War and Peace: "Always Lost: A Meditation on War" Exhibition
Western Nevada College Students Create Poignant Exhibition
Peace sits at the banquet table
adorned in Nations’ flags,
staring at all the empty seats.
In Leo Tolstoy’s 1865 novel War and Peace, history, literature and social commentary merge in the writer's epic and monumental tribute to the tragedies of war. A creative writing class at Western Nevada College in Carson City under the direction of Marilee Swierczek also merged poetry, prose, Pulitzer Prize winning photos, and provocative commentary within a smaller context to discuss contemporary war and peace. They created and curated the emotionally palpable and striking exhibition that opened at Mount Mary College last weekend titled “Always Lost: A Meditation on War.”
“War is never fatal but always lost. Always lost.” stated another famous writer, Gertrude Stein, in a quote that inspired the title to the exhibition. Another quote from 1922 by George Santayana hangs over the photos at the beginning of the exhibition to describe the reality of this truth: “Only the dead have seen the end to war.”
By arranging numerous photos on square framed canvases that hang on the wall, the Western Nevada College creative writing class compiled more than 6,500 hundred portraits of soldiers who died since September 1, 2011. They continue this effort to work on a 36th panel as they continue to expand the photo tribute for further exhibitions. While these portraits command one entire wall of the gallery, the soldier's names are neither in alphabetical or chronological order, specifically so the viewer must look each individual, a soldier lost, directly in the eyes.
After studying this devastating portrait gallery, walk through the exhibition and notice the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning Iraq combat photographs (courtesy of The Dallas Morning News) by photojournalists David Leeson and Cheryl Diaz Meyer. While each photo evokes a poignant and visceral power, one portrays a close-up that views a bloodied head riddled in red liquid that also surrounds the skull. Two fingers move to close the eyes, becoming blood drenched themselves. Next to each photo such as this one, poetry and writings from the students, military personnel and family accompany the colored print, equally compelling.
Then in one corner of the exhibition a video runs in a continuous loop pairing quotes and chosen images to represent the various aspects of war backed by an original soundtrack, which plays in the gallery, a disconcerting soothing score to the destruction appearing on the screen and gallery walls. Quotes contained in the video span mankind’s history beginning in 535-426 BC with words from Aeschylus: “In war, truth is often the first casualty.”
Another quote languishes in the heart. “We will never learn how live together by killing each other’s children,” states former President and Nobel Peace Laureate Jimmy Carter (2002)and written on another frame for the video screen. In the gallery, a photo lays a burned child and his exposed torso, blood flowing from the opening, in her mother's lap and exemplifies this message. Yes, while these photos reflect only American soldiers lost, also someone’s children, how many other innocent men, women and children were lost in the war torn countries?
Perhaps most disturbing and timely are the photographs and poetry, letters of Private Noah C. Pierce (1983-2008). The now perpetually youthful portrait of this 20 something man served two tours of duty in Iraq. While Pierce “survived” the war, he succumbed to suicide in 2008. And the viewer grieves for the family and his soul when reading his personal correspondence.
This portrait illustrates the fact that the military’s post psychological consequences and suicides have become as the exhibition claims, “a silent byproduct” of these wars, as they have remained more hidden with all wars in the past. Since 2005,over 6,000 men have returned to the states and then committed suicide, with the 24-25 year old age bracket hit the hardest and experiencing the greatest distress.
How memorable and time sensitive is this exhibition for the Milwaukee community? They recently lost a young women police officer on duty for the first time in 75 years. Her husband, an ex Marine, suffered considerably during combat in these recent American wars, and then murdered his wife on Christmas Eve 2012, merely a few weeks ago. A community has been devastated, losing two young Americans on that horrid night, when yellow crime tape surrounded a neighborhood filled with churches celebrating Christmas. The current event begs the question: How can the country transition these officers, many in the first bloom of their lives, to civilian life after training them to kill on demand?
Spend time at this exhibition, look, read and see, then meditate or pray, for all those lives lost, all the millions of dollars lost, all the valuable time lost, destroying instead of creating. These thoughts and images, the words, will also sear a viewer’s memory for days afterwards. Drink in the exhibition’s underplayed wisdom that demonstrates the power of art and literature to begin fertile discussions about mankind's future.
After leaving, the viewer wonders if humanity has learned anything in all this time walking the earth. And will humankind continue to work at the destruction of each other's cultures? Will they choose War or Peace for the remaining centuries that now escalate chemical, germ and nuclear warfare to aid in humankind's demise? Then wrestle with the assassinated President John F. Kennedy’s mandate given in a 1961 speech to the United Nations: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.”
Mount Mary College presents “Always Lost: A Meditation on War” in their Marian Gallery January 13 through February 16. Brochures are available in the gallery to contribute to the Western Nevada College Foundation so the exhibition may tour and travel to other colleges and venues, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Please visit this critically moving commentary on war seen through the eyes of art and literature and created by American college students.