YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

HAUNTING EFFECTS : Mixed Messages in 'Youth in Asia' at Newport Museum Reveal War's Real Stories

August 19, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

"Never happen. Don't mean nothin'." Neon signs advertising these mumbled Vietnam vet code words for death and denial are keys to the bleak heart of "Youth in Asia," an exhibition of mixed-media art by artist-musician Terry Allen.

As haunting as a song you can't get out of your mind, this show with a mordant pun for a title ("euthanasia") ruminates on the effect of the war on a generation of small-town boys.

Still, it takes awhile to figure out what's going on in Allen's simultaneously literal and intensely metaphorical body of work, assembled by the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N. C., and on view at the Newport Harbor Art Museum through Sept. 12.

One major piece that offers many clues is an installation called "China Night." A mock-up of a derelict Southwestern cafe--separated from viewers by a wire fence topped with barbed wire recalling barricades on the front lines--is situated on a patch of sand littered with squashed beer cans, cigarette butts and condom wrappers.

The cafe displays a U.S. flag, a Hopi kachina figure and small statues of the Buddha and J.F.K. in the window. According to its neon sign, the cafe is really called "Kachina Night," but the K and the A are burned out, underlining cross-cultural connections revealed, reviled and cemented during the war.

After all, Vietnam was fought largely by poor whites and minorities lacking college deferments or lawyers to get them out of the draft. The "enemy" overseas were members of yet another "marginal" culture accustomed to domination by a "superior" group (the French colonialists). The cruelest irony is that ancient ancestors of Americans Indians apparently were Asians who migrated across the former land bridge to North America, so in some sense the war was fought between distant members of the same culture.

Several taped voices emanate from the cafe. Some, such as Jimi Hendrix's (singing "Are You Experienced?"), George Jones' (lamenting that "Things Have Gone to Pieces") and Lydia Mendoza's ("Mi Problema") evoke different corners of American pop culture of the '60s.

Other voices sing mournfully in an unfamiliar language reminiscent of American Indian chants (a wall text explains that these are Montagnard tribesmen from the central highlands of Vietnam). Still other voices marinated in a harsh Texas twang (one is Allen's, the other two belong to his buddies) propose an erratic range of daily activities, the futile gestures of a burned-out veteran no longer at home in his home:

"Be young. Cross the street. Chew gum. . . . Drink wine. Shoot pool. Talk to Jesus. . . . Walk outside naked. Pick up a stick. Punch holes in the air. . . . Stand on one leg and hum a little tune till hell freezes over."

The same sense of dislocation is reflected on the flip side of "China Night," where life-size statues of Snow White and the seven dwarfs dominate a bedroom in which the furniture is stuck upside-down to the ceiling.

The cartoon characters conjure up what art critic Dave Hickey calls "the Disneyesque language of rigorously imposed innocence"--the simple-minded myths that a generation of young Americans grew up with, which were irrevocably shattered in the war. The upside-down world of the bedroom reflects the vantage point of the returned soldier who no longer can believe in the lies his culture fed him.

Both environments of "China Night"--the bar and the bedroom--are nocturnal, and that's no coincidence. Night is the time when people feel most alone, when secrets get told, and demons return to haunt the imagination, and inhibitions are released by booze or drugs. The rooms of "China Night" are metaphors for the human body as well as the world at large. Within these chambers, horrors occur and are recalled in perpetuity.

By conflating the dream world of Disney characters with "bad dream" of American society at mid-century, a grungy Southwest American bar with mementos of Southeast Asia, Allen locates the effects of the war in a mental space that becomes more important than geographic borders.

Other works in the show also incorporate a blend of cross-cultural motifs (upside-down cartoon figures, empty houses, statues of the Buddha) and chunks of narrative, often stamped on tin, like dog tags that reveal the inner identity of a soldier, beyond rank and blood type.

Although Allen did not fight in Vietnam, "Youth in Asia"--inspired by his experience of making a sound track about Amerasian culture for a German film in the early '80s--is not intended as autobiography or personal confession.

Instead, Allen presents the real stories of real people who were victims of the war--whether they went Over There or stayed home--as series of allusive, open-ended narratives that mirror the hollowness, rage, denial and anguish of a pivotal era of American culture.

Los Angeles Times Articles