Plane facts: Howard Henry Chen's "Fernando and Sylvie reading the Lonely Planet at The War Remnants Museum (formerly The Museum of American War Crimes, but the People's Committee of Ho Chi Minh City changed the name sometime after Hanoi and Washington normalized relations."
Multiple Entry Visa: To Vietnam and Back, a collection of images by Howard Henry Chen at Silver Eye Center for Photography, tours a nation whose identity is elusive not only from without, perceived through the filter of the foreign. It also reveals the cultural, social and political landscape of a country no longer engaged in warfare with an outside entity, and instead battling to determine what contemporary Vietnam is and what it would like to become.
In many Western minds, Vietnam is defined by its history, its distance from us a function of time rather than geography. The word alone provokes an image, based, for instance, on the experience of those Americans who came back, preserved in the memories of the survivors of those who didn't, formed from lessons taught by high school and Hollywood. We react to "Vietnam." These reactions could be informed by scant knowledge, or the product of careful study; they may be as solid as concrete or as fluid as water. Regardless, we don't meet Vietnam open and unprepared.
Chen was born in Vietnam, but has lived in the U.S. since his family moved here near the end of the war, when he was a child. The Vietnam we encounter through his images likely isn't the one we expect. War is acknowledged not as an impetus for outrage, but as any other dusty relic. Remains of recent events are loaded with as much relevance as are those of prehistory. Any additional significance viewers must supply themselves.
The first image we're confronted with at Silver Eye is that of a bunker used by Viet Cong guerillas, now reconstructed and reconfigured. It's no longer a hidden shelter, but a site to be invaded by international tourists. While the structure appears to grow organically from the surrounding wild, it is contained within a well-kept path -- a monster tamed, now safe to play on. Curiously, its dimensions have been expanded, and what must have been a claustrophobic retreat within a nightmare now seems a haven of spacious comfort.
Next are a smaller-than-life amusement-park tyrannosaurus and brontosaurus, wiggling talons and wagging tongues in a Flintstonesque portrayal of reptilian evolution. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force insignia on downed planes now memorialized in museums bears an eerie resemblance to the Pepsi logo on a table umbrella behind them.
While it's all quite lovely to look at, none of it seems to mean a thing. The past is gone, the future is uncertain, and the present leaves leisure time for rides and fountains based on sacred myths, with plenty of breaks to slake one's thirst with soft drinks, and stock up on pencil-sharpeners and straw hats.
Chen demonstrates his awareness of these ironies through a few of his image titles. One reads, "My Vietnamese cousin on his first trip to see the grounded Huey in Ho Chi Minh City (Me: 'What?! Twenty-six years and you've never been here' to which he replies 'What's this stuff got to do with me?' He had a point.)."
The tour that Chen chooses to guide us through is one of attractions: a package excursion to parks and beaches and venues safe, clean and artificial. We're not jumping into any cultural immersion here, and we'll return happily home without a word of the language retained, and no chance of a parasite. We don't meet families in their homes or individuals busy at their jobs (except for ticket-takers and souvenir-vendors, and these are out-of-focus and in the background). We peer through Chen's lens not as travelers or anthropologists, but as tourists viewing a world that seems to reflect its surroundings about as much as Disney's "It's a Small World" ride reflects the planet we squat on.
On this journey, the land we sightsee determines how it will be perceived. Here it opts to be a nation striving to become a destination, where bunkers and dinosaurs have equal weight.
Multiple Entry Visa: To Vietnam and Back continues through Sat., Feb. 10. Silver Eye Center for Photography, 1015 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-431-1810 or www.silvereye.org