Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Role of Memory in Art

American Prisoners of War Leaving Viet Nam , February 1973
How Memory Influences Our Art

The previous post about my experience with Vietnamese refugees flooding in into Subic Bay were the impetus for an art piece I did for the Morean Art Center Members Show.  After completing the piece it triggered other experiences I had during that time that I was a young art teacher for the Department of Defense in the Philippine Islands.  Much that happened during those three short years were events that were very historic in the history of the United States and the Philippines. I knew it at the time, but with the reflection of time and maturity I am now seeing more clearly than ever the importance of the events I lived through and participated in. Through the past forty years I have flash backs triggered by sight, sound, taste or touch that will transport me back as quickly as time travel would to that time and place. I know this will be the basis of a new work of art, but I am not yet sure what form it will take nor if it will be a series or a single piece.  I am beginning to feel a series is forming in my mind, that will take a variety of media to convey. Travel back in time with me for a bit and see how you might take this into a creative expression in your own mind if you were the artist.

American Pow's Arriving at Clark AFB on the Hanoi Taxi, 1973 if  

Memory is fluid, it is amorphous in shape shifting and changing, it can be deceptive, and it can be painfully acute or like shadowy ghost lingering in the corners of our minds.  We all experience memory differently yet the same. 
 I remember reading that eyewitness accounts can be very unreliable because what a person focuses on or remembers can be based on an emotion, a sound or a feeling that triggers a response in their mind and not actual facts.
  People can remember the same events quite differently, I am almost certain my brother and I were raised in completely different families! Our memories of the same family events are as different as day and night. Though I am quite sure my recollections are the right ones! 
Pow's being greeted by all Force Commanders as they step on to the tarmac
at Clark AFB. 

 The sound of a car backfiring can put a Viet Nam veteran under a car waiting for the next bomb to explode.  A feeling of damp clinging fabric can trigger memories of the many miserable hot tropical Philippine nights when brown out after brown out  shut down the air conditioning in my off base apartment in Olongopo. The taste of lumpia can bring back nights of sharing meals with Filipino friends.  The smell of diesel oil can have me walking along the docks of Subic Bay watching the giant grand carriers like the Enterprise  and the Independence, that were cities unto themselves, coming in to dock.  A slight breeze can take me back to Coconut trees waving in a tropical wind, lined up along highways, as our jeep bumped along heading to a new adventure in the Philippines.
As the memory of processing Vietnamese war refugees triggered a strong memory that changed my life so did another event during those years at Subic Bay Naval Base.
Planes arrived one after another late in to the night with Pow's coming home!

It was perhaps a year or so before the fall of Saigon and the refugees flooded into Subic Bay that I was called in once again to volunteer to do something on the behalf of victims of the war.  This time the commanders wanted teachers and children from a state or city that a prisoner of war came from to be the first people them came in contact with after getting out of the horror of Vietnamese repressive prisons where many we tortured either physically or mentally.  Several teachers and their classes traveled from Subic Bay Navy Base, to Clark Air Force Base.  We lined up on the tarmac of the runway waiting for what later was called the Hanoi Taxi.  That day there was a steady train of flights arriving, one right after another, all day into the night.
A young Senator to be, John McCain is greeted as he takes
his first steps to freedom after 6 years of imprisonment
 Clark AFB, 1973
 Our soldiers that had been held in Vietnamese prisons were coming home.  Operation Homecoming was underway.  We waiting anxiously as the plan landed and taxied in front of us.  A carpet and microphones were laid out, and the military brass all gathered with journalists, photographers, and civilians lined up.  As the men stepped off the plane, the children began yelling and cheering, and the whole crowd burst out in exuberant applause and cheers of joy.

We were then taken area where their were  picnic tables and we waited to meet the men assigned to our group.  I was assigned to meet a prisoner of war from Orlando, Florida, my home state.   We would be there first societal contact with the world outside Viet Nam these men had had.  February 12th was a humid tropical day, as most days in the Philippines are.  The air seemed still, some where in the distance  air force blue buses drove up toward us, all time seemed frozen in that moment. An official walked over with a thin pow from Orlando, Florida who was still dressed in the outfit the Vietnamese army had issued him.  We, my elementary students and me, were the first Americans he would talk to other than his military debriefers, since leaving prison in Viet Nam! What an incredible honor we were experiencing! 



I chose this last picture to share with you because I think it incapsulates visually what memory can be like.  It can be hazy, blurry, a flash of a moment out of the corner of your eye, a feeling, a sense of movement and lighting.  It is not always crystal clear and sharp in focus.  Memory floats in and out of our minds at times like ghostly images and shadows, but if we allow ourselves to not dismiss those feelings and sensations, if we allow our brain to capture and relate what it does then we can fully feel the moment and time we once occupied in space and time. And in the final sense an artist is an empath, a feeler, an experiencer, and a conveyer.  We, as one artist put it, a shaman of our time in that we absorb the culture and feelings of our time and translate them back to others.  




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