Since 1980, Polish artist and MIT professor Krzysztof Wodiczko has projected more than 80 politically charged video works onto civic buildings and monuments all over the world. He calls them "cultural projects" and uses them to give voice to largely silent populations.
Veterans rarely speak openly, in public or private, about their war experiences. Wodiczko is trying to breach that wall of silence with his new installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, "...OUT OF HERE: The Veterans Project."
"It could be an interior of a soldier who came back from war and who is re-living, remembering, recalling some scenes and moments — perhaps similar to the one that I'm trying to create," Wodiczko explained.
The artist said it's his duty to try to reduce the emotional distance between American civilians and American vets returning from Iraq, "whose mind is not understood, who cannot share that experience with anybody else."
In his piece, that elusive understanding is represented by walls. When you enter the gallery, it feels like an abandoned school or military base.
On the walls high above your head are wide, rectangular windows. You might think, for a moment, that they're real. But they're projections. Something is happening outside, but you can't see what it is. You're separated. Then the sound takes over your senses.
It's the city of Baghdad. The everyday sounds go on for a while — but then, there's a sudden attack.
Panic and chaos ensues.
A baby cries.
The images are fleeting, but the sounds are intense. They hit you deep in the gut.
"You're feeling it in your body," said Randi Hopkins, associate curator at the ICA, "and you're craning your neck a little bit. And you find yourself piecing things together, you're hearing things in different languages, you're not exactly sure what they are and you don't have too many visual cues, so you can actually see yourself going to work, too, trying to figure out what you're experiencing."
Hopkins said the piece engages us on a very psychological, even primal, level and it ignites our empathy. That, she said, makes it very different from the images and stories of war we generally get in the media.
But this piece is informed by reality. It's based on conversations the artist had with vets. They acted as advisers, experts and even actors in this seven-minute dramatic event.
Wodiczko admitted it was hard to gain the trust of people who tend to keep their stories to themselves, like 38 year-old Jim O'Neill.
"I was a little hesitant," O'Neill said, "because it seems like especially when artists deal with the war there's usually an overt political agenda behind it."
O'Neill was in the Army from 2000 to 2004, and was deployed to Iraq for the 2003 invasion. He ended up agreeing to work closely with Wodiczko on "The Veteran's Project" — checking facts and making sure the sound experience felt real to him. It helped, O'Neill said, that Wodiczko himself was in the Polish Army when he was young.
O'Neill is actually studying to be an artist at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. He's been trying to make sense of his own war experiences through printmaking. O'Neill said he's satisfied with the Wodiczko's final result.
"In a way it's a sound sculpture, you're immersed in this space," O'Neill said. "You could walk about, but you know you can't just click the channel, so you're forced to deal with it when you're in there. And I also find it interesting that it's on a loop, so it just keeps going over and over and over and I think vets can relate to that."
Wodiczko admitted it's impossible for civilians to truly relate to the veterans' experience, no matter how hard we try. "We cannot really break that wall that separates those who know what war is and those who don't," he said. "So the wall itself becomes as visible as our attempt to see and hear what's behind."
For Krzystof Wodiczko, the success of his installation will be measured over time, as veterans and civilians come together in the safety of the gallery to experience, for seven minutes, the horror of war.
The museum will host a public talk featuring the artist, veterans and an Iraqi citizen at 6:30 p.m. on Veterans Day.
This program aired on November 10, 2009.