The ten photographic sets that make up Lutz Bacher’s Bien Hoa (2006) are deceptively simple. Large color [pigment prints], reproductions of yellowed black-and-white photographs, are presented above reproductions of handwritten notes written on the backs of the original prints. The annotations were made by a man stationed at Vietnam’s Bien Hoa Air Force Base in 1969, identified only as Walter, who is alternately the author and the subject of the images. We see Walter posing at a military desk with his section chief, in an armed helicopter adorned with a playboy bunny, in front of sandbagged barracks, and at gunpoint, “surrendering” to a Vietnamese woman. Other photographs depict the bleak situation - burned-out helicopters, fire drills, and fences separating the base from the local town. Bacher found the cache of photographs, which had been mailed from Vietnam, at a Berkeley salvage store. Originally meant for an intimate audience, the photos are displaced by Bacher’s decision to remake them as her art. She channels the voice of an African American man fighting in the Vietnam War, decisively situating that voice, through her own authorship, in a new time and context.
On their own, the images are charged with America’s uneasy history of armed aggression and recall our complex legacy of racism and popular unrest; with Walter’s notes, however, that general discomfort becomes deeply personal. Referring to an image of himself seated inside a helicopter he writes: “This is a Huey Cobra, the badest [sic] Helicopter in Vietnam. Those are rockets on the side of the ship. I wish I could take off and come home. Your Man, Walter.“ With his comments, Walter reveals feelings of complicity in the military apparatus of the war, as well as his desire to return home. lt is hard not to wonder how Walter wound up in Vietnam and what became of him: was he drafted or enlisted by the many recruiters targeting African American neighborhoods at the time, promising subsidies? Did he return home safely?
Presented, as they are here, in [an exhibition] setting, Walter’s self-conscious commentaries on his photographs take on new relevance. In some cases, Walter’s inscriptions sound almost like a tourist writing a postcard; in others, he seems to have been more concerned with the composition of the image than with the grisly content of a scene: “This is a practice session that the Fire Department has every now and then. They are practicing on a burning helicopter. I messed up on my border at the top of the picture;” Bacher’s enlargements invite us to hone in on these details and scrutinize the photographs aesthetically, as Walter directs: “This is Bien Hoa looking at it from the Air Base. This is a pretty good picture. Now do you think that’s beautiful? Can you see the wire, keeping the people from attacking the Air Base?” Walter’s grim interjections foil our sense of detached aesthetic judgment.
Likewise, Bacher, conspiring with Walter, complicates easy explanations of her work. Curiously, the only two photographs in the series that remain unannotated feature a gun. In the first, Walter poses solemnly in front of sandbagged barracks in full military uniform. In the second, he is dressed in Vietnamese garb, playfully surrendering at gunpoint to a local woman. This reversal, from American soldier to Vietnamese prisoner, illustrates not only the paradox of Walter’s situation, but also Bacher’s. Without captions to describe Walter’s feelings, it is unclear if he fought willingly or if, like many soldiers at that time, he was ambivalent about our presence in Vietnam, or perhaps even sympathized with the local’s desire to enact political change. Faced with these gaps in explanation, viewers are left to wonder about Walter’s intentions in setting up the photographs as he did, with this strange role reversal. The reasons for Bacher’s own reversal, exchanging her voice for Walter’s, is also left ambiguous.
Shifting between Walter, of whom nothing is known, and Bacher, Bien Hoa‘s narrative refuses to be fixed in any one time or place. For that reason, the work feels contemporary, alive with the contradictions that make up our present moment. Bacher uses found images, objects, and text to confound easy understandings of authorship, gender, race, violence, and power. Despite being composed of discarded photographs, Bien Hoa resonates as a pivotal description of a fraught moment in United States history, yet this history still feels open to interpretation. Bacher, exhuming the photographs and aligning her voice with Walter’s, inverts any sense of their cohesion.
Dena Beard, MATRIX 242, UC Berkeley Art Museum, 2012
This is Galerie Buchholz’s ninth solo exhibition of the work of the American artist Lutz Bacher (1943-2019). Bien Hoa was presented as a single-artwork exhibition, MATRIX 242, at UC Berkeley Art Museum in 2012, curated by Dena Beard. The work also featured in her 2009 MoMA PS1 exhibition “My Secret Life”.
On October 4th of this year, Raven Row in London will present a solo exhibition of Lutz Bacher curated by Anthony Huberman. In 2022, Treize in Paris presented “Do You Love Me?”, a show featuring her seminal film of the same name together with found-object sculptures. In 2021, Lutz Bacher’s work was included in “Stop Painting” curated by Peter Fischli at Fondazione Prada, Venice; “Zeros and Ones” at KW Institute for Contemporary Art Berlin; “K20/K21 - On Display” at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf; and “Exhibition as Image” at 80WSE in New York. In 2020, her work was included in “No Dandy, No Fun” at Kunsthalle Bern; and “Misfitting Together: Serial Formations of Pop Art, Minimal Art, and Conceptual Art” at mumok in Vienna, among others. In 2019, the University of California Irvine presented a solo show by Lutz Bacher titled “Blue Wave” at the University Art Gallery, organized by the artist Monica Majoli and curator Allyson Unzicker. Also in 2019, the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco presented show of new work by Vincent Fecteau which featured works by Lutz Bacher, his long-time friend and collaborator. In 2018, Lutz Bacher mounted three institutional solo exhibitions: “The Silence of the Sea” was the inaugural show at the newly opened Lafayette Anticipations in Paris; “The Long March” at 80WSE New York University; and a large-scale exhibition titled “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” at K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.
Previous solo exhibitions by Lutz Bacher have been held at Yale Union, Portland; 356 Mission Road, Los Angeles; Secession, Vienna; Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; Kunsthalle Zurich; ICA London; Portikus, Frankfurt am Main; Kunstverein Munich; and MoMA PS1, New York, among others. Her work was also featured in “Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy” at the Met Breuer, New York; “The Conditions of Being Art: Pat Hearn Gallery & American Fine Arts, Co. (1983-2004)” at Bard CCS and the Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-On-Hudson; “Other Mechanisms”, Secession, Vienna; “Stories of Almost Everyone”, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; “Mechanisms”, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco; “A Slow Succession with Many Interruptions”, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; “America is Hard to See”, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; “Open Dress”, Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach; “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star”, New Museum, New York; the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and “Spies in the House of Art”, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, among others.