Vietnam, at Ground Level 

For artist Binh Danh, the Vietnam war is more than the subject of a new museum exhibition.

The Oakland Museum of California's exhibition "What's Going On? -- California and the Vietnam War" opens this Saturday, August 28. It's the definition of "major" -- an ambitious, multifaceted series of gallery displays and ancillary events on America's war in Vietnam (1965-1975) and the conflict's diffuse impact on California culture. The museum is devoting some seven thousand square feet to a collection of artifacts, photos, documents, film clips, music, and oral histories, invoking the "Vietnam era" using everything from US political campaign buttons to GI cigarette lighters to newspaper shots of college students burning their draft cards.

But what about the Vietnamese side of the story? San Jose artist Binh Danh knows something about that, even though he was born in Vietnam two years after the Americans decamped in 1975. The 26-year-old Stanford MFA graduate was only two when he, his parents, and three siblings made a "boat people" sea escape that took them through a Malaysian refugee camp on their way to finally being granted asylum in the United States in the early '80s. The boat trip exists in Danh's mind as "a fabrication of images" rather than as actual memories, but his memories of Vietnamese-American life in the Bay Area are vivid. "My grandfather was in the South Vietnamese government, so we had a rough time in Vietnam after the war," Danh recalls in a phone chat. "I cannot speak for the Vietnamese-American community. It's very conservative, still fighting for the South Vietnamese side. As a kid, I attended violent Vietnamese protests against the Communist Vietnamese government where they burned effigies of Ho Chi Minh. But my generation takes a different perspective."

Danh's exploration of his roots led him back to Vietnam four years ago, where he visited relatives in Saigon and witnessed the residual damage of the "American war" on his homeland. For instance, Danh learned that 1.3 million water buffalo were killed during the conflict, hampering the desperately poor country's rice production for years afterward. And the hideous Agent Orange defoliant is still causing human birth defects. "People are still being exploited," Danh says, both by the current government and by foreign corporations. It was then that he decided on a project: "I wanted to find a commonality on all sides of the fighting -- both Vietnamese factions and the Americans, too." A very basic, earthy, literal common ground, as it turned out.

He began collecting documents and photos from the war, then scanning them and transferring the images onto large jungle leaves in a "chlorophyll printing" process he invented. The leaves are then preserved by casting them in resin. As Danh explains it in the museum's California magazine, "I thought: What if plants could witness these events? What would they remember? ... The work itself plays on the elements in the landscape -- the hydrogen and carbon that compose our bodies, that don't die like we die but get recycled into the landscape." An apt memorial for a war that, as he sees it, solved nothing. Danh's five-by-six-foot installation in the museum show, The Implosion of Souls, helps lay to rest the war's bitter memories by incorporating the dead "into the soil of Vietnam."

Danh's work is just one part of the wide-ranging, immensely fascinating "What's Going On?" exhibition, which runs through February 27, 2005, and employs a variety of points of view. To find out more, visit MuseumCA.org

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