elegant hall. All the more puzzling, then, is the bullet hole in the window, since its black center reveals nothing behind it. Only after some scrutiny is it clear that we are looking not at a widow, but into a mirror. The room is a reflection behind us, and the black hole reveals the back of the mirror. In this way the surface of the picture (its infinite present) is confounded with what lies behind (its past) and before (its future), as if we are gazing at a semitransparent scrim. Epstein comments that the room "refused to conceal its past," because the bulled hole "dated from the 1954 fight against the French occupation." The Opera House, a jewel of French colonial architecture now marked by the war that drove France from Vietnam, collapses time and space while simultaneously articulating this confusion in relation to an idea of Western occupation. The black bullet hole once carries the burden of this idea and shatters it, reaffirming a Vietnamese presence.

Frequently Epstein represents layers of history in private, intimate spaces. A case in point is his rendering of the aged, pocked wall of a house, in the center of which is inscribed a rectangular window, partly shuttered, partly curtained, partly bisected by bars. Behind the window is total darkness, save for a tiny, glowing window which proves to be a television that draws us into the events of a soap opera. We think of the past contained within the material of the wall, the future implied by the arrivial of technology, and the numbing present of a soap opera afternoon. We react to the intricate geometries of the inside and outside worlds at dislocate our sense of place. At the same time, we also notice the presence of a human knee projecting sharply above the window ledge to the left of the checkered curtain. Someone is there. Someone is gazing into the tiny window, enveloped by darkness, mostly invisible to us, and oblivious to our existence.

Finally, moving through these representations, it is difficult to sort out past, present, and future, to isolate the background from the foreground from the illusory space beyond the picture. Further, Epstein impressively documents Vietnamese history, pain, and private recollection, even as he transforms these phenomena into the sources of American angst. The Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching, is supposed to help us divine our prospects, but only if we know how to read the text. Rich in ambiguities as it is, Epstein's visual text remains harder to decipher. His photographs reveal with literal exactitude the quidditas of meticulously observed objects and human beings, yet they act also as linked metaphors that deliver endlessly repeated reflections of both Vietnam and the invention Americans call Vietnam. The union of the two is at once impossible and all too real.