Theater & art

Photography Review

‘Provisional Aesthetics, Rehearsing History’ at Wellesley

An-My Lê’s “ Carrier Arresting Gear Mechanic, USS Ronald Reagan, North Arabian Gulf.”
An-My Lê’s “ Carrier Arresting Gear Mechanic, USS Ronald Reagan, North Arabian Gulf.”

WELLESLEY — “Globalization” is a term most commonly associated with business and economics. It applies no less to culture, where it has figured almost as long as humans have had a history. Well before there were Greeks and Romans, cultures have been grappling together like Greco-Roman wrestlers (see?).

Developments in media and technology have vastly broadened and accelerated the interweaving and overlaying of different cultures. The three artists whose work makes up “Provisional Aesthetics, Rehearsing History” at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, at Wellesley College, are prime examples. The show runs through Jan. 11.

Phil Collins isn’t the musician Phil Collins, but his “dunia tak akan mendengar” is a music video – of sorts. It’s the final portion of the British video artist’s three-part installation “the world won’t listen.” “Dunia” consists of young people in Bandung and Djakarta performing karaoke versions of songs from the Smiths’ 1987 album “The World Won’t Listen.” In other words, Indonesian singers are using Japanese-invented technology to perform songs by an English band. Oh, and the performances take place behind backdrops from Monument Valley, the Sonoran Desert, the Pacific Northwest, and other distant locales. Sonic artifice meets visual artifice. Welcome to the 21st century.


The video lasts 56 minutes, a duration dictated by that of the video. The completist approach definitely shows its limitations here. Collins needs maybe three tracks’ worth of warbling to make his point. The guy who does a clumsy yet chaste striptease as he sings, shedding nine or so T-shirts (I lost count), stands out. So do the two women singing in front of a tree-lined allée; they’re clearly having a lot of fun. The rest of the video’s pretty dreary, frankly.

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East and West come together quite otherwise in Danh Vo’s installation “The Photographs of Dr. Joseph Carrier.” Vo, who earlier this month was named winner of the 2012 Hugo Boss Prize, was born in Saigon, in 1974. With his family, he fled to the West five years later. He grew up in Denmark and was educated there and in Frankfurt. He now lives in Berlin and New York. He met Carrier in Los Angeles. When a catalogue raisonné of Vo’s works comes to be written it might benefit from an accompanying atlas.

Carrier had worked as a consultant in Vietnam from 1964 to 1974. Shown the photographs he had taken there, Vo asked to employ them in his own work. The 24 black-and-white gravure prints at the Davis form a single installation in which Vo could be said to have curated Carrier’s images. They offer a very different view from the standard one of war — and of that war in particular. We see civilians, men and boys, in public spaces experiencing moments of reflection and emotional connection. The images show a delicacy and restraint that make them all the more affecting in a martial context. It’s a bit unfair to both Vo’s and Collins’s installations that they should be in such close proximity, and that’d be true even if there wasn’t so much sound leakage from the space where Collins’s video is being shown.

An-My Lê, one of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winners, was also born in Saigon, in 1960. She came to the United States in 1975. Her background lends a further layer of meaning to the six black-and-white photographs in “Small Wars,” which runs at Babson College’s Hollister Gallery through Dec. 20. They show Vietnam War reenacters in the American South. The memory of one civil war meets another. The juxtaposition of men in jungle camouflage with coniferous trees is both startling image and unsettling metaphor for the US military presence in Indochina during the ’60s and early ’70s.

Lê, who shot “Small Wars” between 1999 and 2002, has been working on “Events Ashore,” showing the US Navy on various duties abroad, for the past six years. There are eight examples from the series in “Provisional Aesthetics.” Those naval duties range from humanitarian missions to patroling sea lanes, and the locations range from the Gulf of Thailand to Ghana. This is not your “Victory at Sea” US Navy. There are dental technicians and a portrait studio on an carrier. A sailor on lookout duty on the USS Tortuga is a woman, as is an arresting-gear mechanic on the USS Ronald Reagan. A photograph of a damage-control crew in training looks so much like a human frieze it could be one of Jeff Wall’s posed composition.


The pictures are big. The one of the mechanic is a little over 2 feet by 3 feet. They have a cool, slightly detached feel. Part of that coolness is Lê’s superb use of color. In its unemphatic way, it’s as arresting as the gear tended by that sailor on the Reagan.

Mark Feeney can be reached at