[REVIEW] Bettina WitteVeen "When We Were Soldiers...Once and Young" Art Installation at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

text by Adam Lehrer

German-born artist Bettina WitteVeen, a self-described “Buddhist and pacifist,” believes that war and violence are not the innate genetic traits that we are so often led to believe that they are. On the contrary, she believes that human violence is an aberration of the human spirit. “I’m a very strong believer that we are not actually hard-wired towards war,” says WitteVeen. “I believe we need to understand war to abolish it and that we can.”

WitteVeen’s new public art installation, ‘When We Were Soldiers… once and young,’ features dozens of inflated photographs carefully placed within an abandoned hospital in the Brooklyn Navy Yard that served as an infirmary for soldiers from the Civil War to World War II. The photos, some of which are characterized by natural beauty and others that are marked by brutality and dread, find a fitting spiritual home within the hospital. The abandoned hospital is full of history and ghosts of yore. Even without the photographs it carries a pervasive sense of existential dread. The photographs then provide a vivid illustration as to why this old facility gives you that sense of fear.

The exhibition is broken into two parts. The upstairs part focuses on the soldiers and their physical recoveries, offering vivid details of the ravaging that the human body endures during war: photos of men without limbs, men hanging on barbed wire in the trenches, explosions and more. WitteVeen deliberately avoided shocking imagery, “Because shocking imagery forces people into their fight or flight reflexes,” she says. But despite that notion, there are quite a few brutal images displayed amongst the installation.

Much of the installation has to do with war’s corruption of the human spirit. WitteVeen talked about what she calls the “Bezerker Mode.” She believes this is when the soldier has lost his capacity for patriotism and wanting to honorably defend his country and instead has grown to enjoy the killing and the violence. How does this happen? “This state is generally brought about when a soldier loses a comrade in battle,” she says, “The bezerker state is elicited when the vengeance instinct kicks in.”

Moral degradation in its many forms goes hand in hand with war. Curiously, beautiful images of poppy flowers are shown in the installation. Poppies and opium to WitteVeen are extremely loaded motifs in this scope. “I wanted to contrast the beauty of nature but also show the violence when war collides with nature,” she says. “Opium kills the pain, and it is for the killing of the pain that we go to war, which we then need more opium for.”

The downstairs part of the installation focuses on the persistent mental effects of war, “I wanted to focus on the long-term plights of the citizens,” says WitteVeen. One room is extremely bright, with the centerpiece image featuring a young woman of an undefined era. WitteVeen tells a harrowing story of the girl, who she elects not to give the name of. This girl was raped when she was 12-years-old, and though she found happiness and marriage, the trauma never left her. She developed a light allergy that would eventually lead to her suicide. Though the story is not directly related to war, WitteVeen comments on the use of traumatic violence (such as rape) and its use as a weapon. This brutality completely destroys the individual, and every individual contributes to society.

WitteVeen is not a Christian but she is interested in the idea of the cross as emblematic of sacrifice and redemption, and there are crosses in many of the images and even in WitteVeen’s own sculpture work. One such sculpture features a cross with a decayed human skull in the middle, images shot from the inside of a chapel, on the two sides, a red war image below, and a black abyss on the top. This room serves as a place of contemplation for the viewer.

The final room is “the room of redemption,” says WitteVeen. There are a few violent images, but she also photographed former battlegrounds and shows how nature has over-rooted the violent past. Thus, war can be ended, and it is in our nature to do so. “The wounds are healed,” she says.

There are a lot of ideas in the installation, and they don’t all seem to be immediately related. Throughout the preview of the installation, WitteVeen annotated many of these ideas with her own interpretations of her work. As a viewer, one almost wishes there was more room to create your own idea of the work. When asked if she worries that someone who didn’t have her to annotate the work for him/her might miss the redemptive aspect of the work and take a more nihilist view, WitteVeen says, “Of course not, this is art and not a documentary. But I only know what my intentions were.”

WitteVeen is an optimist and a humanist. It took her five years to put together this installation, and she is clearly excited with the results. There will be an essay that she wrote accompanying the exhibition, and I would suggest reading it. But I would also suggest creating your own conception of the exhibition. We all feel something when it comes to war. Whether or not you believe that war can actually be ended is irrelevant, but WitteVeen’s installation will force you to ponder the notion of war in a way that you might be uncomfortable with. That discomfort is understanding. 

Bettina WitteVeen "When We Were Soldiers... once and young" will be on view until October 24, 2015 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital in Brooklyn. Text and images by Adam Lehrer

Adam Lehrer is a writer, journalist, and art and fashion critic based in New York City. On top of being Autre’s fashion and art correspondent, he is also a regular contributor to Forbes Magazine. His unique interests in punk, hip hop, skateboarding and subculture have given him a distinctive, discerning eye and voice in the world of culture, et al. Oh, and he also loves The Sopranos. Follow him on Instagram: @adam102287