Lets Do It!

A bleak exhibition for bleak times

It was “just one of those things” – you’d hardly call it a happy coincidence – that as the private view for Lynn MacRitchie’s installation “Right on for the Darkness” was beginning at the Market Place Gallery, the first NATO bombers were taking off for Serbia.

Another one of those things is that while the Stealth bombers and Tomahawks, US made, were droning towards their targets, MacRitchie’s piece is based around four simple images drawn from an older conflict, also US made, in Vietnam.

For her first show since the 1970s, she chose to pick up – literally – wherr she left off. Three bland, contentless snapshots taken by anonymous GIs of one another, and a blurred photo of a group of small children standing at the edge of a perfectly round bomb crater. Admiring? Wondering? Not even they will remember now.

These images, as a visiting artist remarked, have been found twice: once, and then again, at the bottom of a cupboard, and put to a use surely more powerful than they would have been if they had not been stuffed into a carrier bag for their time to come again.

From outside the gallery, the faces of three young men gaze out at passers-by. One is young and handsome, muscular in a white teeshirt. So is the second, caught against a background of some unidentifiable piece of equipment. Constructional? Agricultural? Perhaps. Military? Probably. Concrete? Metal? It could be anything and the young men could be from anywhere. They are boy soldier materiel.

The third is giving us a goofy smile, which gives him away as American. But 20 years ago, what looks like a baseball cap makes him the universal soldier, too.

The faces are projected on to long, white hangings. In black and white, they invite an association with funerary ornaments, or the sad portraits you see on the headstones in a Moslem cemetery, where a cross might otherwise be. But they remind me, more, of those long banners which Crusaders carried streaming from their lances, and with which, given its love of pageantry and tradition, the modern military still likes to deck out its local cathedral. Die for the colours? Because the Marine Corps will live forever, and therefore so will you.

Inside, it is best when its dark. For behind them now are the same faces, reflected in the gallery window, and the window across the street and… they are all the same, wraith like ranks of young, smiling faces, stretching as far as you can see them, a ghostly army now.

Where are they now, these young men? Dead perhaps, or crippled? Or living in a shack in Montana, unable to forget? Do they parade in their medals on Veterans day? Or are they running Mom and Pop stores in Boise, Idaho, glad they can no longer really remember, and never mentioning the war?

Inside, we are in a basketball court, where young men like these, when they are relaxed like this, while away the interminable boredom between bouts of terror and savagery. It is a surprise, in fact, that one or two of them aren’t lounging against the walls, hanging out.

And there, reflected in the backboard of the basketball ring, are our unfocussed children, and their crater, its perfect circle reflecting the hoop with absolute symmetry. One of these young men has undoubtedly scored.

“Street Heat” says the decal. Street heat indeed.

In the background, the insisten, staccato drumming of the basketball. It is repetitive, but so arhythmic that it doesn’t seem so. Arhythmic enough to convince that it is not the sound of distant gunfire, but not enough to remove the anxiety that it might be. For how would we know? We’ve never heard it .

I didn’t ask about the title. Painted on GI helmets, chalked on bombs, heraldically emblazoned with the shark’s teeth and the bathing beauty (a pin-up would be too obscene) on an aircraft nosecone?

Perhaps. It’s a reminder, too, of sniper-crazed Sarajevo, sing along with a death-inviting, and therefore death-defying, anthem, whenever somebody will sacrifice the Deutschmarks or cigarettes for enough smuggled batteries to crank up the cassette player.

They’re head banging the night away like this in Republic Square in Belgrade this evening. I saw it on CNN.

“Right on for the Darkness”? The Serb self-image is based on the idea, and they took the Bosnians into it with them. The Americans and us are keeping the Kosovars company. At least in spirit.

Right on the spot, and overhead, are the same, anonymous young men, in white teeshirts and baseball caps, with goofy grins . But if the Kosovar kids ever get to stand and admire the hole in their street, they’ll be damn lucky.

Trevor Petch

References: The Marine Corps lives forever – Stanley Kubrick, Platoon
Lets do it – last words of Gary Gilmore before his execution.

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