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Exhibit leaves imprint about the pain of war

Exhibit leaves imprint about the pain of war


Nov. 23, 2002
By Dennis Rockstroh
Mercury News

The work of Binh Danh is beautiful, haunting, and a warning.
About the cost of war.
The San Jose artist’s work is on display until Dec. 14 at Porter
College’s Sesnon Gallery on the campus of the University of
California-Santa Cruz.
“Immortality: Remnants of the Vietnam and American War” depicts
the human suffering of warfare from the terrified woman carrying a
boy to a scene of drifting souls.
The woman’s face is etched with a scream that never fades.
The drifting souls are an army patrol moving down a field forever.
What is remarkable about the Stanford student’s work is that
images from Life magazine’s pictures have been transferred onto
leaves using photosynthesis, a process that uses the chemicals in
the leaves and the sun to make pictures.
At 25, Danh did not experience the war directly but secondhand
through the telling and retelling of the stories from family members.
Like the pictures on the leaves, these stories are seared into his
“I am not taking sides in the war,” he said at a gallery talk the
other day. “But I am looking at the commonality of the North, the
South and the Americans fighting this bloody war.”
Tortured memories
Danh told the packed house at the gallery that those who witness
war whether as its fighters, supporters or victims often carry
tortured memories for a lifetime.
We are all like the deformed babies born in Vietnam from the effects
of Agent Orange, one of the chemical defoliants used in the war.
“They are born with the war inside them,” he said.
As Danh told me later, “I depicted the cost of the war on the
landscape and people of Vietnam after the bombs stop dropping,
but the memories are still there, scarred into the landscape and
elemental forces of nature.”
And so he uses these elemental forces of nature to create his art
with a message.
“In war there are no good guys and bad guys,” he said. “The
civilians become the target. That was the case of 9/11, Vietnam and
Artists are in a special position to tell stories like the one Danh tells
with his work.
In addition to his work on leaves, the Danh exhibit includes other
remnants of the war.
There is a camouflage uniform with a bamboo shoot growing
through it; pictures of Buddhist monks burning themselves in
protest; and the cover of the June 27, 1969, Life magazine that
listed the names and most of the pictures of the American dead on
one week -- 249.
Danh’s warning comes at a time when the United States is on the
verge of warand when there is much talk of the necessity of war
and little talk of its consequences.
The results
As a veteran of war, let me tell you a little about some of its
Sure, there are the numbers. And they can be daunting -- 3 million
to 5 million dead,
$150 billion spent by the U.S. side, 3 million tons of bombs (more
than the total number used by all sides in World War II), more than
1 million water buffalo killed.
But there were other incalculable results of war.
Of the 2.5 million Americans who served in Vietnam, about 800,000
continue to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. There are no
figures for the 30 million Vietnamese.
Among the American participants there are unresolved grief and
long-term psychological injuries. Three times the number of
veterans who died in Vietnam have committed suicide.
How can we calculate the damaged national confidence that
resulted from the war, the rancor, the national turmoil? When the
facts of the war planning were known, it helped create an entire
generation of Americans who questioned the honesty and
competence of national leaders.
Said Binh Danh to his Santa Cruz audience last week, “We never
learn from our history.”
Contact Dennis Rockstroh at drockstroh (at) or (510)


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