Dog tags

Brisbane City Hall Art Gallery and Museum

History absorbs more easily those events which take the shape of narrative. It took only a few weeks for Gallipoli to find a central place in Australian culture, largely because it is a simple tale of innocence cruelly defiled; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; you can tell it to your children. But twenty years on and our culture still struggles to assimilate our involvement in Vietnam. The Vietnam Story defies such mythologising. To speak with any justice to its complexity and ambiguity is to ramble like a fretful dream; to simplify it is to lie.

It is not surprising, then, that the best written accounts of Vietnam have not been the usual cause-and-effect histories, but anthologies of personal testimonies. It is as if the truth about that war is not of a single piece but has been shattered into a million fragments and embedded in the innumerable recollections of those who took part.

Similarly the exhibition, Dog Tags, gained its power to involve the viewer from its all-inclusive anecdotal nature. The curators, Peter Daly and Archiv Zammit-Ross, selected on the broadest of bases: all the works deal directly or indirectly with the artists' experience of the Vietnam war and its aftermath. This extends the concept of "veteran 's art" to include wives of veterans and, more controversially, Vietnamese artists. Nor was artistic merit an excluding criterion: the artists range from practiced post-modernists appropriating imagery with cold calculation to patently ungifted amateurs scrabbling to encompass an elusive experience.

Perhaps the only stable myth allowed to emerge from Vietnam, propagated by Apocalypse Now and The Deerhunter, is that of the traumatised victim, the veteran who years later still relives the horror of his experiences. It is an attractive idea which can distort your perception of the art. You find yourself scouring the works for a sign of an unhealed wound, a cathartic anger. As often as not it isn 't there. Bart Kenna survived a tour of duty slogging the jungles on foot-patrols only to record the experience in a series of jolly, little cartoons poking fun at army life. Either Mr Kenna is in deep, deep denial or, more likely, he possesses the sort of robust equanimity that one can only admire.

And anyway, Vietnam in those days was possibly the weirdest place on earth, a crazy mix of a 'timeless' and changing 'Asia ' and modern militarism. No wonder it's difficult to comprehend the "horror", just getting a hold of what it all looked like is a hard enough task. Barry Clugston, for example, painting in 1990, evoked the blurred aspect given to the world by a tropical deluge (Monsoonal Devils) and how the sky roared with lraquois (Hueys


Anger, when the viewer perceives it, is largely subsumed within the political consciousness apparent in many works, most notably the Vietnamese painters recording the destruction of their country. Peter Daly 's More Australian History scrawls the names of the ingredients of Agents Orange, Blue and White over a primitivist's sky of death-heads. The title is ironic of course, pointing to the reluctance of our official culture to accept responsibility for the poisoning. Other artists appropriate the official and sacred symbols of war, particularly uniforms, flags and medals, to make their own critically ironic statements. Self Portrait, by the American Rick Droz, is a black and white photograph which shows, at first glance, the stars and stripes laid out on the ground. The title makes you look for the photographer who, alter a second or two, is discovered in bodily outline spread-eagled beneath the flag . A further look reveals the ironic content of the work: Droz is missing his left leg.

There is pain in this exhibition and the fact that you're expecting it doesn't make it any less shocking when you find it. A wounded soldier stares up at the viewer in Jeff Cheyne's Cliffy's Last Fire Mission, painted only last year. While Cheyne's work is amongst the more amateur included in Dog Tags, there is no doubting that he is drawing from a vivid and persistent memory. Here is the frightened mask of a man facing his imminent death, the eyes shining desperately like dying stars.

Describing a much slower but more horrible decline towards death is Trevor Lyons's series of disintegrating self portraits. Each print is a state proof of the same etching plate. The first state shows Lyons in three-quarter face, his expression is intense but intact. In succeeding states, Lyons gradually strips away his own facial skin and muscle in a process he calls "an exfoliation of the self". Exfoliation is an apt description, not merely because Lyons, the artist, uses another burning chemical (acid) in the etching process to eat into and to obliterate the original portrait. Scraping painfully and slowly into his own identity Lyons reveals, in the twenty-second state, his own skull , a death's-head, his mortality.

Later I learned that Lyons suffered a serious facial wound in Vietnam. The series was printed in 1987; Lyons died in 1990.