Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Battle of 11th Street in Which Shit Got Real

by Robert Boyd

GGallery had an opening last night that dealt with the imitation and reality. The show, One Big Mistunderstanding, by Otis Ike and Ivete Lucas, was all about the subculture of Vietnam War reenactments. Like its better-known counterpart of Civil War reenactments, the Vietnam reenactors stage battles and skirmishes as realistically as they can, short of actually killing people. A chance encounter with a reenactor at a flea market led Ike and Lucas into the subculture. Ike and Lucas have documented subcultures before, so this would seem to fit in with their previous practices. The installation was very well made, which I have to credit to new GGallery codirectors, Diane Barber and Bradford Moody. (Indeed, the gallery in general looks a lot better and less cluttered now.)

One Big Misunderstanding installation view

One Big Misunderstanding installation view

Otis Ike, 1966 Moynihan's Men, photograph

The majority of the show consists of photos like this, some in color and some in black and white. The wall text suggests that the black-and-white photos are supposed to be more ambiguous--are you looking at a reenactment or the real thing? 

Lucas and Ike's documentation of the scene wasn't limited to photographs. They documented the online presence of the reenactors, including their obsession with Star Wars.

(This painting of Chewbacca riding a squirrel and fighting Nazis is by an artist named Tyler Edlin who, as far as I know, has nothing to do with the Vietnam reenactor community, beyond having a few of them as fans.)

One side of the gallery was occupied by this bamboo hut, where performers dressed as Viet Cong entered, exited, and busied themselves looking like they belonged there. In the hut, a video played which combined footage shot of the reenactments, footage from the Vietnam war, and what appeared to be a first-person Vietnam combat video game. They were clearly playing with what was real and what was a representation. This tension underlay the whole enterprise.

For instance, this guy manning the table with two machine guns on it. Was he a vet? Were the guns real or replicas?

There were numerous performers, in essence playing the part of reenactors who themselves play the part of actual soldiers. (The performers may have included actual reenactors, but I don't think all of them were reenactors.)

urban guerrilla

Viet Cong in stripper boots

At 7 pm a performance was to begin. The Viet Cong were gathered around their hut while the American soldiers crept up, snaking through the crowd of viewers.

Now all through the show, there was one viewer who had been loudly proclaiming her disapproval of this whole thing. This show and Vietnam reenactments in general were "bullshit." I don't want to put words in her mouth, but she seemed to be saying that there was something wrong if not obscene with playacting this horrible war. She was steamed. But no one expected her to attack the performance.

She is the blue-grey blur in the pile of bodies in this photo. She literally hurled herself into the middle of the battle reenactment with fists swinging. She's a small woman, but she managed to bring down these performers into a pile. The viewers were confused. I was confused. Was she deliberately joining in with the performance as a spontaneous provocative act? Or was she, in fact, physically attacking the performance.

It was the latter. This group of performers pretending to fight in Vietnam were quite unexpectedly attacked for real. The ambiguity between reality and representation could hardly be better demonstrated than by what happened.

But the performers were troopers. After their attacker had been dragged away, they stayed in character (playing corpses).

Then surreally, a guy dressed in 60s pop-star drag came out and sang "These Boots Were Made For Walking."

This seemed calculated to remind the viewer of one of the most surreal scenes in Apocalypse Now, the Playboy Bunny performance at the jungle base. By this time, the attacker had been hustled out the door, and was looking worse for the wear--swollen lips, two chipped teeth, and blood in her mouth. Her attack had been fueled by plenty of alcohol, and she was still mad as shit. But her friends managed to move her away from GGallery and ultimately to her home.

When Le Sacre du printemps premiered at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913, the audience rioted. But this kind of reaction to a performance is rare. Even the most "transgressive" performances are viewed by polite, respectful audiences. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but it was thrilling to see this melée. It was refreshing to see someone who felt so passionately that she physically tried to interrupt it. Afterwards, I recalled Mario Savio's words: "There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop." But my pleasure at witnessing it was not so high-minded. I was pleased to see a polite little performance turn into something that seemed so real.

This unplanned bit of craziness and violence reiterated one of the themes of the exhibit better the show itself ever could. That tension between reality and representation was brutally brought home by this unplanned act. This small woman tackling several grown men was--unlike every other thing in the show--real. But as you watched it, you didn't know. You kept asking yourself, is this part of the act? Is this really happening? Like David after the dentist, this was a performance where you had to ask yourself, "Is this real life?" And as it recedes in time and becomes a part of memory, I am still asking myself that question.

Update: Over at Glasstire, one of the performers, Manik Nakra, has a first person account of the attack/intervention.  Also, I'm told by Otis Ike that the Nancy Sinatra performer is Paul Soileau, aka Christeene.



  1. The one, ONE! G Gallery opening that we miss and it turns into some ontological circus. Dammit.

  2. The Artist would like to state that it is very unfortunate that a women joined the reenactment and was injured. We wish her the best of health. For the record, the injured woman was not "attacked" or assaulted by myself or any performer at any point in the evening. We had $8 plastic toy guns. In addition, I have never touched a woman named Zaya Tommy. Thank you to everybody that came out and enjoyed the performance.

    Otis Ike