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2020 SPE Annual Conference: Hosted by The University of Houston | Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts | School of Art

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James Southard

SPE Member since 2015
Member Chapter: Midwest

Tooth & Nail

As a young Cub Scout, I recall an annual visit to Kentucky’s Perryville Civil War Battle reenactment, where we spent hours watching grown men dressed as if they were soldiers preparing for military engagement. This artificial battle should have been entertaining for a war-hungry child like myself, but compared to the violence that I was exposed to by 1990’s video games and television, it pathetically failed to convince or engage me. What drew the most interest from my fellow scouts and me was the smaller replicas of the rifles that we bought at the gift shops. With these miniature weapons, we staged battles between peer groups and took turns playing the victorious army or the fallen soldiers. This is likely because a more immersive, self-driven spectacle was required for the generation who grew up with video games. So we sought our own authentic experience by playing war amongst ourselves. Well-known performance writer, Rebecca Schneider, sees reenactments as: “Historical events, like wars, are never discretely completed, but carry forth in embodied cycles of memory that do not delimit the remembered to the past. For many history reenactors, reenactments are more than “mere” remembering but are in fact the ongoing event itself “ [1]
Even as a kid, I felt that the people marching around those fields were more interested in re-living that time period and inhabiting that portion of history than they were in putting on a show for tourists. In the American South, Civil War reenactments are not necessarily done to retell the story of the battle, but to gain a more physical understanding of what is described in school history books.

In contrast to true-to-history reenactments, the photographer An-My Lê presents photographic scenarios that are playful and inventive. After escaping Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War as a teenager, An-My Lê attended Yale University in the early 1990’s. Her later work addresses the perceptions of war and its effect on landscape and people. Her Small Wars series (1999) was created in response to her memory of the war in her home country, and exhibits a phenomenon that she calls a “Vietnam of the mind”. She worked with American re-enactors of the Vietnam War in South Carolina where she was “allowed to delve into personal experiences of war and attendant adolescent fantasies about soldiers in uniform,” and the series documented the reenactors’ candid activities. Lê’s interest in playing with our conceptions of war, and the land-scape of war, has been something I have been looking at with great in-terest, especially in relation to the differences between the re-enactors and the soldiers. When looking at Lê’s work, it occurs to me that the two groups of people that she focuses on in the aforementioned series are both doing essentially the same thing: they are preparing themselves for battle. Yet one group is looking back to the past as a model for contemporary war narrative, while the other is looking forward toward real future combat.

These two demographics of people have been illustrated clearly by Lê, and the aesthetic similarity between the two groups is a perfect metaphor for the sometimes-blurry line that separates war from play in contemporary life. My recent work is an exploration of the place where those two realms overlap. Using that duality (war and play) as inspiration, and using art historical battle scenes as a formal guide, my Tooth and Nail series seeks to create

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