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ART : COMMENTARY : A Monumental Burden : Chris Burden's memorial, etched with the names of real and made-up Vietnamese dead, is an unsentimental reminder of the war

June 28, 1992|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

No sculpture in recent memory has demonstrated as keen and disturbing an artistic intelligence as Chris Burden's "The Other Vietnam Memorial." A chilling commemoration of a grim facet of the modern American psyche, the memorial offers further compelling evidence that, at 46, Burden is among our most significant artists.

Imagine a desktop Rolodex as designed by the Pentagon, and you'll have some idea of what the sculpture looks like. Machined from brute steel, fitted with copper plates in place of revolving paper cards and exploded to enormous scale (it stands 13 feet tall), the sculpture shrouds bureaucratic weaponry with an icy glamour.

The copper sheets, which subtly recall printing plates, are etched with a seemingly endless list of Vietnamese names in tiny black letters. Some identify specific people who perished during U.S. involvement in the Indochina conflict. The rest are computer-generated fabrications.

Exact records being unavailable, Burden used a basic catalogue of nearly 4,000 names and had them mixed-and-matched through a computer. Three million is the total number of war dead during America's involvement, which includes about 250,000 Vietnamese soldiers and 1.5 million civilians in the South, and some 700,000 military and 250,000 missing in action in the North, plus estimates of heavy losses in embattled border regions.

Commissioned last year for " Dis locations," the Museum of Modern Art's first substantive show in nearly 20 years that attempted to chart the shifting tides of contemporary art, the memorial is in the collection of the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles, where it has just gone on public view. (It's being shown with another extraordinary sculpture from the foundation's collection, Burden's 1979 "The Big Wheel.")

There, it does lose one small chord of resonance that reverberated like a tuning fork through MOMA's galleries. In 1970, when MOMA presented its last major contemporary show, a stir was created by German expatriate artist Hans Haacke, whose contribution was a notorious site-specific piece called "MOMA Poll." Visitors to the show--a survey of new Conceptual art, titled "Information"--were invited to cast ballots on the question: "Would the fact that (New York) Governor (Nelson) Rockefeller had not denounced President Nixon's Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?"

Two to one, visitors answered "yes"--even though the Rockefeller name (and money) had been synonymous with the Manhattan museum from the start. Nelson had been chairman of MOMA's board; his brother, David, was its then-chairman, and their mother had been one of the four founders in 1929. But, the poll results were clear.

Burden was a graduate student at the time Haacke took his famous poll; consciously or not, his Vietnam sculpture managed a subtle engagement with MOMA's past. Two decades later, "The Other Vietnam Memorial" reverberates against the sad and savage failures of history. Of course, the sculpture's "monumental implications" can't be contained by a single art museum. The loss in its change of venue to L.A. hardly matters. Because the sculpture was conceived and built in the wake of last year's Persian Gulf War, the fury of Desert Storm offers an originating context far more significant than one museum's exhibition history.

Before, during and after the military adventure in the gulf, few Americans regarded the Iraqi people as mortal enemies. Enmity was instead focused like a laser beam on their leader, whom we re-created almost overnight from favored U.S. ally to the new Adolf Hitler. A personification of evil, Saddam Hussein stood in for the indifferent crowd.

Yet today Hussein remains in place, while scores--perhaps hundreds--of thousands of Iraqi civilians are dead. That we neither know nor seem to care about the actual number of slain "enemies" is less a testament to collective inhumanity than a brutal symptom of the psychological shut-down necessary for war.

Wars cannot effectively be fought against individual men and women, each with a human face and heart. To do so would be unbearable. Therein lies the harrowing power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, Maya Lin's masterful wedge of etched, black granite embedded in the earth, to which Burden's memorial obliquely refers.

The list of the 57,939 dead American men and women on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial does put a viewer face to face with the enormity of the tragic carnage, while personalizing each and every life. Yet, it also accomplishes something unexpected and even more agonizing.

Societies typically build memorials to commemorate their own war dead, not their enemy's. But those distinct boundaries are blurred in Maya Lin's design. The black granite wall is polished to a mirror finish; it reflects the face of every visitor across its sea of names, which seems to stretch to the horizon. All Americans are obliquely acknowledged, regardless of their relationship to the event.

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