“I very strongly believe that we can leave war behind us. We are not hard-wired for war,” claims German artist and social activist Bettina WitteVeen.
She grew up in post war Germany and the trauma of war shaped her experiences and has been very much a part of who she is as an artist.
When We Were Soldiers… once and Young is a photographic installation of over 100 black and white and color analog photographs from historic archives, sculptures in the form of large crosses and a walk-in altar with a sound installation that reflects on the physical but also mental injuries of war veterans.
On November 14, 2013, CNN reported: “Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. That’s a suicide every 65 minutes. As shocking as the number is, it may actually be higher.”
It is these kind of “unacceptable statistics” that convinced the artist to go beyond the visible outcomes of war and also tap into the invisible: the emotional and psychological consequences of war.
By choosing the abandoned pre-Civil War hospital in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to stage her installation, she engages with the institution’s unique identity, thematically linking the artworks and the site as a place — physically, structurally and historically. The location enhances the message of her art.
“The very condition of the building becomes a metaphor for the wounded, battered body of the soldier,” she says.
The choice of forgotten historical locations is a trademark of the artist, who in 2008 exhibited photographs of battlefields and other sites of conflict in the KÖNIGSTADT brewery in Berlin, Germany. The cellars that served for the production and storage of beer from 1872 to 1921 were used during the war for the production of weapons, as air-raid shelters, and under the assumed name “Lore 3” for producing electronic steering parts for the German radar defense system and the V2 rockets.
The title of the exhibition is taken from a 1992 book about the Vietnam War by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and war journalist Joseph L. Galloway. The book tells the story of 450 U.S. soldiers who surrounded and outnumbered by their enemy battled between October 23 and November 26, 1965. Among them 79 were killed and 121 wounded. c
Just Like the book, which according to Publishers Weekly is “a frank record of the emotional reactions of the GIs to the terror and horror of this violent and bloody encounter,” the exhibition is an inventory of images of missing limbs, prostatic hands, wounded soldiers, and of women and civilians caught in the crossfire. But among the images conveying loss and sorrow there are images of idyllic, serene landscapes: fields of poppies and bucolic countryside landscapes. Don’t let this peace and tranquility fool you. All these fields once played host to bloody violent battles. So let’s remember not to forget.
There are also photographs of drones and war robots. They bring us a step closer to our reality and a step further from Bettina WitteVeen’s conviction that “Warfare is a tragic aberration of the neurotic aspects of a society.”
It is a given that the current generation of military hardware, such as the Predator drone that located Osama Bin Laden in 2011 and the next generation that might be able to think and act for itself will not end wars it will just change them.
“The future of war will be robotic”, claims CNN. But what does it mean asks Bettina who as an artist always tries to focus the public attention towards the issues not being discussed. So let’s remember not to forget.